Melodrama is one of those genres continually pushed aside whenever you start talking about great cinema. It’s the precursor to the chick flick, a distinctly feminine flavor of film that somehow, in some circles, became shorthand for “forgettable.” But when you stumble upon a movie like All That Heaven Allows that’s so obvious and so beautiful in its hyper-realism, it’s hard to imagine a world where you could forget it.
Because that’s the thing about melodrama: the intense, heightened drama playing out on screen isn’t mimicking reality, but it’s also not trying to. The tears on the audience’s faces though, that’s what’s real. The story’s ability to remind us of real emotions, whether it’s our own heartaches or losses or our own loves.
In this, All That Heaven Allows excels. The 1955 film tells the story of a May-December romance [or really, May-September—Wyman looks stunning after all] between a wealthy widow and her studly gardener [portrayed perfectly by Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson]. Wyman is open and captivating, and Hudson is at peak dreamboat. The entire film is everything I love—stunning fall and winter scenes, beautiful costumes, romance—with the volume turned up to 11.
Even the look of it is mind-blowing. It’s the kind of film that Technicolor was made for. I even wonder if I ever really understood what “Technicolor” meant before seeing it. The blues are the purest, most vibrant blues I’ve ever seen. The reds and oranges set their scenes on fire. The combination of the two [hello, Agnes Moorehead and that stunning blue dress of yours] practically make the screen explode.
Watching this movie for the first time was like taking your very first bite of chocolate cake and realizing it’s your favorite food. There was no way I could have anticipated its draw. I watched it right after Thanksgiving, my now-husband trying to nap on the couch beside me. Only as the movie played on, his eyes stayed open. He slowly sat up, abandoning all notions of sleep, engrossed in the drama on screen.
Sitting next to him, I let Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson’s stellar performances devastate me. I wept openly. Loudly. And I loved every minute it.
Oh, how I wanted this couple to succeed! Unlike a ‘90s-era rom-com, I knew there’d be no guarantees that these two would end up together. Every wall they hit, it was like I was speeding into it along with them.
But what really endeared this movie to me was so much more than its love story. Look just a little deeper, and it couldn’t be more obvious that All That Heaven Allows is a shockingly feminist exploration of what it means to be a woman [which I’ll get into more later this week].
This wasn’t another one of those movies that punishes a woman for her heart’s desires. Instead, it loudly champions her—snide country-club folk be damned. For a movie from the ‘50s to be so interested in the sexuality of not just an older woman, but a mother, and for it to be so disinterested in shaming her just makes it all the more beautiful.
While I only discovered the film a mere two or three years ago, I’d already seen its fingerprints on other pictures though I didn’t know it. It would inspire Rainer Werner Fassbender’s 1974 race-bending take on the tale Ali: Fear Eats the Soul as well as the 2002 Julianne Moore vehicle [and Douglas Sirk homage] Far From Heaven.
Strangely, All That Heaven Allows is itself an adaptation of the novel of the same name, but the book has seemingly disappeared from pop-culture consciousness. It’s is currently out of print making it hard to come by, though heavily worn copies can be scavenged for as little as a few dollars while like-new versions have asking prices as high as several hundred dollars.
By all accounts, Sirk stayed true to his source material with critic James Steffen noting that it’s “not so much that Sirk subverts the original intent of the story as that he adds more complex dimensions to it.” Though I can’t speak directly to those complexities without having read the book, it’s clear from the technical artistry on display that Sirk was invested in the property.
Thanks to the efforts of scholars and feminists to reevaluate melodrama in the same light as film noir and other genre pics of the day, this gem has been lovingly restored on Blu-ray in all its glory. Which means it was easy for me to reach for it one day out of the blue and discover the space in my film-loving heart that had been empty until I found it.
Here's what you'll see at The Cinessential this week:
- Discussion of the film's feminist themes
- Scene dissection of Cary and Ron's most emotional moment
- Related Review of Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
- Great melodrama streaming recommendations
- And more!