If All that Heaven Allows were a dessert, it wouldn’t be a strawberry lightly dipped in sugar; it would be a molten chocolate lava cake. It doesn’t just dip a toe into the shallow end of melodrama, it baths in it, unashamedly. For example, check out this piece of advice Carey, played by Jane Wyman, an older woman being wooed by a younger man, receives from her doctor who has just diagnosed her headaches as the result of a broken heart. Be sure to use your best romance novel voice:
Cary, let’s face it: you were ready for a love affair, but not for love.
If, as you’re doing so, you play Franz Liszt’s Consolation No.3 in D-flat major, you’ll have a pretty good feel for the film overall. The interesting thing about it, however, is that’s it’s not nearly so insufferable as all that sounds. Critics have pointed to two reasons for this: (1) the directorial artistry of Douglas Sirk, the director, and (2) the understated performance of Jane Wyman. Sirk’s work, they conclude, serves as “an oblique criticism of American society hidden beneath a banal facade of plotting conventional for the era.” In other words, wink, wink, nod, nod–you have to be in on the joke. Well, I wasn’t in on the joke, and I don’t really get that, but I do get Jane Wyman. Pitting her nuanced performance as Cary Scott against a selection of caricatures (Ron Kirby, Kay Scott) and grotesques (Harvey, Mona) effectively grounds the film and keeps it from floating away entirely.
What I liked about it:
The film uses objects as symbols very effectively. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen it, but if what happens to the vase doesn’t elicit an audible response from you, then you probably shouldn’t be watching this type of movie in the first place. Same thing for when they wheel the TV in.
The cinematography is gorgeous. The scenes in Ron’s place against the fireplace and the backdrop of the giant window are about as romantic as it gets. It’s the sets, yes, but it’s mostly about the way they’re shot.
What I found interesting:
The fact that it’s a May/December romance with a female as the denominator. We hear all the time nowadays about women actors being told they are too old to play the love interest of men twenty years their senior, and yet here’s Jane Wyman playing across from Rock Hudson despite being eight years older–in the mid fifties. Granted, the plot directly calls for it, but this was the duo’s second pairing. What happened?
It’s hard to watch the film now, knowing that Rock Hudson was gay, and not conclude they were deliberately trolling the audience. “Are you not susceptible?” Cary asks Ron, talking with him about how one day he’s going to meet a nice girl. And then later, “And you want me to be a man,” she asks, as he describes a male friend who’s learned to live authentically and is making decisions without regard for what others think. I doubt audiences thought much of it at the time, but it’s too direct not to seem intentional.
A must watch for fans of melodrama, Sirk, Hudson, and especially Wyman. Beautifully shot and more sophisticated than its surface appearance.