Scott Reviews Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows [Criterion Blu-ray Review]


It’s about loss. Many of Sirk’s films are, after all. Not something as grand or obviously life-changing as death, necessarily, though people in Sirk’s films do die. Usually those who could genuinely, demonstrably benefit from more time on this earth, though I suppose we all go before we’ve come close to settling everything. The only death in All That Heaven Allows has already happened. Cary Scott’s (Jane Wyman) husband passed some time ago. We don’t know why or when. At least he took care of her. She has no need to work to keep her children in college, never mind providing a life for herself in the New England suburbs. But he’s been dead some time, and Cary’s ready to move on with her life.  Her children are less enthused to see her take that step. They want her and their home perfectly preserved so that they may retreat to it when they wish. Like a lot of young people, they prize responsibility and loyalty above all else, while offering none of their own.

Cary will also lose a great deal by film’s end. She has alternately pursued, retreated from, and allowed a romance to blossom between herself and Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), her gardener. Of course, he’s not just a gardener. In fact, he’s getting out of that line of work, and into tree farming; the land his father left him provides bountiful opportunities. His beliefs are not as codified as those of Hudson’s character in Magnificent Obsession, but they are no less rigorous. Like the film itself, it’s a spiritual thing belonging to no religion. He lives in what basically amounts to a shed, behind his greenhouse. He lives cheaply, efficiently, and according to necessity. He and his friends gather to eat, drink, and sing. He is not the typical image of a 1950s success story, but he is a success. Yet he is far enough apart from her in society and age that their affair is cause for scandal in their scandal-less town.


But it is worth pursuing, because it is love. She loves him, and he her, maybe more than either have anyone else. They cling to one another with that level of desire, not one cultivated physically so much as spiritually. Ron awakens Cary to a different way of life than she had ever considered; she is the kind of woman a guy who looks like Rock Hudson wouldn’t often meet. When we see him interact with a younger woman in a couple of scenes, she thinks him quite something; he thinks her quite silly. “I’ve met plenty of girls,” he tells Cary. “Nice and otherwise.” “But none of them like you,” he seems to think. Hudson could telegraph that, and a thousand other subtleties. He was made for the screen.

Among the bountiful and valuable supplements included on this disc is Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, an hourlong film Mark Rappaport released in 1992. Its essential purpose is valuable – to explore the ways in which Hudson’s sexuality might have been expressed in his films. Though reportedly open about his homosexuality in Hollywood, Hudson, in collaboration with and perhaps at the insistence of Universal Pictures, his employer, kept this fact tightly under wraps. He never came out of the closet, his PR team insisting that the AIDS he contracted in the 1980s was the result of transfused blood from an infected donor. It was only following his death in 1985 that the stories really started to emerge, from several stars with whom he had worked (including Doris Day, with whom he costarred in several 1960s romantic comedies, and Robert Stack, his costar in Sirk’s Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels).

The point is, I don’t feel that Hudson’s sexuality is exactly an out-of-bounds topic for discussing his performances, particularly because so many of his most famous films are about the effort to conceal, to become somebody else, and the struggle to remain true to oneself when pressured to do otherwise. What I thoroughly despise about Rock Hudson’s Home Movies is its inability to explore this subject in any other way than the most literal, grabbing stray lines and scenes and using them out of context as gay metaphors, snickering at the films as camp posturing rather than engaging them on their own terms, terms that are amplified, not contradicted, by his secret life.


I don’t know what this resistance is, to engage with the work as it stands there for all to see. All That Heaven Allows, and Hudson’s performance therein, is so rich with emotion and ideas; you don’t need to revise or change the nature of what’s there. It’s not only dishonest, it places your own need to make jokes above the considerable accomplishment already in the film. It’s detrimental and diminishing, and it’s really quite saddening to see the career of an outstanding actor reduced to snide comments that would be shushed in any decent movie house. Hudson’s life was a great deal more nuanced than that which he let on; let that deepen his work without changing its essence. There’s so much beauty up there.

Ron Kirby is something of a construction, a fantasy, a stoic massive dream man. Hudson makes him credible, letting in shades of doubt and uncertainty to a character Cary understandably believes could never change. “I’m learning right now how easy it would be to let myself be changed,” he tells Cary as she attempts to postpone their engagement, or at least convince him to move into her house at first, rather than vice versa. “You mean, we’ll be invited to all the cocktail parties. And, of course, Sara will see to it I get into the country club. Dear Howard and I will shake hands and forget.” And slowly, he suggests (his performance, again, is rooted in suggestion, of giving the barest indication of the depth of his feeling), he will become what they want him to be, what they deem acceptable. He refuses to budge an inch. But Cary makes his threat a reality. She leaves him. And he sits down, defeated and despondent, left to wonder if he’d pushed too hard (he had) or hadn’t fully understood the extent of what he was asking her to sacrifice (he hadn’t). It is correct to say that Cary should be able to live her life without her children’s blessing; it’s quite another for Cary to believe she may irreparably damage her relationship with her children as a result. Ned outright says that she shouldn’t expect him to come visit her. 

“To thine own self be true” is the guiding ethos for the film, and time and time again, it reminds us how difficult that is; first to discover who one is beneath all the attitudes and posturing we’ve subconsciously constructed, and then to fortify a life around that person. That one can be in the right, and still suffer, is at the root of melodrama. Hudson probably knew this. The wisdom of his performances certainly suggest he did.


And what of Cary herself? In the commentary track for this release, film scholars John Mercer and Tamar Jeffers-McDonald astutely note that, even though she plays the protagonist of the picture, Jane Wyman’s performance is rooted in her reactions. Cary spurs almost none of the plot forward, accepting Ron’s advances or her children’s opinions or her best friend Sara’s (Agnes Moorehead, giving a thankless but remarkable supporting performance) advice. Wyman, wisely, doesn’t overplay her hand. Through slight expressions, she communicates her complete revulsion to owning a television set as a form of company, her despair when her son doesn’t care about the depth of her sacrifice, and the delight she takes in seeing Ron while shopping for Christmas trees, months after ending their relationship.

Jeffers-McDonald offers wonderful perceptions on how Cary’s wardrobe reflects or contradicts her stated intentions, sometimes revealing her attachment to Ron is greater than she lets on, or putting up a barrier against those who might be most sympathetic. As much as it’s taken on the opposite reputation, so much of melodrama is about repressing emotions too volatile for everyday life. Wyman plays Cary as a woman accustomed to satisfying or at least making comfortable others, regardless of what suffering she may endure. She knows no other way, but is starting to realize it possible.


Sirk constantly shows Cary removed from her surroundings – behind glass while her neighborhood celebrates the holidays, in a reflection of her piano (seeking consolation and distraction, but unable to tear her eyes from her front door), casually pushed into a corner by her bullying son. The film’s sharpest moment comes when Cary’s daughter, Kay (Gloria Talbott), remarks with relief that widows are no longer sealed off in their husband’s tomb. Aren’t they?, Cary responds. “Well, perhaps not in Egypt.” Her daughter doesn’t understand, but we do – Cary is stuck in a house decorated to please her husband and filled with his possessions. When she attempts to change this, her son castigates her. Cary’s only freedom comes with Ron, being of use to his friends, dancing with him, gazing out his enormous window which makes his home feel a part of his environment, rather than apart from it. The colors are less vibrant, more naturalistic in his home compared to her neighborhood, as though the world were less assaulting, less contradictory. In her home, rainbow windows cause all manner of confusion; in the country, colors mean what they mean, and remain steady.

I’ve heard it said that all great works of art created in pop culture go through four phases – initial embrace, revulsion and mockery, ironic admiration, and, eventually, genuine acceptance and adoration. All That Heaven Allows has been understood along similar lines, Cary’s journey especially. It was once accepted as a melodrama, a “women’s weepie,” and whatever positive notices it received were couched in those terms. It was quickly, thereafter, the subject of mockery and the sort of snickering that constitutes Rock Hudson’s Home Movies. Around the same time, it was being appreciated ironically, as a film rejecting and mocking American suburbia.


The thing is that these approaches are not necessarily invalid, if understood as merely one component; it’s just that seeing the film only through these lenses has limited its spiritual capacity. The booklet accompanying this release contains a very good essay by film scholar Laura Mulvey (even if she is more accepting of these limited perspectives than I, suggesting that as long as they like it, it doesn’t matter why). She begins the essay with this quote from Sirk: “This is the dialectic – there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains an element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.” Sirk might as well be summarizing the ethos of the American auteurist movement.

There is some craziness afoot in All That Heaven Allows – each time Cary returns to Ron’s house, for example, he has made considerable improvements, building a home for her even after she broke off their relationship. But because of this craziness, which could be considered laughable by those wishing to place themselves above the cinema, we understand in totality the extent of Ron’s desire for her. Inner desires being represented by costume, sets, lighting, and camera placement is key to Sirk’s art, however crazy it may be. It’s also why I find Ron singing to Cary at his friends’ party, which Mercer and Jeffers-McDonald mock and dismiss, uncommonly affecting. It may be considered more noble to show Cary’s affection for Ron grow through their conversations and gestures, but it’s far more interesting to do it through song.


Is Sirk mocking suburban life? Of course he is. But to understand the film only in those terms is to misunderstand life itself. Few of us fit in perfectly to our surroundings; at best, we negotiate those tricky waters, carve out a private space, and reconcile our desires with the public environment. It doesn’t matter if American suburbia is ridiculous; what matters is how we choose to live with it. For Cary, by the end, that means retreating with Ron to a home in the woods, free to live her life and fulfill her passions. If the extent of Sirk’s accomplishment is in “mocking” suburbia, then her final decision is meaningless. If Cary has to leave her home and create a rift between herself and her children (however “rotten” they may be), how much greater is her sacrifice? How much greater is her love? If we see the film on her terms, rather than a cheap attempt to diminish a way of life, how much greater is our empathy?

Mercer and Jeffers-McDonald feel the ending ironic. They see that Cary had rejected a prior suitor, an older man, only to play nurse to a younger one, as her return to him coincided with an accident that left him bedridden. This reading is unfathomable to me. Even if one believes Ron’s recovery impossible, the love she feels for him is much deeper than any affection she had for Harvey. But there’s little to suggest Ron will be forever confined to bed. The ending is a happy one, in the mercenary sense that Cary finally accepts her desires as legitimate and seeks them out. But she still has to leave her home, her friends, and possibly alienate her children in the process. This does not make the ending “ironic” or “subtly depressing,” though; not in the least. It makes the ending true. Every major decision we make in life, no matter how positive, comes with loss. Often the most important, meaningful, and life-affirming decisions mean leaving something valuable behind. This impermanence, this constant sadness and regret that accompanies us daily, was a key subject for Ozu, for which he was rightfully praised. Sirk expresses it, and is thought no more than a cultural critic.

Like I said, it’s about loss.


The transfer, as one might expect from a Criterion Blu-ray release of a Douglas Sirk film (as this is a Dual Format release, a DVD edition is included as well), is quite remarkable. There’s a hint of green creeping in at the edges of some shots, but as it’s only occasional and not terribly disruptive, I have to assume it was inherent to the print and that adjusting it would have damaged its integrity. And anyway, it doesn’t bother very much. In every other regard, it is a perfect presentation of the film. I didn’t see a speck of damage, and the image is crisp while retaining much of the softness that makes Technicolor images so warm. Some of the shots, especially the blue-hued ones surrounding Cary and Ron’s break up, look downright three-dimensional, exhibiting breathtaking depth and clarity. The grain, so overbearing in Criterion’s initial DVD release, is more carefully managed and, resultantly, much more natural. Obviously, the real “pop” comes from the colors. At the moment the film really kicks in (credit sequences, with their processing, don’t make for the best subjects for investigation), I had an almost audible reaction to what was onscreen. The colors aren’t at all overcranked, nor would they need to be; they are gorgeous and mesmerizing just as they are. Russell Metty, Sirk’s frequent cinematographer (he also shot Touch of Evil) is extraordinarily well-served here.

According to the notes on the transfer, Criterion considered every aspect ratio between 1.37:1 and 2.00:1, having found theatrical exhibition that supported any of these decisions, before landing on 1.75:1, an increasingly-common compromise for them, but one I feel serves this film well. A full frame presentation would leave too much space in Cary’s world, and a wider ratio would not only close the space around her too much, it would also lose much of the outstanding production design.

Aside from the aforementioned supplements, the new Criterion Dual-Format release includes excerpts of interviews with Sirk (one from French television in 1982, the other from Behind the Mirror: A Profile of Douglas Sirk, a 1979 BBC documentary), over an hour in total and a complete delight, chock full of insights. Lastly, there is an interview with William Reynolds, who played the son in this movie, and who reflects on those early days of being a contract player at a major studio, and what he learned from Sirk and Hudson. In addition to the Mulvey essay, the booklet also contains some writing on the film from Rainer Werner Fassbinder from 1971, who has such a keen perception of the film that it’s a shame to see him, too, feel the need to read irony into an ending that’s plenty complex all on its own.

All That Heaven Allows is a true wonder of a film, deeply complex yet so simple in its telling, a brief 89-minute film that asks the most fundamental of questions – Who am I? Why am I here? – through concrete, emotionally-charged drama. It’s spiritually-charged, but far from dogmatic; exploratory and curious, never resolute. Sirk’s compositions are so carefully arranged, one might call him suffocating, and yet his film feels vast, fully lived-in yet far from lived out.

All That Heaven Allows
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