This heartbreakingly beautiful indictment of 1950s American mores by Douglas Sirk follows the blossoming love between a well-off suburban widow (Jane Wyman) and her handsome and earthy younger gardener (Rock Hudson). After their romance prompts the scorn of her selfish children and snooty country club friends, she must decide whether to pursue her own happiness or carry on a lonely, hemmed-in existence for the sake of the approval of others. With the help of ace cinematographer Russell Metty, Sirk imbued nearly every shot with a vivid and distinct emotional tenor. A profoundly felt film about class and conformity in small-town America, 'All That Heaven Allows' is a pinnacle of expressionistic Hollywood melodrama.
Before the terms boy-toy and cougar became part of our common lexicon, a romance between an older woman and younger man was generally reviled by a judgmental society that valued rigid rules and high-minded mores more than personal happiness. Today, 'All That Heaven Allows' would undoubtedly end up as a Lifetime made-for-TV movie, as it examines the topic with enough saccharine to send the healthiest person into insulin shock. But at the time of its initial release in 1955, Douglas Sirk's now-classic film was considered a bit scandalous. An affair between a middle-aged, rich widow with grown children and a strapping, hunky gardener only a few years older than her oldest son was not typical fodder for the traditional "women's picture," which often focused on the travails and tragedies that afflicted career women, housewives, and ingenues. If depicted on screen at all, such liaisons were treated comedically and usually involved eccentric, self-indulgent dowagers craving a randy fling, such as Mary Boland's flighty character in 'The Women.' On the contrary, 'All That Heaven Allows' looks at the subject with the utmost seriousness, wringing a torrent of tears as it combines scenes of dewy-eyed love with melodramatic confrontations and deep soul-searching. It also condemns insidious gossip, reproaches close-minded individuals, and champions those who thumb their nose at convention and follow their hearts.
"To thine ownself be true" is one of the movie's most resonating themes, but it takes a while for Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) to learn to live by the mantra. Financially independent yet achingly lonely, Cary feels trapped and smothered by the constrictive attitudes, unyielding arrogance, and repugnant actions of the suburban country-club set to which she feels enslaved, and which includes all her so-called "friends." Only Sara Warren (Agnes Moorehead) seems to truly care for and understand her, especially when Cary succumbs to the charms (and bulging biceps) of Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), who trims the trees in her yard and awakens dormant feelings of longing that have been suppressed since her husband's death. Theirs is the type of spiritual love that transcends physicality, and as Ron introduces Cary to a simpler, back-to-nature existence populated by people more concerned with cultivating relationships than their bank account balance, their idealistic bond grows. But idealism is no match for the disapproval, disdain, and disgust of others, including Cary's own children (William Reynolds and Gloria Talbott), who selfishly want to preserve their status quo at the expense of their mother's happiness and well-being. Will true love break down social barriers, rise above prejudice, and conquer all? Or will Cary succumb to peer and familial pressure and deny herself fulfillment?
'All That Heaven Allows,' much like its semi-remake, 2002's 'Far from Heaven' (which added the element of race to the May-September romance), tackles meaningful issues with tenderness and a refreshing directness that belies its 1950s roots. Its tame depiction of a bohemian lifestyle somewhat presages the more liberal attitudes of the 1960s and the sexual revolution, and Cary represents the modern woman well, acting with abandon as she pursues what many would classify as a forbidden love. Yet unfortunately, soap opera conventions conspire against the picture at every turn, trivializing its messages and leaving us with a treacly aftertaste that's tough to shake. Like many Ross Hunter productions, the film spares no expense, and possesses a glossy look, thanks to Russell Metty's so-luscious-you-can-eat-it-with-a-spoon cinematography, but the sumptuous visuals also work against the story, lending it an air of fantasy akin to a romance novel.
And yet honest emotions still manage to rise above the movie's melodramatic trimmings. Wyman and Hudson, who, along with Moorehead, also appeared in the previous year's slick remake of the tearjerking 'Magnificent Obsession' - also directed by Sirk - make a handsome pair, and act with an understated elegance that lends necessary gravity to the proceedings. Though we are led to believe Cary is considerably older than Ron, Wyman was a mere eight years Hudson's senior, and her youthful appearance makes the affair more palatable. (In contrast, Wyman was almost 18 years younger than Moorehead, who plays her best friend and supposed contemporary. The two look more like mother and daughter than bosom pals.) True to form, Hollywood wasn't afraid of tackling a touchy issue, but fear of public rejection forced the industry to shy away from depicting it realistically. The following year's 'Autumn Leaves,' while not as critically lauded, does a better job in that regard, casting 50-year-old Joan Crawford opposite 33-year-old Cliff Robertson.
Sirk's work also didn't achieve the degree of recognition it deserved until years later. His meticulous craftsmanship transforms pedestrian melodrama into an art form, and his best films, of which 'All That Heaven Allows' is certainly one, elevate mundane material by not-so-subtly peppering it with relatable themes. Here, the director stingingly indicts not just snobbery, innuendo, and hypocritical middle-class morality, but also television, and how it isolates its viewers and severely reduces the need and desire for more traditional forms of human communication. Sirk himself once said, "There is a very short distance between high art and trash," and 'All That Heaven Allows' embraces both ends of the spectrum, which probably explains its longevity, appeal, and acclaim.
And yet I can think of several "women's pictures" that eclipse it in style, tone, and narrative. While I appreciate the nuances that pervade the film and its moments of uncompromising honesty, the often syrupy presentation alienates me and removes 'All That Heaven Allows' from the realm of reality. Much like Cary's character, I remain conflicted about this movie, loving it one minute and hating it the next. One fact, though, remains indisputable: It sure is pretty to look at, and there's a lot to be said for a dynamite aesthetic. In this case, style trumps substance, but unlike many genre films, there's a lot more here than meets the eye.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'All That Heaven Allows' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 50GB dual-layer Blu-ray disc and two standard-def DVDs (one containing the feature film and the other containing the supplements) reside inside, along with a lavishly illustrated 24-page booklet, which includes chapter, cast, and crew listings, transfer notes, and two essays - one by filmmaker and theorist Laura Mulvey and the other by German director Werner Fassbinder, written in 1971. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is uncompressed mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Produced at the dawn of the widescreen revolution, 'All That Heaven Allows' was exhibited at various aspect ratios during its original release to accommodate theaters not yet equipped for larger format projection. The Criterion liner notes state the film was shown in ratios ranging from 1.37:1 to 2.00:1 in 1955, but the most common image size was 1.75:1, and that's the dimension that appears on this Blu-ray disc. Mastered in 2K resolution from the original 35 mm camera negative, the all-new digital transfer looks splendid, beautifully showcasing Russell Metty's exquisitely rich cinematography. Lush and glossy, yet imbued with a lovely grain structure that maintains the feel of celluloid, the picture is distinguished by superior clarity and contrast, as well as a vibrant color palette that bursts with intense saturation. Brilliant blues - from the deep-colored sky and pale shade of Sara's station wagon to the warm cast of diffused darkness that floods several interior rooms - dominate the screen, but the rust-colored autumn foliage and numerous red accents, most noticeable in lipstick and Cary's evening dress, possess plenty of pop. Black levels are lusciously inky, the bright whites of various snowscapes never bloom, and though fleshtones err slightly toward the orange side, they still lie in the natural range. Costume patterns are sharp and solid, shadow delineation is quite good, yet background elements occasionally appear a tad soft, especially in exterior sequences. Close-ups, however, are incredibly well defined, allowing us to fully absorb Hudson's chiseled facial features and Wyman's silky smooth look.
As usual, Criterion steers clear of any noticeable digital tinkering, like noise reduction or edge enhancement. Yes, a bit of noise can be seen in large solid expanses, such as the sky, but it blends into the grain structure and doesn't distract. 'All That Heaven Allows' has always been regarded as a feast for the eyes, and thankfully, this impeccable Blu-ray rendering does the film proud. Color fanatics will be very pleased indeed.
According to the liner notes, the uncompressed LPCM mono track was "mastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm optical-track print." The sound, for the most part, is nicely reproduced, with plenty of presence and depth. The string-laden music score by Frank Skinner comes across especially well, with superior fidelity lending the ultra-romantic themes a wonderful full-bodied feel. A wide dynamic scale manages all the highs and lows, although hints of distortion occasionally creep in at odd moments. Though most of the dialogue is recited in measured, subdued tones, every conversation is clear and easily comprehendible, and atmospherics are mixed in well, too, delicately augmenting various scenes, but never competing with primary elements. No hiss or crackles could be heard, but a few errant pops crop up from time to time. Unfortunately, this track isn't perfect, but for an almost 60-year-old film, the audio sounds surprisingly spry, and only the most discriminating audiophiles will rue its minor faults.
As per usual, Criterion augments the film with a fascinating array of supplemental material. All the extras are also included on the standard-def DVD.
Audio Commentary - Film scholars John Mercer and Tamar Jeffers-McDonald sit down for an engaging and highly intelligent commentary that provides in-depth analysis of the movie and its themes. The duo doesn't impart much in the way of biographical or production information, but they raise a variety of interesting points, such as the link between color, costume, and character, Sirk's penchant for frames and reflective surfaces to depict emotional tone, and how the film presents an idealized version of small-town life. A discussion of melodrama dominates a big chunk of this track, but the pair also evaluates Hudson's talent, examines the rediscovery of Sirk in the late 1960s, and criticizes the movie's ending. Those who enjoy serious dialogues about classic films will find much to like about this commentary, which greatly enhances the viewing experience.
Documentary: "Rock Hudson's Home Movies" (SD, 64 minutes) - Filmmaker Mark Rappaport looks at Hudson's homosexuality, screen persona, personal demons, and tragic death from AIDS through the film roles that defined him as a hunky leading man during his prime and beyond. Though this 1992 examination is certainly provocative, thoughtful, and humorous, I often found it somewhat juvenile in tone and questionable in taste. Taking lines out of context from Hudson's movies as a way of proving the actor dropped obvious clues about his sexual preference throughout his career is a cheap shot, and diminishes the actor's reputation, making him a laughing stock. Sure, many quips and situations in Hudson's films can be interpreted as subliminal nods to his lifestyle, but basing an entire documentary on this premise and even hinting the allusions are intentional is a bit offensive. Hudson deserves better, and though plenty of viewers will be amused and intrigued by this discussion, I would have preferred a more serious analysis of the actor's duplicitous life.
Documentary: "Behind the Mirror: A Profile of Douglas Sirk" (SD, 57 minutes) - This absorbing 1979 BBC profile allows Sirk the opportunity to discuss his German roots, disdain for the Nazis, immigration to America, and how he forged a career in Hollywood. Sirk analyzes many of his films, expresses his lukewarm feelings for the CinemaScope process, and talks about how he tried to give "cheap stuff" meaning in 'All That Heaven Allows.' Film clips abound, with extensive material culled from 'Shockproof,' 'Magnificent Obsession,' 'All That Heaven Allows,' 'Captain Lightfoot,' 'Written on the Wind,' 'The Tarnished Angels,' 'A Time to Love and a Time to Die,' and 'Imitation of Life.' It's always a treat to hear a director remark on his work, and Sirk's extensive comments shed plenty of light on his point of view and artistry.
Featurette: "Contract Kid: William Reynolds on Douglas Sirk" (SD, 23 minutes) - In this 2007 piece produced for French television, actor William Reynolds, who plays Jane Wyman's son in 'All That Heaven Allows,' recalls his experiences as a young actor in Hollywood during the early 1950s and the three pictures he made with Douglas Sirk. Reynolds compares the taciturn yet approachable Sirk to other directors with whom he worked, such as William Wyler and Henry Hathaway, discusses the "thankless" characters he portrayed, shares fond memories of Wyman, praises the development of actor Rock Hudson, and talks about the meticulous production process that defined Golden Age movies. Though not especially enlightening, this featurette presents Reynolds' perspective in a forthright manner, and his recollections will be of interest to fans of classic film.
Douglas Sirk Interview (SD, 16 minutes) - This insightful interview with the esteemed filmmaker was broadcast in 1982 on the French television program 'Cinéma Cinémas,' and follows Sirk as he travels from his home in Lugano, Switzerland to Geneva to attend a festival of his movies. The 85-year-old Sirk talks about employing windows and mirrors in his films, his regard for cinematographer Russell Metty, the basic "rules" of moviemaking, the importance of proper lighting and meticulous editing, the effect of music on dramatic action, and his affection for melodrama and romanticism. Though Sirk's comments aren't particularly groundbreaking, they're delivered with commitment and authority, making this straightforward piece well worth one's time.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - Beautifully restored, this trailer accurately reflects the movie's lushness and ultra-romantic tone.
'All That Heaven Allows' typifies the type of ultra-romantic women's pictures that flooded the market in the 1950s, and honors the meticulous artistry of director Douglas Sirk, who gave melodrama a good name. Though the story of an older woman's affair with a younger man was fairly daring for its time, the tale has lost much of its sting, but its blunt commentary on conservative mores, gossip, judgmental attitudes, and following one's heart still ring true today. Jane Wyman and even Rock Hudson give sensitive, understated portrayals, and despite its syrupy tone and wispy plot, the film holds up well. Criterion's beautifully restored video transfer spotlights the movie's exceptional color palette, making it a joy to watch, and the hefty supplemental package rightfully honors Sirk's talent. 'All That Heaven Allows' may not be one of the finest films of the 1950s, but it's become an iconic representation of a particular style, and that's why it earns a hearty recommendation, especially for classic film aficionados.