To turn on All That Heaven Allows is to be welcomed into a decidedly feminine space. It’s a film in a genre that’s heavily marketed toward women that takes place in the domestic sphere (which is largely occupied by women) and it’s about a woman coming to terms with her female desires and needs. The movie isn’t so much for women, as it’s an invitation to identify with and understand women.
In All That Heaven Allows, Cary (Jane Wyman) is our gateway. She’s a widower and a mother, but the overarching concern of the film is Cary’s personal wants, needs, and desires, not just as a woman, but as a human being.
Her circumstances are full of the trappings of traditional 1950s ideals: the perfect suburban home, the elite clubs, the perfect children. When we meet Cary on screen, it’s after a long, gorgeous pan of her hometown and a stunning establishing shot of her house as she lays out a perfectly prepared lunch that’s canceled only moments later. All of which is to say that amid the perfection of her world, what Cary knows isn’t happiness, it’s loneliness.
Enter Ron (Rock Hudson) the gardener, who just so happens to be the epitome of 1950s heartthrob. Cary reaches out to him and though their conversation is initially riddled with awkwardness, we see both of their faces alight as Ron discusses his true passion: growing trees. Cary seems riveted by a life so unconcerned with the world she lives in that its entire goal is to leave it behind for the solitude and beauty of the outdoors.
It’s not hard to see why Cary would find this appealing. As Ron talks about being surrounded by nature and as he exhibits no interest whatsoever in the materialistic view of the American Dream that dominates her life, it’s as if she can suddenly (finally) imagine such a life for herself.
Symbolically, this revelation seems to occur as Ron cuts a branch off a tree, explaining its beauty and significance, and gives it to Cary. After she contemplates the exchange, the scene cuts to the branch lovingly displayed in Cary’s bedroom—her most intimate space.
It’s as if the seed, the dream of a life free of societal expectations, has been planted. Even more important, though, is Cary’s decision to welcome it; it’s not being foisted upon her.
Which brings me to my next point: how much agency not just Cary, but all women seem to have throughout the movie. I found it notable that the passion throughout the film was devoid of the kind of violence so often seen in romances. By which I mean that the heavy, passionate kisses on screen always seem to take place on the woman’s terms.
Men aren’t forcefully grabbing their women by the shoulders and forcing a kiss while the women are angry or in the middle of speaking, as if their manly desires take precedent over the women’s comfort, emotions, or thoughts. Instead, it feels like female desire actually matters. The camera pauses on their eager eyes before a kiss—the camera reassures us that this is wanted on both sides.
There’s a scene where psych student Kay (Cary’s daughter) is at the end of a date with her beau George and she’s launched into a discussion of sexuality and attraction. George, eager for a more amorous moment, attempts to segue into a kiss. What I love, though, is that when Kay misunderstands him, and begins further explaining her psych terminology, we don’t see him grab her and go in for the kiss anyway. Instead, he listens patiently until she’s finished before doling out the compliment, “How can anyone so little be so smart, and yet so pretty?”
Admittedly, it’s not an ideal compliment (why shouldn’t she be smart?), but the camera focuses on Kay’s wide eyes as she leans into the kiss that follows. By showing the glint in her eyes, the camera is cueing us in to her consent. George’s patience and attention are rewarded with Kay’s desire.
Cary and Ron’s kisses follow the same pattern—beefcake though he is, Ron’s courtship isn’t about forcing Cary to do anything. To really drive home the point, the only male we see take a more stereotypically aggressive stance is the deplorable Howard. Howard, one of the country-club elite, tries to force himself on Cary early on in the film and she sternly rebukes him. Standing in stark contrast with Ron, it highlights just how important that consent is. Howard is villainous and unlikeable because he can’t be bothered to treat women like people.
When the film reaches its climax, our lovers have been separated by circumstance. Cary’s children, friends, and peers refuse to accept Ron, and Ron—so disinterested in acceptance—refuses to wait for Cary. Unwilling to choose love over her children, she sacrifices him only to be rewarded with a heartbreaking loneliness even worse than before.
When Christmas rolls around, Kay is happily engaged and ready to start a life with George, citing the fight they had over Cary’s affair with Ron as what actually drew them closer. Meanwhile Cary’s son Ned is ready to sell the family home that he insisted Ron’s presence in would desecrate. While both kids are equally culpable in dooming Cary’s romance, only one of them is offered redemption.
In chatting with her mother, Kay comes to the horrible realization that she’s behaved abominably and may very well have cost her mother her only chance at happiness. Ned, on the other hand, is afforded no such moment of revelation. Instead, he carries on completely wrapped up in his own life, oblivious to its effect on his mother. While Kay learns from her mistake and grows, Ned serves as further condemnation of the success-driven, self-obsessed American man.
Realizing that she gave up Ron for nothing, Cary now fears it’s too late. Suffering from constant headaches, she visits her doctor in what feels like a somewhat unfortunate scene in an otherwise female-positive movie. The doctor lectures Cary, telling her nothing is wrong with her, she’s simply heartbroken from her horrible mistake of letting Ron go. He puts all of the blame for the dissolution of their relationship on Cary, refusing to admit Ron is in any way culpable for the split.
Thankfully, this is not the driving force in Cary’s decision to return to Ron. Instead, fate plays a role. After an accident lays Ron up, Cary rushes to his side. She even tells him she’s “home now” when he awakes, severing her ties with the high-society expectations of her peers for good. Ron, meanwhile, finally confronts a world where he has no choice but to rely on someone else. Their equal partnership is so blessed that as the final shot in the film, a deer appears at the window as a good omen and color floods the screen.
If ever a heroine deserved a happy ending, it’s Cary. Her happiness may even be the most feminist aspect of the film. No one dies. Nothing is lost. There is friendship and love and hope for the future. That’s more than a happy ending—it’s the film refusing to punish Cary for going after her heart’s desire. All That Heaven Allows shows her suffering and her loneliness, but it doesn’t tear her apart and it doesn’t want to see her destroyed. She deserves this happiness because women deserve happiness, and that’s a fairy-tale ending I can get behind.