I’ll protect you from the hooded claw
Keep the vampires from your doorThe Power of Love by Frankie Goes to Hollywood
A love story is often regarded as having high-scoring box office potential – there are limited special effects or action sequences required, therefore rendering the budget relatively low (though this can be dependent on the lead actors’ salaries). That is not to say that romantic sub-plots don’t exist within the larger plots of science fiction epics or action/adventure movies (one clear example is Trinity and Neo in The Matrix franchise), but when the romance sits centre-stage throughout, it brings in a certain audience eager to be pleased and made warm and fuzzy. ‘Straight-up’ love films have had serious audience-pulling power ever since May Irwin and John Rice snogged each other in the 18-second Edison/Heise film from 1896, The Kiss. The coming-together of a pair as a result of that thing called love is the key component of a love story…obviously. Whereas for a long, long time that pairing had to be a man and a woman, we are thankfully seeing many variations on that nowadays. In this series, I will provide a short analysis on four love films, starting here with Douglas Sirk’s sumptuous masterpiece from 1955, All That Heaven Allows.
The idea of ‘forbidden love’ in popular culture owes a lot to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – a pairing of ‘star-crossed lovers’, doomed from the start given their respective feuding families. 16th Century Verona and its turbulent political divide is the context for that tragic tale, but move forward to the 1950s, and specifically to the idyllic, leafy suburbs of Stoningham, New England, and you get the setting for a slightly healthier but still, socially problematic love affair in All That Heaven Allows. Jane Wyman plays Cary Scott, a wealthy 40-something woman who has recently lost her husband and lives on her own since her two teenage kids moved away to college. Rock Hudson plays Ron Kirby, a younger and less well-off man, who works as her gardener/arborist. The class-lines are drawn pretty thick in this world, and in Cary’s well-to-do social circles as well as in her own family, there are expectations on what she is not to do with her love-life now that she is a widow – one of those would be to not shack up with the beef-cake gardener! But as with all great ‘forbidden love’ stories, that is exactly what she does.
All That Heaven Allows could, on-paper, seem like a typical, boring, of-its-time melodrama that foments little interest in the modern viewer. Thanks to Douglas Sirk’s cinematic magic, it is not that. There is of course a reason why it is viewed by film historians as being one of the most important US films of the 1950s (alongside The Swimmer I would argue). Post-war USA saw an increased focus on the suburban upper-middle class, and many indicated that the so-called American Dream was where this dwelt. New technologies such as televisions and household appliances were marketed at those people, and the lifestyle that these material things complimented was thought to be the nearest thing to perfect as you could get. As Sirk’s film subtly points out, this was nothing but a fiction.
The extraordinary juxtaposition of this central message is seen in the way Sirk presents his film (which is derived from a screenplay by Peg Fenwick, and a novel by Edna and Harry Lee). The film is printed in Technicolor, which means the colours on screen are vivid and bright, almost like a Disney animation. Every scene is like a painting, as if an artist painstakingly took his hand to every single shot in the film. But this is what Technicolor could do – it was an expensive technique that required extremely heavy cameras to combine a three-strip colouring process with wide-angle photography. Not to give Technicolor all the credit, Sirk was the prime master in ensuring his film inhabited the world of suburban New England by staging as many outdoor scenes as indoor ones, even though the film was shot in a Universal Studios set in Hollywood. The seasonal elements are brought to beautiful life by cinematographer Russell Metty through snow-covered fields, leaf-covered streets and quaint-looking country barns. The inclusions of friendly deer and chirruping finches makes things even more idyllic – it actually feels quite surreal. But at the end of the day, the subversive logic presented is what makes the film great. The infinite sadness embodied through Cary’s character (wonderfully played by Wyman) and the earthy, soulfulness emanating from the younger Ron, both set against this faux-idealism, makes their intertwining love story more realistic and human. In the end, as each of their socially-driven reservations over their ‘affair’ subsides and they end up in each other’s arms (as all good romantic films do) determined to be with each other for good, the stifling background clamour for conformity is breathlessly lifted.
The power of love breaks down another barrier, one could say. And behind the scenes of all that, there was another barrier being held against one of the stars of the film. Rock Hudson, then one of the most profitable ‘hunk-of-spunk’ male stars of his generation (he was 29 at this time), was well-known in Hollywood to be gay but this was never exposed to the public for fear of career-ending scandal and possible imprisonment (in fact, it was not confirmed until his death to AIDS in 1985). Hudson never portrayed a gay man on screen and was never a true advocate for gay rights in his lifetime, but his lifetime was a world away from what things are like now. I can only imagine how difficult it was for Hudson being a gay man behind the camera, even as he was consistently asked to portray characters who were lovers to women in front of the camera. But at the end of the day, All That Heaven Allows, with its fantastic symbolic title, offers a plain where any type of unconventional love story can thrive. It may well be the closest film Hudson ever done that reflects his personal life.
The German-born director Sirk was himself a renegade against social norms. In the same way as other brilliant directors like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger, he fled Europe in the 1930s for a refuge in Hollywood where he could continue to work in film. Although his lush melodramas of the 1950s were dismissed by critics of the time as being ‘sentimental women pictures’, they are now seen as social commentary masterpieces – All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life in particular. Given the uniqueness of his work, modern film critics has bestowed the word Sirkian to describe his style, something reserved for only the best of them. Indeed, acclaimed filmmakers like Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz, Pedro Almodóvar and David Lynch are hugely influenced by the aesthetic and styles of Sirkian melodramas. The power of his films are very evident in the way they are framed. Each scene, each character movement, each prop has meaning. Sirk had an outstanding ability to communicate to the viewer in a cinematic language (watch out for his use of mirrors in particular). All That Heaven Allows attests to that power. It is not only a sophisticated masterpiece. It is a wonderful love story, and Wyman and Hudson are an eternal couple, up there with the best of screen couplings.