How the Sirkian Ending Challenges Gender Roles
Author: Bryan Ghingold
The melodramas of Douglas Sirk serve to make a progressive social critique of the upper middle class of the 1950s. One way his films do this is by challenging traditional gender roles. Though this is evident in many of his films, I will be focusing on All That Heaven Allows. While he challenges gender roles throughout the entire film, it is especially noticeable in the final scene, when Cary becomes caretaker to a recuperating Ron. The defeated Cary having lost her family, home, and social respect, takes on qualities traditionally assigned to masculine characters, while the injured Ron, having lost his independence takes on qualities of a weaker, more feminine type of character. I will argue that the final scene in All That Heaven Allows challenges traditional gender roles as evidenced by the subtext of the story, the mise-en-scene, and the reoccurring pattern in other Sirk melodramas.
Actors and more specifically their performances are a part of the mise-en-scene, and as such, often have deeper implications than just what is seen on the screen. This is true for the ending to All That Heaven Allows. The text on the surface of the scene is that Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) has returned to her love Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), who is recuperating from a fall. The deeper meaning of the scene we are to understand is not that Cary “got her man” and will live “happily ever after,” but rather that Cary lost everything; forced into a role of surrogate mother to Ron. Cary lost her children to adulthood, her house to necessity, and her womanhood and sexuality to Ron’s accident. There is a beautiful moment in the final scene when we see the first close up of Cary as she leans over Ron, who is starting to wake. Cary uses the muscles in her face and cheeks to hint at a smile when he stirs, and then hint at a frown when she realizes the finality of her fate. The whole time, she keeps her overall expression neutral. Wyman’s acute muscular control makes even her slightest motions part of the story. “…at every moment onscreen, the actor must be in character…At all times, film actors use their faces” (Bordwell and Thompson 134).
While making Cary a mother to Ron does not reverse her gender, the conditions by which they live does. Ron lives by the outdoorsman’s way of life. He hunts for his food, chops wood for his heat, and if he needs something, he builds it. “Kirby is presented as the ‘natural man’- earthy, generous, soft spoken, and unassuming” (Klinger 100). Even his home is a converted barn shed. In the wake of his incapacitation, all these duties will be differed to Cary. Even if they had the money for modern amenities, Ron insists on his way of life. Just as Cary is bestowed the obligations of an outdoorsman, Ron, the epitome of masculinity, becomes weak; he is needy and bedridden. Hudson plays this weakness with expert precision; the way he curls his wrist as though even his hand is too heavy and the way he takes accentuated breaths between his (limited) dialogues. His performance suggests the de-masculinization of Ron Kirby; becoming dependant on Cary Scott for survival.
There are much easier ways to convey this on the surface of the text. Why then did Sirk bury them beneath the guise of a Hollywood happy ending? In order to maintain his artistic integrity, Sirk had to essentially make two films; his social critique on one hand, and the romantic “weepie” for the studio on the other (Mercer and Shingler 39). In order for the “progressive Sirk” to be effective, his films had to have general appeal. Even today, studios seldom green light preachy social critique films unless they are told through the vehicle of a marketable story. Another compounding factor was the disposition of Sirk’s audiences and bosses. John Mercer and Martin Shingler note in their book Short Cuts the phenomenon that in their original debut, Sirk’s films were taken at face value rather than read for their social commentary. “…Sirk’s films were widely misunderstood when they were first released…the ironic nature of his (sic) many of his films was frequently lost on industry professionals and audiences alike” (51). Because his audience wasn’t willing or able to consume his message, Sirk planted them in the subtext of his films.
The final scene in All That Heaven Allows is roughly one minute long, but those 60 seconds convey a great deal of subtext. Rather than the “reunited lovers” reading a film analyst might make of the film, the subtext conveyed through the mise-en-scene is evidence toward a reversal of gender roles between Cary and Ron. It was established earlier in the film that for Ron the rugged outdoorsman, it was important to have a plain, earthy living space. Toward the climax of the film, he does what no one thought possible, and compromises his living edict; adding feminine décor to his home at the behest of Cary. The first shot of the last scene depicts Cary standing over Ron, who is sleeping on the chartreuse couch in his converted-barn home. As he lays invalid on his couch, our eyes are drawn to his large, imposing window overlooking the forest. The window has been adorned with green drapes, matching the couch. In front of the window sits an antique rocking chair. Ron himself appears flaccid, fitting with the melodramatic theme of male impotence as part of de-masculanization. Cary on the other hand stands over the limp figure of Ron, with inscrutable posture, wearing a drab grey outfit summoning imagery of a business suit. The next shot depicts Cary walking toward the window looking out over the forest. A deer trots up to meet her, with its nose practically to the glass. It is as if the deer is affirming her position in the world of nature, where nature is to be read as “manliness” (Klinger 100). When Ron begins to stir and Carey moves toward him, entering the series of close up shots, we are given more gender cues from the lighting. Ron is lit with very soft front lighting; eliminating shadows, making him seem weak and dependant. Even on his face, the clever low angle of the camera and frontal lighting make the chiseled and well defined visage of Rock Hudson seem softer, with more rounded edges. Cary on the other hand has a very harsh sidelight; accentuating her cheekbones, and keeping a portion of her face in the dark; something more often associated with male characters.
Further evidence within the mise-en-scene that All That Heaven Allows is not about Ron and Cary as reunited lovers comes from the last shot of the film. Cary, having proclaimed that she has “come home,” leans in to hug and reassure an emotionally (as well as physically) weak Ron. Before we get too long a glimpse, the camera cranes up, and the last thing we see before the end titles is the deer, proudly evangelizing the superiority of nature. Sirk refused to linger on that romantic moment, because even though the gender roles of Cary and Ron were reversed, his ending was not about the success of their romance.
The device of gender role-swapping in the film’s conclusion is not exclusive to All That Heaven Allows; gender roles are challenged in the final scenes of other Sirk melodramas as well. At the end of Written on the Wind, Marylee Hadley (Dorothy Malone), the wealthy daughter of a deceased oil tycoon is forced to abandon her promiscuous and carefree lifestyle following her brother’s death, and take over the family business. The final scene depicts her sitting sullenly at her father’s desk, clutching a miniature model of an overtly phallic oil well. Positioned ominously behind her is a portrait of her father, clutching the same model. No one else is in the scene, the room, or even the Hadley mansion. Marylee has changed from the embodiment of the independent, sexually empowered woman into her father; the responsible businessman doomed to loneliness. Even her blue suit is mirrored by the grey suit her father wears in his portrait.
What stands as a possible exception to this theme is the final scene in Magnificent Obsession. Unlike Sirk’s other films, which are often viewed as progressive, Magnificent Obsession seems to be a reactionary text. Rather than challenge the status quo, it conforms to it; not a single critique on wealth or status is evident in the entire film. What it focuses on instead is the theme of morality. Noël Carroll discusses Sirk’s conformity in his article “The Moral Ecology of Melodrama: The Family Plot and Magnificent Obsession;” “In Sirk’s film Merrick is initially marked as ‘bad’ because he is rude, impatient, and domineering. Politeness and courtesy-to-all rather than the proverbial white hat is the most important sign of the good guy in American film” (Carroll 189). The film ends with Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) looking over Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman) as she recuperates in the hospital. When Helen comes to, Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger) the earthy sage-figure smiles and walks onto a balcony overlooking a lush nature scene, recalling his words of wisdom to Merrick. It is interesting to note that despite their differences, both Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows end not with a shot of the lovers, but with a symbol of nature.
The fact that Sirk’s endings can be analyzed independent of the films they are a part of speaks to the deliberation and skill of Douglas Sirk as an auteur. With the Hays Code in place to keep films as moral as the puritans, that Sirk uses these endings to challenge gender roles took not only a great amount of skill, but also a great amount of courage. In this paper, I have demonstrated how through the use of subtext to the story, mise-en-scene, and reoccurring patterns in other Sirk melodramas, Douglas Sirk challenged traditional gender roles in the final scene from All That Heaven Allows.
1.All That Heaven Allows. Dir. Douglas Sirk. Perfs. Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman. DVD.
Universal International Pictures, 1955.
2.Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. Film Art. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.
3.Carroll, Noël. “The Moral Ecology of Melodrama: The Family Plot and Magnificent
Obsession.” Melodrama (1980): 197-206. Rpt. in Imitations of Life. Ed. Marcia Landy. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991. 183-191.
4.Mercer, John and Martin Shingler. Short Cuts. London: Wallflower Press, 2004.
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