Style and color
Scott: Douglas Sirk’s use of glorious Technicolor in All That Heaven Allows is central to its emotional impact. Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) is a gardener, representing all that is natural and verdant. He shows Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) the colorful world that’s all around her, but that she’s never seen. The movie starts with Ron clipping a branch covered in golden leaves from a tree that thrives in a “home of love”; later, the branch turns up in Cary’s vase. But the color comes into play before Ron is even a major part of her life, when Cary opts to wear a low-cut red dress for her “date” with Harvey, the pleasant old guy who either can’t acknowledge or can’t handle that her still-vibrant sexuality hasn’t died along with her late husband. Sirk isn’t afraid to embrace these visual symbols in full—Ron the gardener knows a hothouse flower when he sees one—and it’s striking, the degree to which color clarifies and intensifies the melodrama.
For the interiors, though, Sirk dials back the color and uses bits of framing to tell his story. There’s the famous television shot, which boxes Cary into a fate she’s fervently resisted, but that follows through on a visual motif that’s carried throughout the movie, where reflective surfaces imprison Cary like the walled-in widows of old that her daughter describes to her. No one should want to watch All That Heaven Allows with the sound off, but I think if you did, it would be perfectly comprehensible.
Noel: I love how when Cary wears that red dress to the club, one of the cattier women remarks on the color, saying, “I suppose that’s why so few widows wear it, they’d have to be so careful!” (And sure enough, within minutes of arriving, Cary is being molested by the club’s resident lech, who seems to think red means “go.”) In interviews that Sirk gave later in his life, after he was more firmly established in the critical canon and people were more interested in hearing him talk about his craft, he copped to being influenced heavily by German Expressionism, which was all the rage when he was a young man. That’s clear in how boldly Sirk underlines a scene’s emotions with color. One of the major locations in All That Heaven Allows is the fireplace in Cary’s living room, which is lit most of the time so it looks warm and gilded. But when Ned (William Reynolds) tells his mother that he’ll never visit her again if she goes to live with Ron, the lighting around the fireplace changes dramatically, with the color shifting to a cold, dark blue. It’s as though the familial flame has been extinguished.
Matt: The other visual element that leaps off the screen is the framing, particularly in the way Cary’s inner emotional turmoil is represented by her positioning onscreen between two things that represent the difficult choices she’s forced to make. When Ron shows up unannounced at her home just a few minutes after another friend arrives to invite Cary to dinner, Sirk cuts to a wide shot with Ron in the foreground, the friend in the background, and Cary in the middle. Later, when Ron proposes marriage at the old mill, the couple is framed next to an enormous window, where a winter storm is blowing through. Cary is caught between the warmth of this beautiful home Ron’s built for the two of them to live in, and the literal cold of the snow and wind that represents a life without him. It’s such an elegant way of silently conveying the character’s uncertainty and indecision.
Keith: Often, the lighting gives the shots two different moods to reflect the different worlds each character inhabits. It’s breathtaking without being overdone. Watching Sirk films makes me wonder why, beyond the conscious homage of Far From Heaven, others don’t take more cues from his visuals. But I think there’s a simple answer as to why: The difficulty level must be astounding. One of my favorite touches, one that’s as expressionistic as it gets: Late in the film, when the screen of the hated television reflects the flames in the fireplace, it looks like a visitor from hell.
Era and values
Keith: The opening shot of All That Heaven Allows tells a story without using any words. Here in all its post-war splendor is a bucolic American town, perfect for postcards and complete to the last detail, as the audience discovers when the god’s-eye camera keeps moving and revealing more of it. This is actually a Universal backlot; later, the Cleavers, the Munsters, and the residents of Wisteria Lane would live there. Yet the slightly artificial feel goes with the movie’s depiction of American life in the high 1950s, when citizens of a certain class—Cary’s class—could enjoy undreamed-of prosperity. Or not enjoy, since reaping the full benefits requires conforming to some strict ideas of propriety. Cary is positioned as a misfit from the start: She socializes, but she doesn’t like the club. She resists her inevitable pairing with a man who bores her. And when a chance for actual passion comes along, she grabs it. The problem is in the title: All that heaven allows isn’t always enough.
Matt: There’s no mistaking that Universal backlot for a real suburban street, and I’m sure some modern viewers scoff at the overtly artificial sets. But All That Heaven Allows’ synthetic suburbia works as another facet of Sirk’s critique of 1950s society. The falseness of the town’s storefronts and houses echoes the falseness of its residents, who put on facades of class and manners to hide their contempt for those they look down on as inferior or different. All That Heaven Allows’ setting looks fake because in Sirk’s view, small-town America is fake, a lie that far too many snooty, stuck-up people have bought into.
Scott: All That Heaven Allows follows a long tradition of romances squashed by the tacit rules that govern high society, but the degree to which Sirk condemns the social elite is still remarkable. They aren’t just gossipy vipers, they’re living in defiance of nature itself, Cary included. But here’s the thing that really fascinates me: Cary’s kids and friends have no issue with her getting remarried, so long as she marries a guy like Harvey—partly because he’s a member of their social class, but also, crucially, because he presents himself as a companion rather than a lover. As much as Ned protests the fact that his mother marrying Ron will result in the sale of a home that’s been in their family for generations—an assertion he casually reveals as a lie the Christmas after her breakup with Ron—it’s Ron’s failure to be a bland conservative like his father that rankles him. (His sister correctly identifies him as “Oedipal.”) He just can’t bear the thought of his mom getting it on.
Noel: There’s one era-specific/values-specific dynamic in All That Heaven Allows that doesn’t get discussed enough, and that’s Ron’s subtle, stubborn smugness about his own nonconformity, which almost costs him what he really wants. You’re right, Scott, that Ron’s very existence rankles Ned, because it’s a direct rebuke to everything Ned believes and understands. When Ron tells Ned that Cary will be “living a very different kind of life” after she remarries, it’s implied that Ron thinks his way of life is more enriching than Ned’s. But by forcing Cary to choose him over her children, he all but forces her to break up with him. When she leaves his house and he crumples a little on the stairs, it’s clear that Ron may have to compromise a little, too, to make this relationship work.
Scott: You may read Ron as stubbornly smug about his nonconformity, Noel, but stubborn here is just another word for “steadfast.” Ron knows the life he’s offering Cary is superior—and his friends, once on the brink of divorce, recognize it too—and he’s confident she’ll come around. Perhaps he errs by being overconfident that Cary will choose to break from her children’s wishes, but he’s a sanguine agent of change here, and he ultimately compromises nothing in getting Cary to come back to him eventually.
Noel: I’d say Ron doesn’t compromise because he cracks his fool head open before he gets the chance. Who knows what would’ve happened if he’d reached Cary before she drove away, and before he fell down a mountain? Anyway, I do find Ron’s curt dismissal of Cary’s concerns at various points in the story to be a character flaw I think the movie acknowledges—again, very subtly. Think about how quickly Ron suggests they skip their planned social engagement with Cary’s friends after Ned is so rude to him. He isn’t wrong to know intuitively (or from experience) that the evening is going to be a disaster, but he should’ve still been a little more sensitive to where Cary is on her winding journey to bohemia.
Noel: Here’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since re-watching All That Heaven Allows: Ned is really the only character in the movie who’s gung-ho about class privilege, isn’t he? Cary’s daughter Kay (Gloria Talbott) buys in, but only because she thinks her study of psychology lets her see through it all. Every other rich person in the movie seems to hate other rich people—and maybe even themselves. They’re terrified of that vicious gossip Mona (Jacqueline deWit), but it never occurs to anyone to tell Mona to shut up, or to remove themselves entirely from what seems to be a highly constrictive social circle. The best they can do is to mock it privately. (In that regard, I like the casual cattiness of Cary’s friend Sara: “I’ve got to give a cocktail party this weekend for that moron Joanne.”) What are they really afraid of here?
Scott: Sara (Agnes Moorehead) is one of the film’s most fascinating supporting players, because she really is a good friend to Cary, and genuinely tries to understand why she’s stepping so drastically out of line. She doesn’t want the party to be the ambush Ron correctly guesses it’s going to be, either. But she’s part of this world, too, and ultimately beholden to the vipers who make things so unpleasant for Cary. For her part, Cary has the courage to leave the social scene behind; she reveals a distaste for these people from the first scene, and the party, if anything, deepens her resolve. It’s her children who make the difference. And while Ned is a monster, Kay’s phony, learned progressiveness makes her every bit as culpable in repressing her mother’s desires.
Matt: I love how small the differences are between Cary and Ron. They’re from the same town, the same race, and seemingly the same religion. For a “young” gardener, Ron isn’t even all that much younger than his “older” employer. (Hudson was 30 in 1955; Wyman was 38.) The fact that they reject this couple anyway speaks to the complete close-mindedness of this community, and all of 1950s America. Cary’s “friends” spurn Ron—who is handsome, self-employed, and has a tastefully decorated lakefront estate—just because his family business, which he enjoys, marks him as “lower class.” A decade later, Ron’s non-conformist attitude and desire for personal freedom probably would have made him a hippie. But in 1955, hippies didn’t exist, and he basically looks like any other resident of the town, with a short haircut, clean-shaven face, and conservative clothes. Ron is marked as different and inferior simply because he prunes trees for a living, and that alone is enough to spark a local scandal when Cary takes an interest in him.
Keith: What I think the film captures so beautifully is the way everyone in Cary’s world follows the same rules without ever speaking of them: Widows remarry, but appropriately. Classes don’t mingle. But nobody comes out and says any of this, or suggests it might not be the way things always have to be. The gossip is passive-aggression, and even Kay, who has enough education in Freud and whatnot to think she’s figured out the real reasons people do what they do, never questions the rightness of it. It’s just in the air, like the scent of blossoms on a goldenrain tree.
Noel: Pauline Kael once said of All That Heaven Allows that it owed its rising reputation among younger cinephiles to “the slurpy, peculiarly glossy intensity of Douglas Sirk’s direction.” Kael meant it as an insult, but that actually describes what I love about the film. I’ve watched a lot of old Hollywood melodramas, because I have a particular fascination with how American movies have depicted middle-class domesticity from the silent era through the 1960s—up to my birth, basically—and one of the reasons Sirk’s work has endured for so long is that films like All That Heaven Allows are entertaining and involving on a very basic level. Even if they didn’t contain the element of social comment, Sirk’s movies stir the emotions, because it’s impossible to see Ned and Kay Scott acting like little weasels and not want their mother to succeed at their expense. (As for that social comment, Kael also says All That Heaven Allows “is made with so much symbolism that some people actually see it as allegorical.” But as I tried to point out in my Keynote essay yesterday, that symbolism is layered so intricately that it has its own beauty, regardless of whether the meaning is too obvious.)
So here’s the eternal question when it comes to Sirk, guys: Do his films work because they subvert melodrama formulas, or because they use those formulas really, really well?
Keith: Count me in the “use those formulas really, really well” camp. To me, the need to see what Sirk is doing as subverting formula comes from those who like how his films are uncomfortable with the elements of melodrama and their accompanying high emotion in the first place. I think Sirk is self-aware, and I think he’s willing to push the elements of melodrama to their expressionistic limits, but I don’t think there’s ever anything ironic about what he does. I know this brings a kind of straw man in to beat up, but I think that’s why some modern viewers aren’t comfortable with Sirk films. I’ve never seen All That Heaven Allows in a theater, and while I’d love to see it on a big screen, I also kind of dread the thought of seeing it with an audience who might see something snicker-worthy where I don’t.
Scott: I also don’t buy into the “subvert the formula” argument, though Sirk is certainly subversive in other ways, chiefly in his questioning of the foundational values of American suburbia. All That Heaven Allows amplifies the melodrama to the point where modern audiences might snicker—side note: screw modern audiences—but it plays every emotion to the hilt, in full Technicolor, and proves that melodrama can have emotional impact (this is a prime weepie) and thematic depth. All That Heaven Allows uses melodrama to comment vividly on American life, and the social dictates that paralyze an ostensibly free country that’s full of hidden restrictions, especially for women.
Matt: We’ve barely mentioned Rock Hudson so far in our conversation. I know Keith’s essay tomorrow will focus on Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, but I thought we should address him here as well. I’m curious what you guys thought of his performance, and how much you compared the real-life Hudson to Ron, who identifies himself as an outsider and an outcast, and refuses to conform to society’s expectations for him. (He also says the line “I can’t shoot straight anymore” while on a turkey hunt with a friend.) It’s hard not to read Hudson’s closeted homosexuality into some of those elements of All That Heaven Allows. Do you think they were deliberate choices on Sirk and Hudson’s part to address, however obliquely, Hudson’s private life, or were they simple coincidences?
Scott: I consider the parallels coincidental, but I admire Hudson’s sturdy presence in the movie, which projects just the sort of earthy masculinity that would turn the head of an attractive older woman not yet ready for the widow’s tomb. Hudson doesn’t have to do much with that performance—his first name is applicable—but Ron’s Zen-like peace with his way of life is the catalyst that drives All That Heaven Allows, and his self-assurance gives viewers the hope that Cary will eventually find her way to him.
Keith: Much of the film’s weight rests on Wyman’s shoulders, and she’s incredibly effective in the role, but I think the supporting cast deserves notice too, from Agnes Moorehead’s sympathetic work to Jacqueline deWit as the awful Mona to William Reynolds and Gloria Talbott as the worst kids in the world. (Talbott’s Kay at least comes around by the end.)
Noel: I agree, Keith; it couldn’t have been easy for Reynolds and Talbott to play the awfulness of Cary’s kids so unselfconsciously. As for Hudson, I think it’s likely that Sirk was toying with Hudson’s past image as a brainless matinee idol, by having him play a self-taught intellectual whom Cary’s family and friends dismiss as just “a set of muscles.” In an interview on Criterion’s Blu-ray of All That Heaven Allows, Reynolds recalls how he and Hudson were both contract players at Universal in the early 1950s, before Reynolds was drafted into the Army, and how he always thought of Hudson as a no-talent hunk until they did All That Heaven Allows together, when Reynolds saw the actor’s real range. Reynolds’ experience with Hudson is a wonderful encapsulation of the theme of All That Heaven Allows, and of the evolving critical opinion of the film, suggesting we should always reckon with what’s under the surface.
Noel Murray kicked off our All That Heaven Allows discussion yesterday with his Keynote on the many ways the film’s images and objects play off one another. Tomorrow, Keith Phipps takes a look at Mark Rappaport’s experimental 1992 documentary Rock Hudson’s Home Movies.