Gender and Agency in All that Heaven Allows

This is my piece for an upcoming author-meets-critics session on Pippin’s new book on Sirk. I think it stands reasonably well on its own and it’s a decent advertisement for the book, which I like very much, and so I wanted to post it here. I won’t be reading this out at the event. I’ll speak on the same material extemporaneously.

***

Robert B. Pippin’s new book, Douglas Sirk: Filmmaker and Philosopher, should be an immense pleasure for Sirk aficionados. He develops a robust overarching analysis of Sirk’s brand of satirical irony, along with nuanced interpretations of three of his great Universal melodramas: All that Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life. My subject is All the Heaven Allows, which tells the story of bourgeois widow Cary (Jane Wyman) contending with the disapproval of her children and social circle when she begins a romance with her much younger gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson).

The film’s narrative is straightforward. Cary lives in the posh New England community of Stoningham. She has a daughter, Kay, and son, Ned, away at college. Her friends and children coax her towards a relationship with the respectable and sexless Harvey, while she is swept up in the more exciting possibility presented by handsome, virile Ron. Ron lives in a rural setting and keeps an eclectic set of friends. He is described by one of these friends as a paragon of Thoreauvian non-conformism. He goes his own way, and doesn’t care a lick for the restrictive expectations of polite society. He wants Cary to follow the same path, leaving her social world and lifestyle behind to take up with him. Their relationship is disrupted when the incommensurability of Ron’s rigid non-conformism and Cary’s embeddedness in her social world comes to a head. Eventually, the lovers are reunited. It is—at least at first blush—a happy ending. 

Pippin’s interpretation of All that Heaven Allows begins from an observation about the broader category of subversive melodrama. He points to the phenomenon that I’ll call the “double ending.” A double ending is one where an ostensible happy ending is subverted by some unsettling element, which might then prompt us to reflect on whether it was really such a happy ending after all and to reinterpret the film in this light. At the end of Max Ophüls’ Caught, for instance, we find the do-gooder doctor played by James Mason not only unfazed, but actively pleased that Barbara Bel Geddes’ character has had a miscarriage, an event which he sees as freeing her up to pursue a happy life with him. The film recently played on the Criterion Channel, and as many people watched it for the first time and logged their opinions on the film social media app Letterboxd, I was struck by the way that nearly every review highlighted the ending but was unsure of what to say about it. In an earlier review, Neil Bahadur wrote, “The ending is obviously a bit compromised but otherwise this is seriously next level, for my money the best of the American Ophüls pictures.” Reviews like this express a sense that there’s something off about the ending. It might seem as though the happy tone was something the studio forced upon Ophüls, who may have wanted to end on a bitterer note.

Caught

Pippin suggests a different way to understand this tension. He argues that the trope of the double ending is bound up with the thematic concerns of subversive melodrama. In particular, the double ending is an effective means of portraying the condition of self-blindness that characterizes bourgeois life. The unease of the viewer (“something is off about that ending….”) mirrors the blinkering self-awareness of the characters in the film. At the end of Caught, we can see that Barbara Bel Geddes is not pleased about her miscarriage, and we sense that something is very wrong. At the same time, the film’s score reassures us that this is indeed a happy ending. We walk out of the theater at one level content that Bel Geddes has been freed from Robert Ryan’s abuse and is able to move forward with James Mason, but also vaguely disturbed by what the closing moments of the film reflects about Mason’s character. We might brush this tension off by assuming that the ending must have been compromised, or we might dig deeper into what bothers us. Our unsettled condition is also, we might imagine, the condition that Bel Geddes’ character is in. She is happy to be freed from Ryan and she will move forward with Mason, but to what extent will she be haunted by her miscarriage and by Mason’s narcissistic reaction to it? If she imagines herself happy in this new life, to what extent must this imagined happiness depend on self-deception?

Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows also has an ostensibly happy ending, which Pippin claims has the same sort of dual character that we find in Caught. Cary is reunited with Ron, and the two will be together going forward. But, Pippin argues, several details should make us uneasy. At the end of the film, Cary sees a doctor who tells her that her symptoms do not appear to be caused by any underlying health problem, but rather by Ron’s absence, and that she should go to him. She drives to his house and he is out hunting, but she doesn’t even realize this because she doesn’t knock on the door. She walks up to it, has a second thought (presumably about the fact that she would have to give up nearly every element of her own life in order to be with Ron), and walks away without knocking. Ron sees her in the distance, and in his haste to get her attention tumbles over a cliff and injures himself. Cary doesn’t even learn of his injury till she is told over the phone later. Finally, we learn that his recovery will be slow and that he will need to be cared for, and that Cary will fulfill this role.

This is readily taken as a happy ending: Cary and Ron are reunited. But we should also feel uneasy; she didn’t knock, after all. She did not make the decision to enter into this relationship. Rather, she fell into it because of Ron’s newfound need for a caretaker. The primary obstacle that their relationship faced was the collision of the social expectation that a widow should be respectably sexless and the lascivious implications of her attachment to young and virile Ron. This obstacle has been removed not by a frontal confrontation with the injustice of the rigid social expectations Cary faces, but by Ron’s emasculation. Their relationship no longer has the same implications. Moreover, Ron’s cabin has been made over as a bourgeois fantasy of rustic living, suggesting that Cary’s world going forward will not be all that different from the world she’s leaving behind. In this connection, Pippin emphasizes that the Throeauvian romanticism of Ron’s world is built upon a form of self-blindness in much the same way that Cary’s world is. Ron is not some individualist ideal; he’s a Christmas tree farmer. He’s a cog in the same capitalist system that the residents of Stoningham are; he just has a nicer view.

I find this take on All that Heaven Allows largely compelling. By way of response, I want to focus first on a few relatively minor disagreements with Pippin’s interpretation of the film that lead me to think that its double ending is not as harsh as he takes it to be. But I then want to argue that its deep ambivalence—its dual character as happy ending and subversive social critique—is on this account even better suited to the theme of self-blindness. 

Pippin’s assessment is grim, “Nothing we have seen suggests that the town will change, or even that Cary will change very much. What looks like the reunion of two now independent, self-reliant souls is simply one more way of compromising with the specifics of bourgeois life…. Cary, we expect, will manage to find a way, most likely through self-deceit, to imagine that what they do together will be authentic and their own, even as it reproduces the norms that we have seen enforced throughout.” (59) While I do agree that there is a sense in which we should expect that the couple’s life going forward will reproduce that norms that we have seen enforced in the film, I have a different thought about which norms are most salient.

Sirk does, I think, intend for the audience to grasp a real difference between Ron’s world and the social world of Stoningham. I agree with Pippin that the Thoreau references have a sardonic touch, and that Sirk is critical of the narrative of rugged individualism and authenticity and its role in the American imaginary. At the same time, I think it is important to recognize there are concrete ways in which Ron and at least some of his friends are freer than the residents of Stoningham and better positioned to achieve some qualified form of self-actualization. This point could be developed in several ways, but the most striking for me is the contrast between the opening party at the Stoningham Country Club and the one at Mick and Alida’s house. The first party scene focuses on the mechanics through which rigid social expectations are enforced: cruel gossip, snide insinuation, and so on. Everyone is white and well-off. Over the course of this party and the later Stoningham event that Cary brings Ron to, we see that lecherous (and in some cases downright repugnant) behavior from men is casually accepted while even the slightest hint of female sexual agency is cause for scandal. Contrast this with Mick and Alida’s party. The first guests who arrive after Ron and Cary are Manuel, a lobster fisherman with a thick Italian accent, his wife Rozanne, and their daughter Marguerita, who Rozanne introduces in Spanish (suggesting either that she does not speak English or does not prefer to speak English). Next, Grandpa Adams shows up. He’s a beekeeper and artist. Finally, there’s Miss Pidway, famed birdwatcher. Ron plays the piano and sings while Rozanne accompanies him on accordion. This is—in a non-trivial way—a much, much better party than the one at the country club. Sirk gleefully emphasizes what a hodgepodge of people this is, and how much fun they’re having. Among this crowd, diversity is not just accepted, it is embraced. No one is worried about lowering their social status by associating with fishermen or tree farmers. Age is not a boundary; the young and old dance together with festive abandon. We see Miss Pidway cutting a rug with Grandpa Adams and no one thinks her overly sexual on this account.

Mick and Alita’s party
Stoningham Country Club

Pippin makes much of the shift in décor in the old mill at the end of the film. There is no question that it is a couple notches closer to Cary’s world than it might have been. I am not inclined, however, to think that it has simply collapsed into the same bourgeois world that we find in Stoningham. Moreover, to the extent that Ron has attempted to decorate the house in a way that would appeal to Cary, he has made a compromise for her sake, and in this way has softened the “my way or the highway” rigidity he expressed earlier in the film. But it is just a partial compromise, not a full assimilation to the Stoningham way. The décor we find in Cary’s house and other Stoningham locations is far posher and more opulent, with gaudy silver pieces on display and plush furniture. Ron’s decorating scheme reflects something of the bourgeois fantasy of rural living (a fantasy I know all too well, living as I do in a mountain state to which many remotely employed Californians have recently fled), and we do see a couple clear echoes of Cary’s décor (notably the silver pitcher that Cary’s coffee is served in) but it is missing most of the markers of affluence that we find in Stoningham. The curtains are shabby and the floor and walls are still unfinished wood—and I’m not talking about some fancy distressed finish; they look dirty. This is just to say that there are still clear visual markers at the end of the film that Ron’s world is not the bourgeois world of Stoningham.

Ron gussies up the mill later on, but the unfinished surfaces remain

The other detail I want to emphasize is the brief conversation between Cary and Alida at the end of the film, after Ron has been injured. Two earlier scenes set the stage. In one scene, Alida told Cary that she and Mick were once a part of Cary’s bourgeois world, and that what it took to leave that world behind was not just Thoreau’s influence and Ron’s leading by example, but also Mick’s being injured in the Korean War. This injury changed their perspective and enabled them to see that the things that once seemed so important—keeping up with the Joneses, managing one’s reputation with local gossips, and so on—are not important after all. Now they grow trees and hang out with Grandpa Adams and Miss Pidway and do all sorts of rural stuff that they seem to find quite satisfying. While Pippin’s point that they are all still part of the larger capitalist system is well-taken, I think it is crucially important that Sirk portrays these people as having real joy in their lives. Ron LOVES trees. When we see him slinging Douglas firs at the Christmas tree lot, he’s having a great time. Even at the beginning of the film, when he’s explaining his plan to leave gardening behind to focus on his own nursery, he’s brimming with excitement. It’s also crucially important that he does not care one bit that this pursuit guarantees a diminished social position and lower income than he might expect if he made a real effort to keep up with the Joneses.

The other scene that sets the stage for Cary’s final talk with Alida is the bit when Cary is worried about the gossip that will spread in Stoningham about her and Ron, and Ron urges her not to be afraid. Cary asks him if this is the lesson that Mick learned from him, and he tells her that this is something that one must learn for oneself, and that to do so is to “be a man.” He tells her that he wants her to be a man, but “only in this one respect.”

Both of these scenes reverberate in the final meeting between Alida and Cary. My understanding of this scene is close to Pippin’s, but not quite the same. Cary explicitly refers back to her first conversation with Alida, “You told me once that Ron was so secure within himself because he refused to give importance to unimportant things. Why did it take me so long to understand it?” Alida reassures her that it had also taken them a long time to come around to this realization. Cary goes on about how she was a coward for letting others—and herself—keep her from Ron. We can infer that Ron’s accident is playing the same role for her that Mick’s war injury played for him and Alida—it shifts her perspective and enabled her to see “what’s really important.”

But here’s the rub: who’s really “the man” in this situation? In other words: has Cary asserted her own desires in the face of pressure to conform, or has she rather conformed to a different set of gendered expectations? Ron’s refusal to conform is also a refusal to grow up and acknowledge the web of obligations that adults incur. As Pippin points out, we are signaled early in the film to be on the lookout for Oedipus complexes, and in this connection we should have noticed both the conspicuous absence of Ron’s mother and the implications of his comment “I’ve met plenty of girls” in reference to his special attraction to Cary. He doesn’t want a girl (and all the responsibilities that would come with committing to one); he wants a mommy. And at the end of the film—laid up with an injury and in need of constant care and attention—he gets one.

I find Pippin’s insight into the phenomenon of the double ending extremely illuminating on this point, but I would shift the emphasis slightly. What is unsettling at the end of the film, I argue, is not the sense that things will go on as before, but rather Cary’s self-blindness about her lack of agency in the situation. Pippin does make the point that Cary has essentially been forced into this new arrangement, but what I think he undersells is her illusory sense that she does have agency in this development—that she has finally been a man. When she asks, “why did it take me so long to see it?”, she implies that she has seen it—that she has decided for herself that she should be with Ron, and that she has stood up to Mona and her kids and everybody else who wanted to keep the two of them apart. That is, she implies that she has finally become an independent agent.

But, in fact, she has not. She didn’t stand up to her kids, they just stopped caring, and indeed Kay—who has previously been portrayed as valuing her own intellectual development and independence—is about to enter into a marriage where she will play a supporting role to a meathead husband. I point this out because it is another way in which Sirk emphasizes at the end of the film that there is no viable path to independent agency for the women in this world. Even Alida is portrayed as following her husband’s lead into their Thoreauvian fantasy. Cary has not confronted the obstacles that stood between her and Ron. These obstacles were removed by his injury. The prohibition against her sexuality has not been cancelled. It’s just that her relationship with Ron no longer implies transgressive sexual pleasure. She’s mommy and caregiver, and it’s going to be a tough road going forward.

Pippin is absolutely right to say that we should sense on the way out of the theater after seeing All that Heaven Allows that there’s something “off” about the ending. He’s also right that this should prompt us to reflect on the fact that Cary did not knock on the door and choose to be with Ron, but rather acquiesced when the new role of caretaker was placed on her. To the extent that the ending unsettles us in this way, we can begin to see what we were initially blind to—that Cary has not gotten over her fears and become a full-fledged agent, but rather has slid into a different socially-defined gendered role that she has not actively chosen. But the parties she attends will be better, I think we can safely say, and her life will be more joyous than it was at the beginning of the film. The primary locus of her self-blindness going forward—to deepen the irony—is her false sense of having freed herself from self-blindness. It is important that the ending is indeed happy: she will be happier in her new life, but she will falsely think that she has claimed this happiness through her own agency. She asks, “Why did it take me so long to see?” But she never did see it—at least not for herself.


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