There aren’t many perfect movies, films that so thoroughly encapsulate everything there is to love about a genre or style of storytelling. All That Heaven Allows is one of them. The film, a 1955 melodrama directed by Douglas Sirk and starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, follows an older suburban widow with two nearly-grown children who enters into a scandalous relationship with her younger, handsome gardener. Her neighbors are horrified, her children are furious, her suitor is disgusted. What will triumph, the heart or the head?
Douglas Sirk understood how film worked, and that knowledge helps make All That Heaven Allows‘ production design wordlessly tell its own story. There is, of course, the famous ‘TV scene’, in which Cary’s children get her a television set she has repeatedly said she neither wanted nor needed in an attempt to keep her from running away with Ron. The TV screen boxes her in, isolates her from the world, keeps her passion contained in a way that is both dignified and signifies wealth. It is there you might realize just how many of the objects and decorations in Jane’s house have this reflective or isolating effect, framing her away from everyone else.
But Sirk is playing these games throughout the film. Cary sets drab suburbia on fire wearing a gorgeous red dress out on a date with a plainly-dressed older suitor who fails to pick up on her passion. Lighting in any given scene can go from warm and homey to chilly or disorienting at a moment’s notice, depending on what the scene calls for. But these tricks are rarely overt or showy. Instead, Sirk lets them linger in the background, using them subtly to nudge the mood of the scene without giving the game away.
All That Heaven Allows is, even beyond the lush, evocative set design, a masterclass in acting. Jane Wyman’s character is often asked by her family, her friends, her society to repress her emotions, and deep-but-restrained emotion is one of the most challenging things an actor can pull off. Wyman does so with ease and confidence. Watch nothing but her magnetic face when it is on screen and you’ll feel like you’re watching a woman’s world collapse rather than just a movie. Wyman has been in a number of excellent films, but few allowed her to exercise her range as well as this one.
Rock Hudson is less impressive, but I take that more as a compliment to Wyman than a criticism of Hudson. Hudson has a solid, earthy charm that sells his gardener as a paragon of old-timey masculinity. Knowledge of his personal life may make his role (and his performance) easy to laugh at, but Sirk and Hudson are very much playing this straight. Interestingly, though, Sirk understands that Hudson’s masculinity works best when it is both softened (he’s liberal-bordering-on-hippy at times) and flawed (his inability to compromise nearly destroys him). As with Cary, Ron is a complex and not always wholly likable character, but Hudson has a core decency (and handsomeness!) that makes their love easy to understand.
It’s easy to dismiss the melodrama, as critics, audiences, and award shows have been doing for decades. All That Heaven Allows is no different. But Sirk’s film knows what you are predisposed to think of it. Indeed, that’s the point of the thing. The movie is about a woman who is told over and over again by society that they know what’s best for her, they know what has worth, fighting to find her own path forward. It’s about how easily society dismisses the point-of-view of women, and how vital it is to be able to choose one’s own path. Writer Peg Fenwick displays a lot of insight into the many little restrictions society places on women and the way they self-police, and works that thematically into a romantic melodrama that is all about the intersection of class and gender.
All That Heaven Allows is often imitated (1974’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and 2002’s Far From Heaven foremost among them) but never, in my opinion, surpassed. It is, as I said at the top, the perfect melodrama. Sirk’s compositions were lovely, the production design was on point, and the actors were game for anything. It’s an easy film to look down upon, in a lot of ways; the gender relations are retrograde, the class struggles differ from today’s, and there movie takes seriously issues that most films simply do not. But to ignore a film this lively, this deeply emotional, would be a crime.
All That Heaven Allows is available on DVD and blu-ray in a gorgeous package from the Criterion Collection. Written by Peg Fenwick and directed by Douglas Sirk, All That Heaven Allows stars Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, and Agnes Moorehead.