Windows play a massive role in All That Heaven Allows (’55) – Douglas Sirk’s follow-up to his hugely successful “woman’s weepie” Magnificent Obsession. Many scenes are centered around picturesque holes in the wall, as characters are often reduced to silhouette, snowflakes swirling in shadows as they fall outside. Though this was another contractual film for Universal-International, the studio graciously gave Sirk an admirable amount of freedom with which to work. The director still had to deliver the soap opera staples his audience expected – namely domestic drama, sweeping romance, and a sappy happy finale. But no amount of genre qualifiers stopped the auteur from crafting another astute take on American values, and how we construct prisons out of our homes, potentially without even realizing it. We as an audience are granted a God’s Eye view, peering in on these melancholy microcosms that represent a universe beyond their snow globe stages.
Above all else, Universal desired the dollar signs that were now attached to re-pairing Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman after their rousing victory with Sirk on Obsession. Keeping the duo firmly situated in trashy soap scenarios seemed like a surefire way to continue capitalizing on this success. Just as he had with Lloyd Douglas’ Christian novel, Sirk often found Peg Fenwick’s script overly complicated and ludicrous, but knew he’d be able to apply his own soul through lighting and camera movements.The results are an anti-Walden take on Henry David Thoreau, as Wyman’s well-to-do widow, Cary Scott, falls in love with her handsome, young gardener, Ron Kirby (Hudson), forsaking her reputation in the idyllic Northeastern village of Stoningham. Their May-September romance becomes the talk of the town thanks to her age and status, while Ron turns his back on living a life of quiet desperation by rejecting most traditional materials and refurbishing the old mill on the town’s outskirts. While Magnificent Obsession was skewering the perverted pay-it-forward Christianity many Americans subscribed to, All That Heaven Allows points Sirk’s satirical lens at the confines of society itself, and how expectations established by neighboring strangers can alter a person’s path forever.
Though the commentary Sirk was slyly injecting into his latest mega-drama is rather apparent from a textual standpoint, there’s a meta aspect to the movie’s narrative that renders it even more heartbreaking in hindsight. Wyman was only thirty-eight when she made All That Heaven Allows, but Hollywood was already shoving her out the door. Freshly divorced from her fourth husband, composer Fred Karger, and ex-wife of future President Ronald Reagan, there was a rather salacious sum of gossip that followed this starlet wherever she went. Now pushing forty, studios were only offering matriarchal roles to Wyman, and she no longer was getting calls to portray sassy love interests. Though Cary Scott is supposed to be near double the age of her strapping handyman beau, Hudson was only thirty when he took the Kirby role – eight years Wyman’s junior. Wyman was experiencing Hollywood’s proverbial glass ceiling first hand, so part of her accepting the assignment in All That Heaven Allows (despite being the one who practically spearheaded Magnificent Obsession’s conception) was partially out of clingy desperation to maintain a somewhat sputtering career.
For Rock Hudson, sexuality was a cage. Before his death in 1985, Hudson became the first high-profile celebrity to announce that he had AIDS, and fought until his last breath to find a worldwide cure. His death made a public matter of his sexual orientation, which had been kept a secret from the tabloids thanks to the usual assistance of the Hollywood publicity machine (which even helped facilitate an ill-fated marriage with his agent’s secretary, Phyllis Gates, the same year Heaven was released). Unlike the “sissy” stereotype that pervaded mainstream perception of queer culture during the '50s, Hudson was a strapping “beefcake” – all tan, rugged masculinity. But as Mark Rappaport’s odd cinematic essay Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (’92) argues, Hudson’s sexuality was always there up on the silver screen to behold. With All That Heaven Allows, he’s the lone wolf, whose lifestyle is constantly judged by the Stoningham elite. Ron’s a rebel, loving by standards that exist outside of this stuffy little nothing of a borough’s norms. There are no overt nods to Hudson’s off-screen preference, but when Cary jokingly asks Ron if he wants her to “be a man” regarding certain decisions in life and the gardener responds “only in that one way”, it’s hard not to indulge in Hudson’s knowing smile at least a little. Here’s a movie where everyone is denying their desires due to the prying eyes of others, and the lead male love interest wanted nothing more than come out of the closet and announce his true self to a world that already adored him.
Though the town gossip monger (Jacqueline de Wit) never misses a moment to throw shade her way, the greatest scorn Cary endures comes from her own college-age children – Ned (William Reynolds) and Kay (Gloria Talbott). Where Ned is out and out combative when he learns that his mother has accepted the younger handyman’s marriage proposal, Kay goes undergrad psychoanalytic, quoting Freud and whoever else she can regurgitate while doubling as some sort of fleshy university textbook. The interactions between the mother and her two bratty kids are when Sirk reverts almost completely to his days as one of the first directors of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera in Weimar Germany. As an artist, he has no real need for realism, transforming these suburban squabbles into cartoonish theater to make his point. All the while, he bathes scenes in shadow and stained glass expressionism, only letting the characters become truly human when they’re defeated and seated in front of a mirror, their visages now as naked as their tarnished emotions. If Cary’s perfectly manicured family home is now a cell, then her children are the wardens, making sure that she never leaves to join that ruffian out in the mill, no matter how much elbow grease he’s put into transforming it into their future nest. Once her offspring leaves, all Cary can do is stare out through a frost encased portal onto a winter tableau, tears streaming down her cheeks as she’s flanked by Christmas lights and carolers hum in the distance.
Like most of Sirk’s melodramas, All That Heaven Allows can be enjoyed even if you don’t give a damn (or have the contextual knowledge) about the critiques the picture’s trying to convey regarding its immigrant creator’s new homeland. Sirk once stated “there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains an element of craziness is by the very quality nearer to art.” The magic for the auteur was in letting yourself go and indulging in the soaring emotions his anti-realist romantic fable so unashamedly owns. Just as Magnificent Obsession carried no qualms about delivering a narrative that made zero sense once you thought about it for five seconds after the house lights went up, All That Heaven Allows superficially plays like a drugstore romance come to life, fulfilling the fantasy of every bored middle-aged woman in America who was tired of being told that their reveries didn’t matter as much as their lesser halves’ macho war and detective stories. Sirk’s films – for all their intellectual insight – are still remarkable works of majestic, soapy escapism. By never toning down his Technicolor bravura, he made an enduring masterpiece that told as many tales as the individual audience member wanted or needed; a Christmas snow globe where the narratives of the figurines trapped inside matter on multiple levels, but could be relished on their basest levels, if need be.
All That Heaven Allows screened on glorious 35mm as part of Drafthouse’s month long Majestic Tears program. If you live in Austin, buy your tickets here. If not, you can pick up the Criterion Collection release below.