All That Heaven Allows (1955) dir. Douglas Sirk
Will a woman let society decide who she is and how she should live? Or will she instead let the man she loves make those decisions for her? Such is the sad "choice" facing Jane Wyman's character in Douglas Sirk's 1955 film All That Heaven Allows.
Ordinarily, most of us would give a film of this age a bit of a pass for not measuring up to feminist scholarship. We could even give Heaven a favorable comparison to most Hollywood melodramas released in 2013. But there's a long-running campaign to re-interpret Sirk as a progressive champion, when he was no such thing.
Jane Wyman plays New England widow Cary Scott, who falls in love with her Thoreau-reading gardener, Ron Kirby, played by Rock Hudson. Scott's children and friends all want her to settle down with a nice, older gentleman. She wants to run off with Rock Hudson.
And Sirk tells the story beautifully. His use of color is absolutely stunning -- and the things he can get away with without alienating the audience is unparalleled.
Take a look at this still from a scene where Scott tries to comfort her crying daughter. She is sobbing because of the way she was teased over her mother's love affair with the gardener. Sirk shows us the strange window that creates these colors -- and then bathes the characters in them, leaving Jane Wyman's face in white light to keep our focus there. The tumbling, emotive, heart-wrenching color fits the emotional pitch of the scene so well, we don't notice its artifice.
And this scene is even more daring. Scott has already said she doesn't want a television set, because it would mean she is giving up on life. And yet, this is the Christmas present her son gives her. She is drained of color as she stares into the screen and the salesman promises "drama, comedy, life's parade, at your fingertips."
The screen-within-a-screen and the character-as-audience is a classic Brechtian device. Sirk famously directed a production of one of Bertolt Brecht play while in Germany, something the Sirk-as-ironist crowd seizes upon to make their point. But Sirk is pure melodrama, in this scene and in all others. He plays it straight.
"You have to think with the heart," Sirk said in an interview where he dismissed some of the interpretations surrounding his work. He may have complained about the restrictions given to him by profit-motivated studio execs, but Sirk very much wanted to leave an audience crying, and he very much meant what he wrote.
That's why it was hard for me to see Imitation of Life or All That Heaven Allows as ironic or subversive. Certainly, there are no subversive themes in All That Heaven Allows. Unlike Todd Haynes's 2002 tribute, Far From Heaven, Sirk's film is notably apolitical.
Rock Hudson's character, Ron Kirby, offers Cary Scott quite a change from New England society, and he's clearly a good guy. But a feminist interpretation sees him as no less inflexible, judgmental or uncompromising than the town gossips. He lives his life by the maxims contained in Thoreau's Walden -- a favorite of 19-year-olds everywhere before Kerouac came around. Kirby does not associate with people who also do not admire Thoreau.
Kirby doesn't want to meet Scott's circle of friends, will not even consider moving into her home, has an arrogant attitude towards her culture and lifestyle, dismisses Scott's legitimate fears about losing her life-long friends, and shows little interest in her daily life. He has their life planned out for them, and breaks the engagement when she suggests they wait until the children have gotten a chance to know him better.
It become clear Kirby wants to free Scott from "society" so he can remake her as one of his people -- his friends, his house, his books, his expectations. It's fine for a woman to march differently, as long as it's to her husband's drum.
I'm not trying to assault All That Heaven Allows. I think it's a beautiful film with a terrific love story. But I don't think it's fair to interpret it, or Sirk, as unusually progressive for 1955.