Neil Young’s Film Lounge – All That Heaven Allows

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS

9/10

USA 1955 : Douglas Sirk : 89mins

Sirks deliriously enjoyable melodrama remains startlingly overt in its critique of Americas bourgeois attitudes during the Eisenhower 1950s. Jane Wyman is Cary Scott, a fortyish widow with two college-age children, Kay (Gloria Talbott) and Ned (William Reynolds). Some years having elapsed since the death of her businessman husband, Cary now feels ready to spread her wings a little not easy in a cosy Manhattan-commuter town like Stoningham. While Kay and Ned see ineffectual oldster Harvey (Conrad Nagel) as an ideal match for their mother, Cary stuns everyone by embarking on a relationship with free-spirited gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). Their romance offends local sensibilities not so much because the vigorous Ron is conspicuously younger than Cary, but because he’s perceived as a lower-class manual labourer (hed been employed to prune her trees) with some dangerously progressive ideas. As peer pressure mounts, Cary is faced with an agonising struggle to reconcile her desire for love with the vociferous opposition of her friends and family

Its easy to see why this film inspired Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes to come up with their own loose remakes: Fear Eats The Soul (1973) and Far From Heaven (2002). Peg Fenwicks script (based on a story by Edna L Lee and Harry Lee) tells a story so simple and strong it verges on fable the basic opposition of the individuals personal feeling against societys peer-pressure can be adapted to almost any culture at any time. Though trainee social-worker Kay often provides surprisingly direct socio-psychological commentary in what Ned derides as $10 words – Carys blank-faced non-reaction to being breezily informed about her sons Oedipus complex is a highlight – much of the dialogue is crammed with metaphors and subtexts which, while often far from subtle (calling this harshly judgemental town Stoningham, for example) build into a penetrating and persuasive social critique.

In fact, so dense is the web of double meanings and sly allusions that its very tempting, in the light of what we now know about Hudson (a rather earnest performance as an unlikely proto-beatnik) to analyse the whole Cary-Ron relationship in search of potential gay undertones. Theres even one dialogue exchange which ends with Cary – handsome rather than drop-dead gorgeous, masculine-named and short-haired asking Ron if he wants her to be a man as she struggles to reconcile her feelings and responsibilities. Such nudge-nudge moments do give All That Heaven Allows an undeniably amusing kitsch-camp level, but this is a film that entertains and engages on multiple levels simultaneously. Sirk is a director in confident charge of his medium, cramming in countless visual metaphors, employing heightened, stylised direction to create a vividly artificial environment in which Cary and Ron are as much archetypes as individuals, though special mention must also be made to recognise the crucial contributions from creative duos Alexander Golitzen & Eric Orbom (art direction), and Russell A Gausman & Julia Heron (set direction).

Sirks use of lighting and colour is dazzlingly effective as a means of quite literally illuminating the characters psyches and the precise dynamics of their interactions and, along with cinematographer Russell Metty, he does some remarkable things with shadow watch how Neds face is barely visible as he coldly informs Cary of his refusal to accept Ron as his potential stepfather. Its one of several shocking displays of selfishness the children are so venal that you do start to wonder what kind of mother Cary (who, were told, married at 17) must have been to raise such an obnoxious pair.

The childrens actions are, in fact, so extreme in their blinkered meanness that Carys plight threatens to tip over into near-farcical depths of misery when she takes the fateful decision to turn down Rons marriage proposal. Shes rewarded with the gift of a television set in one of the most famously grim domestic scenes in all American cinema. But the film isn’t finished with us yet the final act sees our heroine and hero see-sawing between happy and sad endings, with a bittersweet resolution that defies such glib categorisation and instead relies on each viewers subjective interpretation. By this stage, despite the artificality, melodrama and dark humour of whats gone before, we realise just how thoroughly we’ve become bound up in Carys predicament. Because watching All That Heaven Allows is rather like having ones emotions fed through an antique clothes-wringer: the mechanism may be cumbersome, stiff, and needlessly ornate but it doesn’t half get the job done.

21st February, 2003
(seen 19th February, National Film Theatre, London)

by Neil Young