Written by Peg Fenwick / Directed by Douglas Sirk / Starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson
Without Douglas Sirk, films such as BLUE VELVET, SAFE, and AMERICAN BEAUTY could not exist. In the 1950’s, there was no one better at the suburban melodrama than Sirk, with ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS being one of his greatest, and most influential films.
ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS depicts a classic story of forbidden love, but like all of Sirk’s films, its richness comes in the subtext. Jane Wyman stars as Cary Scott, a middle-aged widow living in a quiet suburban town. The peace is disturbed with the arrival of Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), her new gardener, and her junior by many years. Brief conversations turn into long unbroken gazes, which turn into intimate moments inside the house. Her neighbours are quick to notice, and begin to suspect that Kirby may be doing more than just tending to her garden. Cary’s friends and adult children ostracize her, disapproving of her love with a much younger man and someone so far outside her class. Her kids would rather that she fulfill the supposed role of the widow, and stay inside watching the brand-new television they bought her. The aforementioned television gives way for one of the film’s most famous shots, one of Wyman standing alone, reflected in the television screen.
Unbeknownst to much of the film’s 1955 audience, Hudson was a closeted homosexual. This was public knowledge amongst the Hollywood elite, including director Douglas Sirk. Unfortunately, the film studios forced Hudson to live his public life as a straight man, fearing that he would not be bankable as an out homosexual. One can look at ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (and the following Sirk/Hudson collaboration, WRITTEN IN THE WIND) and see Hudson’s characters as closeted homosexuals, mirroring Hudson’s real life. There is much discussion to be had about the implied femininity of Hudson’s Ron Kirby. Not only is he a gardener, but his biggest hobby is interior design, which would not be absolute signifiers now but were weighted associations at the time in film.
Some have criticized the lack of chemistry between Ron and Cary, yet watching the film now, this is obviously intentional. In fact, the relationship between the two resembles that of a mother and son, rather than a husband and wife. Thus, each of the characters are able to satisfy one another’s needs. Cary can act as Ron’s beard, and Ron can satisfy Cary’s needs for companionship.
ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS is not only celebrated for its layered screenplay, but also for Sirk’s trademark visual style. Sirk works with Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Metty to create visuals that would inspire filmmakers for decades to follow. The film’s lush and vibrant colour scheme gives it that artificial gloss that has become essential for the suburban melodrama.
Aside from the fact that ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS is an extremely important film with great subtext, it is still a great hour-and-a-half for someone who wants to kick back and bask in the melodrama. Wyman and Hudson offer performances that are over-the-top, yet somehow subtle at the same time. With so many ways to regard the film, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS is truly a wonder to behold. Watch it as a commentary on homosexuality, the mundanity of suburban life, or as brash melodrama, either way, you will get one of the greatest films of all time.
ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS screens on June 30th, as part of the new TIFF film series, Dreaming in Technicolor, at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. The series runs through August 13 and features over 25 classics like REAR WINDOW, CHARADE and BONNIE & CLYDE. It launched on Friday, June 19, with the Gene Kelly masterpiece, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. For more information and for tickets, please visit tiff.net.