Home Video Hovel: All That Heaven Allows, by David Bax
Blu-ray is a good medium by which to experience a film like Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows at home. The brilliance of color and sharpness of sound let the movie come close to simulating the larger than life impression of a theater. That’s necessary here because the film is indeed outsized. In mostly good ways (and a few bad ones), Sirk heightens everything, like blowing up a family portrait to poster size, granting the ability to easily pick out the smallest imperfections in the family itself and the world they live in.
Jane Wyman plays Cary Scott, an upper middle class suburban widow whose two children are away at college. She’s living out the prescribed lifestyle, continuing to be a presence at social, country club events and fending off both suitors and suggestions of purchasing a television with equal aplomb. But when she begins a relationship with the neighborhood’s gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson), she feels things she hasn’t felt in years as well as the things she’s always feared: pity, mockery and social isolation.
Perhaps the film’s greatest strength and what has led to its classic status is the way Sirk illustrates Cary’s social set. It’s true that they are awful to her but he is unwilling to condemn them outright for it. They aren’t a mob of bullies drinking martinis in evening clothes. They are each of them individuals. Sirk and his screenwriters make the process by which Cary is damned and ostracized all the more horrifying for how human it is. There is no better depiction of this natural inevitability than when Cary’s own daughter condemns her. Philosophically, she doesn’t want to but when faced with the fallout of her mother’s iconoclastic decisions, she fervently opts to maintain the status quo. The daughter (Gloria Talbott) confronts Cary in the younger woman’s childhood bedroom. It’s afternoon but the lights are off and the only source of illumination is a prism of light splashing colors into the bedroom from the sole window. Just outside this room is the life Cary has built for herself, the one in which she’s raised her children. But these shafts of light are the closest she can get to it now that’s she’s upset the natural order. The otherwise darkened room is her prison.
Sirk does this often, presenting Cary’s dilemma literalized. She’s always being backed into corners. She’s often in darkness on the precipice of light or behind a grand window, gazing out. She has a decision to make but so many of her previous decisions in life have backed her into a gilded cage. Where All That Heaven Allows stumbles, though, is in its reluctance to blame Ron for any part of the predicament. Yes, Cary’s the one with the most to lose but Ron doesn’t make her decisions any easier. He loves her (though the film never makes a good case as to why) but he carries not one bit of sympathy for how hard this is for her.
That’s both a small complaint because it’s not really the point and a big complaint because perhaps it should be. In any case, All That Heaven Allows is a film aimed at a certain type of woman in a certain type of place and time. Yet it is also a film about human nature whose impact is undeniable even under the layers of aesthetic grandeur and the hordes of middling domestic melodramas that have come in its wake. Those are pretenders. Sirk remains the undisputed ruler.
Special features include an audio commentary, the film Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, an interview with Sirk, an interview with actor William Reynolds and more.