Judge Clark Douglas doesn't care what society thinks—he's in love with this film!
Our review of All That Heaven Allows: Criterion Collection, published September 12th, 2001, is also available.
How much does heaven allow a woman in love?
Kay: "Personally, I've never subscribed to that old Egyptian
Facts of the Case
Cary Scott (Jane Wyman, The Lost Weekend) is a well-to-do widow who lives in suburban New England. It's been a while since her husband's passing, and Cary's friends encourage her to begin considering new romantic interests. Of course, Cary's friends have a host of respectable people in mind: local businessmen, respected town leaders, etc. Alas, Cary just isn't particularly interested in any of the candidates her friends propose. To her surprise, she begins developing a romantic relationship of sorts with the young, handsome gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson, Pillow Talk). Before long it becomes clear that the two are madly in love, but society disapproves: Cary's friends find the relationship sordid and distasteful (Ron is simply too young and too poor), and Cary's grown children are similarly distraught about the situation out of concern for the family's social standing. Will Cary be forced to choose between her reputation and her happiness?
Moviegoers of the 1950s had responded strongly to the pairing of Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in Douglas Sirk's superb melodrama Magnificent Obsession, so it was only natural that the folks at Universal would want to bring the trio back together for another cinematic love story. Sirk was working within certain boundaries he found rather constraining—he wasn't in love with the script, and he disagreed with the studio's insistence that the film needed an uplifting ending—but even under those less-than-ideal conditions, he managed to deliver one of the great dramas of the 1950s. Yes, the film is as melodramatic and unsubtle as anything else Sirk has done, but it packs an emotional punch which still resonates strongly.
All That Heaven Allows is pitiless in its condemnation of the toxic upper-class social environment Cary finds herself trapped in, capturing the ugliness, sexism and hypocrisy of the country club world. Employing a lush, vibrant color palette, romantic Franz Liszt selections and staggeringly gorgeous cinematography, Sirk creates a world which feels alternately inviting and suffocating. Sirk's symbolism is obvious, but effective: a wild deer that keeps turning up during key scenes seems to represent the possibility of true freedom, while a large television set (which Cary's friends and family members keep encouraging her to purchase) comes to represent a form of personal prison. Even when the script churns out some clunky dialogue, Sirk's visual storytelling feels precise and potent.
The movie is particularly effective when tackling society's double standards regarding relationships between men and women. It's perfectly acceptable for an aging man to go after a pretty young girl (within the film, people accept such relationships with a knowing chuckle), but the reverse somehow offends society's sensibilities. How crude for a middle-aged woman to start a romance with an attractive younger man (much less an attractive younger man who doesn't have any money)! When one jealous suitor attempts to force himself on Cary at a party, he's the one who ends up earning the crowd's sympathy. After all, he's a man of wealth and position—how dare this arrogant woman deny him for someone clearly inferior?
Honestly, the actual romance between the two central characters is fairly simple outside of the social context others create. Wyman creates a masterful, three-dimensional portrait of a conflicted woman, but Hudson is merely a sex symbol. He looks at Wyman lustfully, he flirts shamelessly and he kisses her expertly. Essentially, he's treated like a lot of other movies treat lead actresses, which seems to be the point. What a revealing change of pace it must have been for audiences to see the man objectified instead of the woman. It's a simple reversal which works tremendously well. There's also a bit of playful innuendo which jokingly references Hudson's real-life sexuality, as the dialogue has the character needlessly re-affirm his heterosexuality on multiple occasions. These moments (along with the consistent melodrama and some corny supporting characters—why does Cary's daughter need to be such a goofy stereotype?) have caused some to label Sirk's film as campy (a label Sirk's critics at the time used regularly), but I confess that I find it impossible to view the film through that lens. Despite the happy ending, there's more than enough raw emotional power and lacerating anger running through the film to make it an unforgettable, moving dramatic experience.
All That Heaven Allows (Blu-ray) looks stunning in hi-def, offering an eye-popping, vivid 1080p/1.75:1 transfer which allows the viewer to fully appreciate the film's breathtaking visuals. The level of detail is tremendous through, the bright colors simply leap off the screen, there's no bleeding whatsoever and depth is tremendous. A moderate level of natural grain is present through, adding a welcome warmth to the image. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is nothing to write home about, but it sounds crisp and clean throughout: the music is fairly robust, and dialogue sounds great (Hudson's deep, smooth tones have been perfectly preserved). Supplements include a commentary with film scholars John Mercer and Tamar Jeffers-McDonald, a video essay on Rock Hudson, a couple of related television clips (an interview with Sirk from 1982 and a segment from a 1979 TV special on Sirk's career), an interview with actor William Reynolds, a booklet featuring pieces by film scholar Laura Mulvey and filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder and a DVD copy.
All That Heaven Allows belongs on any list of Sirk's greatest films. It's still gripping and relevant today, and Criterion's Blu-ray release looks terrific. Highly recommended.
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