The Cathode Ray Mission: All That Heaven Allows and the Ties That Bind
The Hollywood studio system was the productive norm in American filmmaking for much of film history’s classical era, starting in the 1920’s and ending in the late-1960’s. The primary motivation for this mode of production was economic; the major studios of the time, many of which still exist today, maximized profit potentials through vertical integration, controlling the three aspects of the industry: the production of films, the distribution of select film bookings to theaters across the country, and the ownership of theaters exhibiting a certain quota of a studio’s films. This ownership extended to workers as well, with directors and actors under contract to particular studios and denied professional mobility or creative control over certain productive elements (with exceptions, such as Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford). This activity was disrupted as a result of United States vs. Paramount, a Supreme Court ruling in 1948 that ruled Hollywood studios to be in violation of antitrust laws, a deathblow to the system that took its time to bury the studio system until the explosion of independent production and exhibition in the 1960’s. Streaming services represent a newfound challenge to the Supreme Court’s ruling, but the activity of Amazon, Netflix, Disney, and the like still occupies a legal grey area.
The studio system is an important aspect of American film history, but for the purposes of this essay it serves only as context. Cinema was viewed much more as a commodity than an art in this time, and we can see this perception manifested in what actually hit theaters. Directors, now commonly working on projects over multiple years, would put out multiple films a year, especially in the minor studios; much of what was released was more or less disposable, the result of contractual obligations and booking requirements, and a lot has been lost to time because of this disposability. Genres, too, were the result of economic impulses, creating new umbrellas through which to easily market to particular demographics, whether that be horror movies, westerns, noir, or melodramas. There’s undeniably great works of art that have emerged under these conditions, but the system itself operated in a flattening way that often stifled artistic expression; only with the writing of critics abroad did our perception towards these studio products change, and with that our whole understanding of film as an artform did as well. The editors at Cahiers du Cinema, among everything else they’ve contributed to the medium, were well-known for their love of Hollywood films and would often write serious, intellectual criticism of films that were often dismissed out of hand as being Hollywood products, which would eventually find its way back to American criticism, and ultimately became synthesized by Andrew Sarris into what we know as auteur theory.
Auteur theory is the oft-misinterpreted bogeyman of contemporary film discourse, but color me a supporter because I find it to be an essential framework through which to understand film art. It does not erase the efforts of hundreds of contributors by suggesting that a film’s director is solely responsible for the final result, rather that the film’s director is a creative force behind the art, not simply a replicable tradesmen doing paint-by-numbers camera placement. It also does not suggest that every director was viewed as this tradesmen-type; foreign directors like Jean Renoir and Kenji Mizoguchi were long recognized as major talents in their home industries, and Hollywood directors of high status like the aforementioned Ford and Hitchcock received significant attention for their idiosyncratic work, to the point of being used as marketing elements themselves (the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show did not spring from nowhere). What Sarris’ auteur theory did propose was that the kind of artistic agency Ford, Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, et al. were afforded was equally as present in talented directors of a lower stature, only rather than this personal style being assumed outright it was more or less smuggled into a work. Vincente Minnelli, Jacques Tourneur, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann, all of these were directors of varying success within a limiting studio model who nonetheless carry forth a distinct, personal style that marks their work all throughout their careers. Maybe none moreso than today’s subject: Douglas Sirk.
Sirk was one of the crop of German and central European filmmakers who fled political or anti-Semitic persecution in the face of the Holocaust to come to Hollywood, but unlike Wilder or Fritz Lang, Sirk never really became a household name, despite his considerable talent. The reason for this is more than likely due to the nature of his most famous work; much like Hitchcock with suspense and Ford with westerns, Sirk was a master of genre, in his case the classical melodrama. His work was lauded almost instantly in Europe, but it took several years for it to be properly re-evaluated in America, not coincidentally around the time the Women’s Liberation movements had taken root. The Hollywood melodrama had for a long time been condescendingly coined “women’s pictures”, due to their outsized emotional registers and subjects pertaining to what were deemed feminine concerns, like romance and domestic life. This limited reception didn’t stop some from achieving critical success, but by and large they were held in the register of low art — trashy, soapy, oversentimental, disposable fiction for housewives. What Sirk did with the genre was lean in as much as he could to its basest impulses through his visual acumen, and in doing so turn the genre inside-out into a complex, Brechtian exercise in expressionistic social commentary. His first great melodrama, 1954’s Magnificent Obsession, is something of a dry run on his methods, a richly emotional if overly plotted feast of color and light. It’s with the next year’s All That Heaven Allows that theory and action meet to form a masterpiece.
The film’s story is pure paperback: All That Heaven Allows is about a middle-aged widow, Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) and her socially ridiculed romance with a young gardener, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). Cary is comfortable, if a little lonely, in her upper-middle class life after the passing of her husband, with frequent visits from her children Kay (Gloria Talbott) and Ned (William Reynolds), and social gatherings organized by her local peers like Sara (Agnes Moorhead). However, after repeated interactions with the man pruning her trees, she grows curious about him and his simple, free-spirited lifestyle, and one day accompanies him back to the cabin where he lives. A passionate romance grows between them, leaving Cary torn between her genuine love for Ron and her perceived social obligations, specifically towards her family. She breaks it off with Ron, but in the film’s waning moments returns to his side after he has suffered an accident, leaving his own future uncertain but the two of them back together in immediate moment.
The most immediately gripping feature of the film is its distinctive visual look. Processed in Technicolor, the world of the film is awash in overwhelming autumnal oranges and wintry blues, there’s an almost psychedelic vibrancy to the images that conveys through pure visual language the emotional complexities of the situations and refuses to be delineated into binary modes. There is an interior/exterior divide in the color scheme, interiors tend to be warmly lit versus the icy coolness of exteriors, but there are certain areas where this divide is permeable, namely Cary’s bedroom, as she puts on a bright red dress for a party at Sara’s we see the blue light of the outside evening coming through the window and clashing with the orange from her hallway, and the mill Ron refurbishes to convert to a home for him and Cary, the inside glowing by firelight while the snowy fields loom through the wall-length window. If you were teaching a class on the fundamentals of filmmaking, the latter moment would be an instructive example of perfectly constructed mise-en-scene — the camera hovers closely to Cary and Ron as they embrace in the glow of the fireplace, but as their conversation develops, a conversation pertaining to their future together and Ron’s desire to marry, they walk away, towards the window, silhouetted by frosty windows and the cool world outside. This is on its surface tonally disjunctive: in discussing their love for each other and their decision to marry, they don’t move from coolness to warmth, but from warmth to coolness; however, what it demonstrates is a divergence between the text and the subtext, as conveyed visually. And in particular, that truth lies in the subtext, the text of the image — words say one thing but what the image suggests is that there will be darkness to come, that this is not the fairy tale affair that both characters wish it to be, that the outside world cannot be ignored. The whole film follows this example, form overwhelms content and communicates meaning and ideas left totally inarticulate within the text. The fact that it does all this, while still remaining jaw-droppingly gorgeous to look at, is the mark of true genius, and a decisive counter to one of my least favorite axioms of mainstream film discourse, “style over substance”.
The classic ‘forbidden love’ story template is utilized here similarly, textually and subtextually. It is ultimately a movie about a woman whose social persona conflicts with her personal feelings, and through that simplicity Sirk packages sharp and multivalent commentary. The plot device of ‘forbidden love’ opens itself up to all sorts of variations, and here the two most apparent angles are through class and conformity. The first is rather simple; Cary is a member of the white, suburban bourgeois socialite class, she lives in a large ornamental house, and all her friends are of similar status. Ron, meanwhile, is a rustic sort, operating a small gardening business providing services for Cary and her ilk, and living in a diminutive cabin on the edge of the woods. Their relationship frequently invokes class differences between the two, from the rumblings that he is only interested in her for her estate to their personal dress (her in wool overcoats and velvet dresses, him in flannel and denim). Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the iconic German New Wave director, had expressed the influence Sirk had on his later work, none more apparent than his remake of All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, where the tension of the relationship is blown out from Sirk’s innuendo and relocated from class to race and culture; it’s a highly interpretable story. The second obvious angle of Sirk’s film is that of conformity and nonconformity, and once again Ron and Cary are on opposite sides. Anticipating the countercultural backlash of the 1960’s, Sirk presents Ron as a sort of proto-beatnik. He lives off the land, he reads Henry David Thoreau, he is psychologically unshackled from monetary wealth as a barometer of fulfillment; he is a stereotypical free spirit, unbothered by the way others perceive him, and makes that known to Cary. Cary is naturally the victim of the opposite, too concerned with the perception of herself others may have, too convinced of her social obligations as a mother. Her belief in the value of social mores would seem to position her as a conservative figure of rigidity, but in fact it’s quite the opposite — she’s too malleable, too susceptible to influence, and caught between two rigidly opposing poles, the society she comes from and the man she loves. To paraphrase Ron in their big argument, she makes it a choice between him and her kids, but that’s not really true—the ultimatum she arrives at was inevitable, constructed as it was outside of her control.
For a film released in 1955, the sensitivity Sirk displays in his assumption of a female perspective is, put simply, astounding (of course, Wyman is a major factor in this, giving possibly one of the best performances of a classic Hollywood film). One of many additional meanings the film takes is that of a sharp critique of American patriarchal society. Cary is already widowed at the outset of the film, and though her late husband is never seen, not even in pictures, his presence informs almost every aspect of Cary’s life. Her entire identity, as a social woman, as a mother, is predicated on her marriage, and the nullification of that relationship leads to one of the main questions the film grapples with: what is to be done about a woman like Cary? She has money, but no discernible profession; she has children, but they are grown; she is a widow, but she’s not so old that she can’t remarry. What happens is she gets a taste of individual agency via her love of Ron, that is then swiftly conspired against, most blatantly by her own children. Kay and Ned are presented at first as well-bred young adults that respect their mother, but the instant they become aware of her intentions to marry Ron they revert to deeply selfish and childish tendencies, wishing Cary to remain in a static position that they are comfortable with rather than pursue her own desires. Kay in particular is humorously analytical, a psych major at college, until she very suddenly is not, shedding her pretensions of reason and logic and breaking down in tears, crying to Cary about the ridicule she will receive if she marries Ron. The protestations of her children, more than anything else, convinces Cary to halt the marriage and settle for a banal but familiar life, but that comfort and simplicity she agrees to is just as soon upended: when the kids visit for Christmas, Kay announces she’s getting married to her boyfriend, and Ned says that he’s going to be moving away for a job opportunity and is planning to sell the family house, the house he so passionately used as a chip in his argument with Cary earlier. Very swiftly Cary is presented with the truth that her sacrifices are not actually for the benefit of others, her long-suffering selflessness is more or less borne out of social expectation than any real improvement it would make to the lives of those around her. The coup de grace of this revelation is seen in the gift Kay and Ned give to her, a television set. Ned reveals the set and the camera pushes in close on the TV, and in the reflection of the screen we can see Cary sitting on her chair, a look of confused horror on her face as we, alongside her, see the walls of the screen imprisoning her to a life of dull domesticity. This is ultimately the position she is entitled to: no passion, no love, no independence, simply another ornament to decorate the lives of others, and witnessing her awareness of this reality is a powerful cocktail of heartbreak and horror. (I do want to add: Sirk’s presentation is clearly far more sympathetic to Cary’s desire to be with Ron, rightfully so, but that sympathy doesn’t exclude its own criticism. Ron is far less hysterical and reactionary than his detractors, but even he is still a figure trying to exert control over Cary’s decision-making, most apparent in his uncompromising desire that the two of them live in his converted mill. Even in her theoretical future with Ron, Cary is not wholly independent.)
Perhaps a more challenging, and less theorized, lens through which All That Heaven Allows can be read is as a presentation of queerness in a repressive society, most articulated by its male lead, Rock Hudson. Hudson, who frequently collaborated with Sirk at his peak, was closeted throughout his career as one of the more popular leading men of 1950s Hollywood, and only upon his tragic diagnosis and subsequent death of AIDS-related illness in 1985 did it become publicly known that he had been gay (in a cruel coincidence, his costar Jane Wyman was Ronald Reagan’s first wife). His star as an actor rose the highest at a period where gender norms had started to become shaken and, in reaction, enshrined, and the film industry was partially culpable in these developments, maybe most famously represented by Rebel Without a Cause’s presentation of a confused and emotional adolescent masculinity embodied by James Dean and Sal Mineo (Dean of course became an icon of gay culture after his death, and Mineo himself was gay). Hudson, however, was a throwback; he had a classic look and played characters who were more or less completely unambiguous in their masculine performance, and Ron Kirby is no exception. Except for a somewhat winking line of dialogue (Ron: “Mick discovered for himself that he had to make his own decisions, that he had to be a man.” Cary: “And you want me to be a man?” Ron: “Only in that one way.”), the most explicit aspect of the relationship of All That Heaven Allows that hews against what would be deemed romantically normative is the age gap between Cary and Ron, but even then considering the period a range of ~20 years or so was hardly the eyebrow-raiser that it would be today; in other words, the relationship presented is unflinchingly heterosexual, but it’s through the film’s subtext, as it often is, that queerness can be read.
What we see of society’s view of Ron can easily be interpreted as a sort of gay-coded reaction—he’s a solitary man that lives alone on the edge of town and practices a lifestyle that many of the conservative members of society view as suspect and untrustworthy. He carries an air of youthful vitality and sexuality, especially in contrast to the men that populate the parties Cary attends. He hangs out with an eclectic group as well, a mixture of earthy, multicultural eccentrics that are lively and expressive, once again forming a striking counterpoint to the stiff and gossipy people Cary normally rubs elbows with. Even as Cary and Ron are heterosexual, their union is seen as a threat to the established order of the community, a challenge to the norms that are considered acceptable, and as a result they face a recognizably repressive reaction by the upholders of those norms (obviously less outwardly hostile than a homosexual relationship would likely face in 1955, but the more subtle repression Sirk shows is almost as insidious as anything violent, functioning as an example of a society that prides itself on respectability being perfectly capable of destroying a threat to its dominance). The film’s metaphorical potentials are highly transferrable (as seen in Fassbinder’s remake), but maybe because of it’s extra-textual relevance there’s a particular potency to All That Heaven Allows as a story of queer romance in the face of repression.
The conclusion of the film sees Cary finally overcoming her uncertainties and returning to Ron in the wake of him suffering an accident (caused unknowingly by her). His future is uncertain; he has a concussion, and the doctor suggests that were it not for that they would move him to a hospital to treat him further. In spite of this, Cary is finally happy by his side; the film’s final image is a shot of Ron lying on his couch with Cary standing behind him, and in the background a deer walks in front of the window across the pristine snowy landscape. The blues that characterized the wintry outdoors throughout the film are gone, replaced by a sparkling, pure white, and the intrusion of nature at this point suggests the presence of the divine, something of a blessing from God over Cary and Ron. The film to this point is decidedly not spiritual, and in fact Magnificent Obsession works in part as a sort of critique of American Christian impulses, but even with Sirk’s complex skepticism I find it difficult not to read this ending sincerely, a final concession to the power of a love strong enough to transcend the limitations of the world and even the limitations of the text, a moment crystallized in perfection for the rest of time.