Douglas Sirk, who came to America with his Jewish wife as a refuge during WWII, was one director in the 1950s that understood the frustrations of housewives, no matter how trivial they seemed to patriarchal society, were worth telling. All That Heaven Allows gave voice to many women caught in such a crippling and emotionally deadening world and, in a largely unprecedented landslide; they drove the film to box-office success.
Ironically, it is the film’s own legacy that has proven its deficiency. All That Heaven Allows proved can still be credited for inspiring Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Far From Heaven, but the superior results of the films it inspired are indication of their ancestor’s shortcoming.
Far From Heaven was caustically bitter toward the superficial idealism of the small American town that provides the setting for this film and had no intention to compromise with it. All That Heaven Allows, instead, believes that an unconventional romance between Cary (Jane Wyman), a widower and mother, and her much younger landscaper Ron (Rock Hudson) can be reconciled with and not run against the grain of town’s moral police despite initial stares and conflicts. This naïve hope for a truce stems from Sirk’s obvious admiration for the Norman Rockwell vistas where Cary lives while Far From Heaven took these surroundings and turned them belly-up. One movie had faith in the buried tolerance of this setting, the other was honest about what it is, fake and conformist.
To be fair, as much as Sirk enjoyed the pretty autumnal scenery and picturesque suburbia, he did recognize its superficiality as is evident by his depiction of the social circle trapping Cary Scott. From the beginning, however, it is hard to escape the feeling that All That Heaven Allows is seeped in the 1950s psychology craze and, like many of its kind, it is dated and of hardly any interest today. The films it inspired are valuable precisely because they take apart the plasticity that this film, for all its boldness, believes in.
Maybe he needed to be told by time, but while Sirk tries to reconcile an unconventional love affair with the narrow-minds in the background, later films tackling the same subject knew better than to believe that the two could ever see eye to eye. Its failure to realize that the romance and the conformist citizens could never coexist renders All That Heaven Allows blind at best and phony at worst.
There are more problems within the film’s blindness. Cary and Ron’s first confession of attraction in his Thoreau-like home in the woods is awkwardly staged and lacks credibility. Given the infallible saint the film would later turn him into, Ron comes across as an immature kid making it hard to understand why a resilient widower like Cary would fall for him.
In the world that the film supposedly laments, the characterizations are worse. All of Cary’s gossiping girlfriends are broad stereotypes and Ron’s beatnik friends are a bore. This could be forgiven if Cary and Scott were themselves more interesting. But there isn’t a single character, or situation for that matter, worth observing.
Ron Kirby is the kind of character that Robert Redford would build his early career playing, slightly mysterious charmers that come at just the right time in a woman’s life, equating nature with liberation, and enjoying the simple pleasures of life. But Kirby is much too perfect and fail-proof for there to be any point in getting to know him.
Everything about All That Heaven Allows screams fake, especially the emotions. How could this collection of postcard shots have ever been taken as groundbreaking? There isn’t a real scene, believable character, or event shocking enough to shatter anything bigger than a teacup. Everything expected to happen happens in this unimaginative screenplay. If women responded to it in the 50s, it was by default as it was one of the very few films of its time to reach out to them. But thanks to the women’s movement, the following decade brought a real change in the male-centric Hollywood and films to be proud of and not just ones that dealt exclusively with women’s issues.
As problematic as it was, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was written and played creatively and without gloss (ok, the theme song was corny). Sirk did show signs of good craft in All That Heaven Allows and makes good use of colors. When Cary’s disapproving son has a talk with her, the lighting is an icy blue before his angered face is seen in the shadows. But this is gimmicky stuff and icing alone cannot stand without the cake.
Ultimately, All That Heaven Allows fails because, their age difference notwithstanding, the romance of Cary and Ron is unoriginal. Indeed, why shouldn’t they get married? She loves him and he is a kind and handsome man. What is so wrong or even unusual about them being in love? Compared to the cultural clashes endured by the lovers in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Far From Heaven, and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, how can we possibly be shocked when a lonely woman falls in love with a gentle hunk played by Rock Hudson?