All That Heaven Allows
Director: Douglas Sirk. Cast: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead, Virginia Grey, Gloria Talbot, William Reynolds, Charles Drake, Jacqueline De Wit, Conrad Nagel, Donald Curtis, Hayden Rorke, Merry Anders, David Janssen. Screenplay: Peg Fenwick (based on a story by Edna L. Lee and Henry Lee).

One is not surprised to learn that, among the scores of filmmakers who have been influenced by Douglas Sirk, one of the most recent is Todd Haynes, whose just-wrapped Far From Heaven has been touted as an explicit homage to Sirk's mid-1950s suburban soap operas. I can't wait to see Far From Heaven, but for those of you who were startled by the palpable menace of a black sofa in Haynes's Safe, wait till you see what fright Sirk conjures in an antiquarian television set in the final third of All That Heaven Allows (1955). On the surface, Sirk's movie looks like a dewy and blanched-out fable of the embattled love between Jane Wyman's fortyish widow and Rock Hudson's virile tree-tender, about 15 years her junior—hardly a likely pre-text for Safe's completely ungeneric modernist terror film. But Sirk, as in so many of his films—Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life remain my favorites—can't stop letting the invisible poisons of middle-class American existence seep back into his primary-color compositions.

The point of a film like this is not that, of the many rifts that erupt in Wyman's family and community in the wake of her May-December romance with Hudson, most (though hardly all) are re-sealed by the picture's end. The interest and the exquisite subversion of the picture reside in the fact that by briefly cracking the shell of suburban psychology and village morality, Sirk exposes so much suppressed jealousy, tension, and cruelty that the return of the status quo feels futile and desperate—exactly the revelation that most of Hollywood's "happy endings" are designed to conceal. But nor is Sirk a mere party-crasher, a cynic who relishes debunking the pert illusions of his characters and audiences. The gorgeous coloration, careful framing, and generous room for empathetic identification in his films are all so enticing that the audience winds up stuck between recognizing the moral hypocrisy of a "picture-perfect" life and still feeling the emotional tug of perfect pictures. It helps to have such an expressive actress as Wyman in the lead role, supplying Cary Scott with an emotional density that Lauren Bacall and Lana Turner in Sirk's later films never showcased (though, to be fair, their films had very different demands of those actresses). Hudson is perfectly cast in this Washington Square-ish tale as the object of everyone's fussing, and the screenplay's emotional straight-talking will disarm many viewers who have bought into the idea that 1950s pop culture furnished an uninterrupted parade of June Cleavers. When Wyman puts on a happy face at the conclusion of All That Heaven Allows, the audience knows an incredible amount about the intractable complications and emotional compromises that her brave smile attempts to dress up. Grade: A–

Click here for a shorter, capsule-length response to the film, included as part of my 2003 feature article, "Queer Folks in the Cinema."
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