Well, it….looks pretty, anyway.
My biggest problem with melodramas, as you know, is that they’re a little too sticky-sweet, overly-sentimental and formulaic for my taste. Other film critics have argued that melodramas are often unfairly dismissed because they deal with “women’s issues” – love and family, things like that – so I try to give them as fair a shake as I can. And yet, it’s not the subjects that make me sniff at melodramas; there are a handful of love stories coming later on the list that I loved, and two are among my top five favorite movies of all time. What I dislike is that melodramas often handle their love stories in a hokey and overly-sentimental way, where the romantic leads are usually a heterosexual couple and their wished-for outcome involves moving to a twee little house in the suburbs and ultimately having 2.5 apple-cheeked kids.
All That Heaven Allows at least sort of plays with that. Our heroine Carrie (Jane Wyman) already lives in the suburbs and is already a mother. The kids are grown, however – two college students who come home on the weekends, sometimes. But Carrie is a fairly recent widow, so this leaves her rattling around the house alone much of the time. Her best buddy Sara (Agnes Moorehead) keeps trying to get her to join the local country club and mingle a bit, and her kids keep nudging her to remarry a stodgy boring widower named Harvey, but Carrie isn’t really ready for either.
But she still feels like she should socialize a bit, so one afternoon she spontaneously asks the gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson), to help her finish off a pot of coffee. They get to chatting, Carrie learns more about Ron, and…sparks unexpectedly fly, to the point that within a few months they’re talking marriage. Nearly everyone in Carrie’s life is against the match – her son thinks it’s a betrayal of their father, her daughter writes it off as a sexual aberration, the ladies in town think Ron’s a gold-digger and the men think Carrie’s loose.
…..Will Carrie listen to convention, or will she listen to her heart?….
To be fair, the film does say some interesting things about class and convention amid the treacle. Sara is forever inviting Carrie to dinner or lunch parties at her place, but she all but trash-talks the other guests; Sara hates them, but convention dictates she has to socialize with them, so she does. It’s no wonder that Carrie wants to give it a pass – same too with the dreary club, filled with gossipy folk prone to spying on each other to see if anyone steps out of line, and same to with Harvey, whose mealy-mouthed proposal where he speaks of “companionship” makes Carrie snooze. Everyone in Carrie’s social circle is either a doctor, banker, or lawyer, or is married to one. Even her egghead daughter Kay gives up pursuit of a psychiatry degree when her boyfriend Frank proposes.
Roy’s friends are all way more interesting – a pair of tree farmers, a beekeeper who moonlights as a modern artist, a lively Italian couple and their shy daughter. Carrie meets them all at a potluck Roy’s buddies hold one night, where everyone eats on a table made up of sawhorses and then someone breaks out an accordion and they have a dance party, with Roy taking a turn singing a mildly raunchy song to Carrie. It’s a much livelier and friendlier world, and it’s little surprise Carrie is intrigued when Roy asks her to join him in it.
Still, I felt that the “love connection” itself was a bit weak – partly because it came so fast, and partly because Roy is more of a caricature than a character. He is almost perpetually dressed in plaid flannel, he reads Thoreau’s Walden aloud, he’s been fixing up the old mill house on his property and he eschews fancy food for home-grown simplicity; he’s a stereotypical Hudson Valley hipster. His friends gush to Carrie in one scene about how he encouraged them to give up their own 50s-conventional lifestyles, giving up careers in advertising to start their own organic farms. Carrie’s a bit more of a presence, speaking her mind and asserting herself in small ways throughout. Even when she considers giving Roy up at one point, it’s from a place of strength and assertiveness (she’s asked Roy to be patient and let her kids get used to their being a couple, and calls his bluff when he drops an ultimatum).
Even the look of the film emphasizes this. Roy is often in total shadow – lots of scenes take place before the huge picture window at Roy’s mill, but Roy seems always to be just outside the light, reduced to a mere silhouette. Meanwhile Carrie is always dazzlingly lit, whether she’s on the balcony at the club or in a vacant lot picking out her Christmas tree or nuzzling by the fire at Roy’s. There’s even a telling scene where Carrie’s reflection gets featured; her son has been nagging her to buy a TV to “keep her company”, but Carrie’s getting much more into real life with Roy and keeps turning him down. Then her son surprises her with a TV when she and Roy are on the outs; and as he’s gushing about how she “need never be lonely now” with it, talking about how she can see what’s going on anywhere else in the world, Carrie just studies her reflection in the screen – sitting on her prim couch, in her drab housedress, all alone.
So, yeah, there are technical and aesthetic things to admire about this film. I just wish the characters and plot points weren’t so dang formulaic (Roommate Russ chuckled when he overheard me snap “oh give me a break” aloud at one particular development).
….Oh – and I tried not to think of it, but I did snicker at one of Rock Hudson’s uber-hetero lines. Just once.