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Douglas Sirk once said: “This is the dialectic—there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains an element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.” When All That Heaven Allows was released by Universal Studios in 1955 it was just another critically unnoticed Hollywood genre product designed to appeal to the trashy “women’s weepie” audience. Now, in retrospect, it is considered to be closer to the art side of Sirk’s “dialectic” and one of his key films. But this is part of a wider process of critical re-evaluation, in which his entire body of work has been rediscovered and reappraised by successive generations of filmmakers and historians.
No one seeing the film at the time would have imagined its director to be an elegant, extremely erudite European whose career started in the theatre of Weimar Germany and was an early director of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. After a short, but successful, career at the UFa studios in the vacuum left by the massive emigration of Jewish talent after the Nazis came to power in 1933, he made his way to Hollywood, directing his first film there in 1942. But after an unsuccessful attempt to return to Germany in 1949–50, he signed a contract with Universal Pictures. His movie career then culminated with his most high-profile films, the melodramas of 1952–58. By 1959 he was Universal’s most successful director. At that very point, he left moviemaking and America. Until his death in 1987, he and his wife Hilde lived in Lugano, Switzerland.
All That Heaven Allows marks the final turning point in Sirk’s strange and varied career. On the back of Magnificent Obsession’s success the previous year, Universal gave him the budgets and the freedom that enabled his mature style to blossom. All That Heaven Allows contains all the elements of characteristically Sirkian composition: light, shade, color, and camera angles combine with his trademark use of mirrors to break up the surface of the screen. Here are all the components of the “melodramatic” style on which Sirk’s critical reputation is based and that has made him the favorite of later generations of filmmakers, from Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Quentin Tarantino, from John Waters to Pedro Almódovar.
But at the time, Universal was anxious to repeat their successful pairing of Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in a romance between an older woman and an extremely handsome younger man. Wyman was still a big star but, by then, past her prime. Recently divorced from Ronald Reagan, and aware that her future lay with the soap-opera audience, she was pleased to be teamed with Hudson. At the time, he was the new Hollywood heartthrob who, although “out of the closet” in his personal life, had to be continually shut back in publicly and professionally by an anxious studio.
The All That Heaven Allows version of the May-September romance formula has Wyman playing Cary, a well-to-do widow with two college-age children and a dull social life at the country club. The emptiness at the heart of her life is filled when she meets Ron Kirby, the young gardener-turned-tree farmer who prunes the trees that line her all-American suburban home - and then comes back to court her. This simple love story is disrupted by the vicious snobbery of her children and high society acquaintances. Early in the film, Cary is at her dressing table preparing for an evening at the Stoningham elite. To one side stands a vase containing the branches Ron had cut for her earlier, so that Cary’s awakening interest in him carries over from the previous sequence. In a beautifully composed shot, the children first appear reflected in the mirror, coming between Cary and the vase, and, as the camera pulls away, she is taken back into the room and towards the children. This one shot tells the story of the dilemma that Cary will face for the rest of the film and is typical of Sirk’s emblematic, economical use of cinema. His stars’ performances mesh well with this style. He gives them the screen space appropriate for their status, but the sexual charge between Cary and Ron is articulated through looks and gestures, and the rollercoaster highs and lows of their love are displaced onto the things that surround them.
Objects play their own significant part in expressing the emotions blocked by convention in small-town, middle-class 1950s America. Sirk creates a cinema in which the screen itself speaks more articulately than its protagonists, tongue-tied by the conventions of their fictional setting, the powers of censorship in Hollywood at the time, and the norms of the family melodrama genre. Out of these constraints Sirk builds his film, also using a typically melodramatic score to punctuate points and to accompany the tones and textures of the actors’ voices.
Years after initial dismissal (and sometimes derision) by reviewers, Sirk’s successful string of big-budget soapers (and the director himself) acquired a rich and complex critical afterlife, as different aspects and facets of the films have been reclaimed by successive phases of film criticism. For auteurists and structuralists of the 1960s, Sirk’s mastery of cinematic language transcended the working conditions of the Hollywood studio system; feminists reclaimed him as a director of melodrama, with his women protagonists and dramas of interiority, domestic space and sexual desire; gay critics today see a camp subtext in his films with Rock Hudson, in which double entendre and ambiguous situations can be read as something other than what they seem.
The gap between the contemporary perception of All That Heaven Allows and that of the later critics is closed by Sirk himself, who explained the conditions of work at the studio. “At least I was allowed to work on the material, so that I restructured to some extent the rather impossible scripts of the films I had to direct. Of course, I had to play by the rules, avoid experiments, stick to family fare, have ‘happy endings’ and so on. Universal didn’t interfere with either my camera work or my cutting, which meant a lot to me.” Although All That Heaven Allows does, on the face of it, have a happy ending, its “happiness” is twisted with more than a touch of characteristically Sirkian irony.
Groundbreaking filmmaker and theorist Laura Mulvey is Professor of Film and Media Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her essays have been collected in Visual and Other Pleasures (Macmillan, 1989) and Fetishism and Curiosity (British Film Institute, 1996), which both include pieces on Douglas Sirk.