Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in 'All That Heaven Allows'

'All That Heaven Allows'

Douglas Sirk’s 1956 film All That Heaven Allows is a haunting suburban story of morality in which the widowed Cary Scott, played by Jane Wyman, falls in love with a handsome younger man considered by those around her to be far below her social standing. Giving in to the scathing criticism of her gossipy neighbors and her materialistic children, Cary ends her relationship with gardener Ron Kirby, played by Rock Hudson. She then realizes, even when it seems too late, that her heart and emotions cannot be kept caged so easily by her snobby neighbors and social standing.

Characterized by Sirk’s distinctive, lavish visual style, the film stands out as an example of how materialism and pettiness can result in alienation from one’s natural feelings. By allowing herself to become more detached from the country club crowd with whom she usually associates, Cary discovers that she is happier without the complexities and politics of her suburban housewife lifestyle. Her realization comes at the end of a film that has seen her character waver between this very same materialism, and Ron’s more simplified, independent ideals.One critical moment occurs near the end of the movie, on Christmas day, when Cary’s children give her a television set as a gift. Throughout the film, her friends and family offer the idea of a television as company for the lonesome widow, although she repeatedly refuses, saying that she does not need one and that it will not offer her any real consolation or companionship. She dislikes the idea of a TV being “for lonely women.” Nevertheless, her son Ned and daughter Kay buy the television as a surprise.

The scene takes place after Cary has ended her relationship with Ron, a decision that she now regrets deeply. As she is lost in her own thoughts and comforted by her daughter – who now realizes the selfishness that she and her brother exhibited in forbidding their mother’s remarriage to a “lowly gardener” – a brand new television is carried into the room by Ned and the TV salesman. The man declares that “All you have to do is turn that dial and you’ll have all the company you want, right there on the screen,” as if the new television will solve all of Cary’s problems, as her friends have repeatedly been telling her.

When Cary sees the TV, the camera dips smoothly from a view of the entire room, decorated with Christmas tree and all, and begins to move closer to the golden screen, until the television eventually fills the entire frame (except for the presence of a red Christmas bow in the upper left corner). Ned and the salesman sit proudly on either side of the set, triumphant in their offering, but they are soon eclipsed by the TV itself. As we move in, we begin to see Cary’s distorted reflection in the amber glass. The image rises from her legs and lower body on the couch to at last stop on her face, which is filled with an expression of sadness and loss. It is at this moment that the audience knows she must return to Ron, no matter how difficult it may be.

'All That Heaven Allows'

As the camera stops its motion and the scene fades to black, we are forced to reflect on Kay’s words of just a minute before: “Remember the afternoon Freddy and I had a big fight? That’s when we found out we loved each other.” Cary, and the audience as well, must think about the meaning of this statement as it relates to her own relationship with Ron. But we are interrupted by the intrusion of the men with the television.

Therefore this thought process is halted until the end of the shot, when there is silence once again and all we are aware of is Cary’s solemn expression and the somber music of the score. The scene is strongly affecting because of this tense sequence, both in the mind and on screen.

The juxtaposition of Cary’s sad countenance with the gaiety of all the bright and glittering Christmas decorations strewn about the room is striking. Jane Wyman’s performance is even more affecting because of this attention to detail and the expert job that Sirk does at playing with audience expectations. The film’s vivid colors and majestic scenery indicate a lighthearted mood, even though Cary and Ron grow ever more downcast as the story progresses.

In addition, the placement of Ned and the TV man on either side of the television, while Cary is seen only as a reflection within, suggests her removal from their world as a whole. She does not fit in with them anymore; it seems as if she no longer cares to, either. She is observing her own detachment from the socialite crowd that she was once so content to be a part of. Her self-centered son and the pushy television salesman combine to illustrate some of the worst traits of that group, while Cary’s repentant daughter, ho remains partially visible in the screen, spurs her towards a reunion with Ron.

Framing is a subtle part of the shot, as well. While most obvious in the close-up view of the television screen, the rest of the shot also makes careful use of this technique. Ned and the TV man, positioned around the television set, are in turn framed by a chair on either side. Beyond the chairs, we see the family’s well-lit Christmas tree on the left of the frame, and the elegant fireplace on the right. As the camera continues to creep closer to the center of the frame, the viewer’s eye telescopes inward, until all that is left is the reflective glass.

This shot is so affecting within All That Heaven Allows partly because it is also anomalous in this film. Sirk does employ the use of mirrors and reflective surfaces for other such interesting shots, but none involve the use of a moving camera within that same shot. This serves to draw the viewer’s attention even more acutely to the blank television screen, which we soon observe to hold Cary’s face at its most expressive. It is a smooth, gradual revelation, investing the final image with even greater importance.

To close the scene before it fades to the next, the television salesman tells Cary about all the entertainment she will get from her new TV when she is able to enjoy “drama, comedy – life’s parade at your fingertips.” The fact that he is the only speaker for the duration of the shot adds to the viewer’s fascination with Cary. While he speaks as if still trying to sell her the TV, she is silent and forlorn in her loneliness, relying on facial expressions to tell her story. At this point, we can see her entire body captured within the screen, and it seems as if the surrounding sounds and images fade out of focus, although upon further examination it is clear that they do not. Voices seem quieter and colors dim when we gaze into the gentle light of the yellow screen, so that we have given our complete attention to Jane Wyman’s riveting performance.

This is not because of some technical trickery by the filmmaker. Rather, the scene is shot in such a way to earn this response from the viewer all on its own. We know Cary’s character well enough to know what she is thinking and what her next action will be, all without any verbal hints, and are enraptured by her inner turmoil displaying itself onscreen.

Perhaps in an abstract way, one can relate Cary’s view of herself in the empty screen to the images typically associated with television programming of the time period. Families were depicted as happy nuclear units, with no concerns other than the children’s schoolwork and the wife’s household duties. Cary knows that she cannot relate to these characters any more. Her small, nuclear family has been devastated by death and materialism, and her own community shuns her as an outcast simply for choosing to love again. Therefore, she may hold the entertainment provided by her new TV in low regard, as it is only a hollow reminder of her former life. Although not directly inferred from the film, this point of view serves to deepen Cary’s previously unexplained distaste for a television of her own.

All of the emotional torment of the film culminates in this climactic scene, in which the widow Cary Scott must face herself and her true feelings. All thoughts of practicality and social status are finally acknowledged to be worthless to her when it comes to love, and the audience sees her as a new woman once more. She is still wrapped in turmoil within her mind, still finding it difficult to find the right words, the right way to go back to Ron Kirby. All that matters is the feeling that she must do so, and the newly acquired blessing from her children. The shot I have described was deeply affecting for the reasons I have discussed above.

Douglas Sirk’s signature style has been imitated by directors since, most notably in Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, an homage to Sirk films such as All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life. These films are characterized by beautiful cinematography, full of lavish design and extraordinary colors. The director exhibits mastery of his craft in such ways as this and his conception of the remarkable shot that I have described at length.

This essay was written Dec. 2003 for the NYU Honors Seminar “Cinema and Affect: Why the Movies Move Us.”