by Jim Ridley
While Turner Classic Movies continues to test the holding capacity of DVRs with its mammoth The Story of Film programming, tonight combines the episode covering 1953-57 with a couple of Nicholas Ray classics, Rebel Without a Cause (7 p.m.) and Johnny Guitar (10:45 p.m.). Sandwiched between them at 9 p.m., however, is a particular Country Life favorite, All That Heaven Allows.
Here's a 2011 Scene appreciation:
"There is a very short distance between high art and trash," Douglas Sirk said in an oft-cited formulation, "and trash that contains an element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art." Craziness was an essential part of the lurid high-gloss melodramas that made Sirk's reputation, for good and ill, in the 1950s. His movies from this period teem with thwarted nymphos, anguished lovers, incestuous urges and stifled gay longing — sometimes, as in 1956's Written on the Wind, all in the same scirocco of torment. But what looks like craziness is the steady ache of emotions people aren't meant to admit, let alone express. The tension between Sirk's exquisitely calibrated and composed frames, and the people chafing within them, obliterates that very short distance between trash and art.
It's tough to say which aspect of Sirk's brilliant 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows ... looks more subversive today: its piercing portrait of oppressive conformity, or its empathetic study of a middle-aged woman's undimmed sexuality. As in Sirk's previous hit Magnificent Obsession, the subject is a May-September romance between Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, who revived her career with these roles after her divorce from Ronald Reagan. Wyman plays a small-town widow who falls in love with Hudson, her free-spirited groundskeeper, thus provoking the scorn of her small-minded country-club set and her selfish grown children. When Wyman announces she wants to marry Hudson, she is pressured to renounce him for the sake of duty.
This was the model not just for Todd Haynes' Sirk pastiche Far from Heaven but also Fassbinder's remake Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and the weight of appearances bears down on every frame. The town's full-tilt Americana looks as artificial as The Truman Show's, especially rendered by cinematographer Russell Metty in screaming Technicolor. At the same time, Sirk's camera placement and stunningly composed shots cut to the emotional quick of each scene. Watch how Sirk withholds any close-ups of Hudson until Wyman sees him as a person instead of an employee; or how the strategic positioning of a vase of leaves, a mirror and a doorway speaks volumes about the coming clash between Wyman's children and her lover, and the warring impulses within.
The movie proceeds along a pathway of symbols — as obvious as the glasses that Wyman's college-damaged daughter (Gloria Talbot) removes to kiss her beau, as subtle as the running contrast between chilly blues and ruddier tones that mirrors Wyman's inner turmoil. Yet none is more resonant, or chilling, than the cure Wyman's children prescribe for a life without passion: that shiniest of 1950s luxury items, a brand-new TV. Chortlingly introduced as "the lonely woman's friend," it dominates Wyman's living room as if it were an early arrival from the next year's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In the movie's most famous shot, Sirk angles the camera so the stricken Wyman is reflected in its screen, a prisoner in a cathode-ray icebox. Trash and art abide there forever.