Those who admire Douglas Sirk’s skill in the art of hysteria worship Written on the Wind, a proto-Dallas epic in which Rock Hudson refuses to lay hellcat Dorothy Malone and punches out anyone else who tries to, so the poor girl is left with no choice but to rhumba alone in her room and fondle her father’s model oil derricks. Those who support Sirk’s uncanny ability to smuggle complex socio-political content into the most traditional of genres endorse Imitation of Life, one of the most incisive looks at America’s untenable racist passive-aggression on the cusp of the civil rights breakthroughs of the ’60s, positioned like a pill within the grape jelly of a Lana Turner rags-to-riches saga. But the frothy May-September (well, closer to June-July) romance All That Heaven Allows is the fountain from which directors as disparate as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Todd Haynes, and John Waters have all drunk, marking it as the most influential of the 20-plus films Sirk directed during the 1950s. And why shouldn’t it be? For as much material as Sirk’s films gave postmodernists and camp-spotters to work with, the economy of cinematic technique and the density of emotion All That Heaven Allows donates to its supposedly flimsy scenario are as abundant as any Brechtian distancing device. Yes, its frames within frames and deliberate camera moves can be picked apart in a sophomore-level film class with the rest of them, but the film is no “either/or” text meant to read in one specific way to one demographic, and an entirely different way to the other side of the generation-gender-irony gap. It’s both rapturous and clinical, warm and cold.
It’s autumn in an insular, affluent New England town, never named but probably adjacent to Eisenhowerville. Lonely widow Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) is having her ocher branches clipped by Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), a barrel-chested baritone whom she decides to accompany to the countryside where he’s nursing a fledgling forest of underage silver-tipped spruces and living life the way he wants, which is to say according to the recommendations of Henry David Thoreau. She’s faced with a future entertaining suitors who drop her off at the doorstep all but promising sexless consolation nuptials, which Cary’s egghead psychology-major daughter Kay endorses: “As Freud says, when a man reaches a certain age, sex becomes incongruous.” Consequently, Cary hops aboard the boho-a-go-go and seems ready to eat life and venison with fervor until her children and social circles catch wind of her affair with the younger, poorer stud. It quickly dawns on Cary that the friends and family who say they only want her to be happy neglected to mention on whose terms. “Situations like this bring out the hateful side of human nature,” reasons Cary’s best friend, Sara (Agnes Moorhead), in the same breath she uses to spit out the dozens of hypothetical things “people will say.”
Admittedly, maybe “disparate” isn’t the most appropriate word to apply to that aforementioned group of directors who later paid tribute to All That Heaven Allows. There’s at least one common denominator among them, and though their cultural backgrounds don’t really allow for an apples-to-apples comparison, one thing virtually every gay person has grappled with for at least a minute is the idea of duality, a subverted personal truth. All That Heaven Allows is the essence of that in movie form; the movie functions as a proto-queer text. (Sometimes all too knowingly: “You want me to be like a man,” Wyman asks Hudson at one point, to which he replies with a boyish smirk, “Only in that one way.”) Juicy producer Ross Hunter, quoted right there on his own Wikipedia page as saying, “I don’t want to hold a mirror up to life as it is,” may or may have not been aware of the flexible potential the weepie material had when he thrust it on Sirk, who, in the ’70s when his movies started being rediscovered as masterful piss takes on Hollywood clichés, said he meant it that way all along.
There’s a pronounced tension surrounding every directorial decision Sirk makes throughout All That Heaven Allows, asserting his skepticism even as he seems to yield to Hunter’s far more simplistic worldview. It’s the sort of tension that comes from compromise, not from dissention. Late in the film, Kay tries to defuse an emotionally charged confrontation by reminding everyone involved that “theory and action should be one.” Most of Sirk’s more cognitively dissonant films explored how they usually aren’t. But All That Heaven Allows’s simple tale of impossible love finding a way synthesizes passion and doubt, mirroring the torment a lovelorn woman feels weighing her happiness against the mores of her straight-laced small-town community in tandem with the movie’s own impetuous blend of naiveté and cynicism. Every gay man knows that his own attraction to men is as much an expression of the natural order as Sirk’s deer feeding in the forest outside Ron’s idyllic grain mill. But who’s going to tell that to all those hunters with rifles off in the brush?
Of the three Douglas Sirk films Criterion had already issued on DVD, All That Heaven Allows was probably the one that most needed a buff and shine. Written in the Wind was downright three-dimensional compared to the first release of All That Heaven Allows, and Magnificent Obsession at least had the benefit of being a newer release with more sophisticated transfer standards. Though it would be nice to report that All That Heaven Allows looks like new again in this 2K restoration, it’s still far short of perfect. Some of the blame can surely fall on the shoulders of the limitations of the era; each dissolve between scenes is a clunker, and some of the Technicolor edges bleed through what appears to be misalignment. Other flaws may be the result of poor storage of the master materials, such as a few conspicuous shots in the doctor’s office toward the end of the movie that look like they’ve sustained significant water damage along the left and right edges. That all said, the primary colors are never less than vibrant, especially the encroaching midnight blue that permeates many scenes as an extension of Cary’s fear. And the shadows are bold and noir-like. The sound is uncompressed, but technically so are those 78s stored in your great-grandfather’s attic. That doesn’t make them reference quality. But does it matter when you’ll still be moved to tears by Frank Skinner’s very-Brief Encounter piano leitmotifs?
If Criterion’s Magnificent Obsession set was a hearty appetizer for those craving Sirk supplements, this reissue is the full lobster dinner complete with 16 bottles of chianti. In addition to the booklet of supplementary essays that were the last edition’s sole bonus feature, the remaster holds back nothing. There are hours’ worth of interview clips from the years when Sirk’s critical standing was first cresting, along with a relatively recent conversation with William Reynolds, who played Cary’s ghoulish baby Joseph McCarthy son in All That Heaven Allows. But the twin peaks of the package begin with a thoughtful and far from cynical commentary track by John Mercer and Tamar Jeffers-McDonald, who pay tribute to the film’s artistry, its role in a number of different schools of critical thought, and the strength of its two underrated lead performances. Credit Jeffers-McDonald for pointing out the movie’s biggest (and possibly deliberate) hypocrisy: that ultimately Cary is the one who has to bend to Ron’s will, and not the other way around. The other major supplement is Mark Rappaport’s brazen tabloid/essay film Rock Hudson’s Home Movies. Produced in 1992 amid the height of the AIDS crisis and just a few years after Hudson’s own death, the film catalogues the "hidden in plain sight" subtext of Hudson’s screen persona. Not every clip is as revelatory as Rappaport purports, but maybe the whole point is that when innuendo bears the entire burden of expression, every gesture becomes politically loaded.
Sirk’s definitive statement on human nature now gets a definitive, sparkling Blu-ray release.