CMN! no.1 (Autumn 1996)
All That Patriarchy Allows : Gay Figures and Female Desire in All That Heaven Allows
Given the history of female representation in classical cinema, the 1955 woman's film All That Heaven Allows appears to offer an escape from patriarchal oppression. At first sight, the film seems to reverse the sexual politics of classical cinema. Jane Wyman plays a respectable widower with a desiring gaze. Rock Hudson plays the fetishized object of Wyman's gaze. The result appears to be the previously impossible representation of heterosexual female desire on film. In order to understand the lack of precedent for such a representation, I will first explore the significance of the gaze and its gendered use in classical cinema. Next I will discuss the woman's film of the 1940s. A discussion of classical cinema and the woman's film will foreground an exploration of the ways All That Heaven Allows borrows from, inverts, and moves beyond their respective conventions. I will then theorize the significance of the choice of a homosexual male, in this case Rock Hudson, as object of the female gaze, and how, ultimately, this choice (which is not infrequent in American cinema), combined with the story of All That Heaven Allows, serves to contain the representation of female desire in the cinema.
In recent years a great deal of work has been done concerning the role of woman as object in and spectator of classical cinema. Some of the most interesting criticism addresses the problem (or impossibility) of representing female subjectivity and desire within a patriarchal film economy. In "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Laura Mulvey uses a psychoanalytic approach to discuss the pleasure of watching cinema. Mulvey first suggests that the classical film, with its characters locked in an uncompromised diegesis, affords the viewer the pleasure of a voyeuristic gaze (seeing without being seen); she applies to cinematic viewing Freud's explanation of the pleasure of voyeurism found in the "activities of children, their desire to see and make sure of the private and the forbidden." (*1) But while the pleasure of voyeuristic gaze at this most basic level is accessible to both male and female spectators, Mulvey and others speculate that what is seen in the diegesis, specifically the gendered representation of subjectivity and desire, influences the spectators' visual pleasure.
Subjectivity in the cinema is articulated through narrative agency and through the medium of the gaze--the way in which looking is organized within the diegesis. In classical films, men consistently drive the narrative and control the gaze, while women frequently impede the story's development and serve as the object of the desiring male gaze. Established primarily through frequent point of view shots from the perspective of the male protagonist, control of the gaze is associated with scopic agency, knowledge, and desire. As Linda Williams puts it, "In classical narrative cinema, to see is to desire."(*2) During point of view shots, the view of the spectator and the view of the character onscreen are fused, facilitating identification. As an example of this fusion, Mulvey refers to the not uncommon performance of musical numbers by women in classical films. The desiring gaze of male spectators and of males watching the performance within the diegesis "are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude."(*3) The natural identification between male spectators and males in the diegesis not only facilitates access to the film for male spectators, but also enhances their viewing pleasure--an object, the woman, is provided for the projection of heterosexual male erotic fantasy.
Also confirming male control of the gaze is the projection of spectacle onto women who function as objects of the male gaze. Objectified as spectacles, female characters are denied both subjectivity and a desiring gaze of their own. Mulvey writes, "In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness."(*4)Again relying on Freud, Mulvey postulates that while supplying an object for the projection of visual sexual stimulation, the female body simultaneously conjures up the male's castration anxiety. Mulvey says, "[The female figure] connotes something that the look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure."(*5) As a result, two strategies of representing women are employed to deflect that threat. The first is sadistic: the woman is demystified, devalued, or punished--rendered unable to castrate. A second male defense is fetishism: an object, a part of the body or the female figure itself is made beautiful, "something satisfying in itself" to displace the anxious male spectator's attention from the female's lack of a penis.(*6)
In classical, phallocentric cinema, because women serve as the objects of male desire (and in a way that obviates castration anxiety), the female spectator is denied access to the viewing pleasure the male spectator experiences. The spectator position is masculinized through two primary pleasures afforded male spectators--identification and projection of desire--which are both unavailable to female spectators. Therefore, the female spectator can either imagine herself as a transvestite, viewing the onscreen female spectacle from the subject position of the desiring male, or identify with the female spectacle in a narcissistic way, enjoying the pleasure and masochism that come from being looked at. In either case, the projection of heterosexual fantasy onto a male screen object ("pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight") is denied her just as it is denied female characters within the diegesis of classical film.(*7) In these ways, the politics of the intradiegetic gaze limits the pleasure afforded the female spectator.
In response to market forces, Hollywood began producing films in the 1930s and 40s which specifically target a female audience through presenting female topics and female settings. Maria LaPlace explains:
The woman's film is distinguished by its female protagonist, female point of view and its narrative which most often revolves around the traditional realms of women's experience: the familial, the domestic, the romantic--those arenas where love, emotion and relationships take precedence over action and events.(*8)
In the woman's film, the action centers on a female protagonist who has ostensibly been invested with subjectivity and who has been de-eroticized--she no longer functions as spectacle. On the surface, it would seem that this new, customized genre would restore the imbalance of the scopic regime in classical cinema pointed out by Mulvey, thereby making pleasure accessible to female spectators which parallels that experienced by male spectators of classical cinema. In an essay called "The Woman's Film," Mary Ann Doane explains this genre as an "attempt to reverse the relation between the female body and sexuality which is established and reestablished by the classical cinema's localization of the woman as spectacle." (*1) But while allowing that female spectators identify with the female protagonist of the woman's film, Doane argues that this identification is excessive and unstable, dissipating by the end of the film because the female protagonist's power is consistently undercut by conventions of patriarchy that try to recontain the focus on female subjectivity--such as medical discourse, the medical gaze, and male voiceovers.(*1)
Perhaps most indicative of the lack in represented female subjectivity in the woman's film is its treatment (or repression) of the female gaze, and its role in articulating female desire. The desiring gaze of female characters either lacks an object or results in punishment for the female gazer, and hence, spectatorial unpleasure. As a result, Doane notes "the woman's exercise of an active investigating gaze can only be simultaneous with her own victimization."(*1) Doane adds, "The narratives assume a compatibility between the idea of female fantasy and that of persecution."(*1) The lack of an object for the gaze is especially apparent in gothic films of which Doane says, "a de-specularization takes place. . . away from the female body. The very process of seeing is now invested with fear, anxiety, horror, precisely because it is object-less, free-floating."(*1) Doane's thesis is that
the woman's film insistently and sometimes obsessively attempts to trace the contours of female subjectivity and desire within the traditional forms and conventions of Hollywood narrative--forms which cannot sustain such an exploration. . . .(*1)
Because the female protagonist in the woman's film is no longer made an erotic spectacle, female spectators are denied even the narcissistic pleasure of identification with the female image. Doane maintains that the medical gaze on the woman replaces the desiring male gaze of classical cinema leaving female spectators to identify with the female protagonist only as victim. This identification, Doane argues, accounts for the woman's film's "obsession with the repetition of scenarios of masochism."(*1)
While feminist critics have found examples of classical films that subvert the patterns identified by Mulvey in the classical film and by Doane in the woman's film, most require reading the film against the grain. However, in the 1955 film All That Heaven Allows, written by Peg Fenwick, directed by Douglas Sirk, and starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, the female diegetic gaze operates in a parallel fashion--on the manifest level--to the male gaze in classical cinema, but does so without victimizing the female agent of the look. Cary Scott (Wyman), the protagonist, is invested with a scopic subjectivity which goes beyond that given female protagonists in woman's films of the 1940s.
Unquestionably the central narrative figure in the film, Cary is a conservative, middle-aged, upper-middle-class housewife whose husband has died a year before the film opens. Rock Hudson plays Ron Kirby, her much younger, dashing gardener whom she meets in the film's opening scene. The narrative plots the obstacles faced by Cary in trying to realize her romantic aspirations with Ron. Cary initially intends to marry Ron, but when confronted with vehement disapproval from her children and her society because of Ron's youth and his lower class status, Cary breaks off the engagement. However, facing loneliness and the hypocrisy of her social class, Cary returns to Ron in the end, flouting the social cost of owning her desire to be with him.
The world of the film is divided into two distinct classes. The first, to which Cary belongs, is traditional small town capitalist patriarchal society. The Stonington Country Club is the quintessential social space for this class of white-collar professional men and their fashion-conscious wives. The film opens with an aerial view of Cary's suburban neighborhood with its large homes and landscaped yards. Prosperity and materialism abound. Equally abundant are rigid conventions of propriety and pressures to conform, particularly for women. In Cary's country club society, women are expected to fill a role not unlike the role allotted to women in classical cinema: women function as objects of male desire, and the expression of female desire inevitably results in unpleasure.
Epitomized by Ron, the second social class represented in the film is a mirror opposite of country club society. The essential characteristics of Ron's lower class society are apparent at a last minute party thrown together by Ron's good friends, Mick and Alida. Cary is immediately and warmly accepted by guests at the party who cut across age and ethnic lines. Eschewing materialism for spirituality and individuality, Ron's friends have jobs in occupations such as beekeeping, birdwatching, and landscape painting. Pointing up their lack of concern for social status, Ron tells Cary, "You'd never believe it now, but Mick was once a V.I.P. in New York." Walden, Alida tells Cary, is Mick's Bible. The spontaneity and informality of the party reflect the fluid social roles and the lack of stilted social convention within Ron's lower class counterculture.
In his book on Douglas Sirk, Michael Stern explains that in All That Heaven Allows Sirk had more freedom as auteur than in his previous Hollywood films, and calls the film one of Sirk's "most directly personal projects" (111). In discussing the film, Sirk himself, in an interview with Jon Halliday, says that "one of the foremost things of picture-making, I think, is to bend your material to your style and purpose . . . A story nearly always leaves you a chance to express something beyond plot and literary values" (97). Sirk's subtle interweaving of the issues of sexuality and class facilitate a scathing two-pronged critique of the oppressive and hypocritical aspects of 1950s middle class American society. Sirk effectively critiques patriarchy by turning the world of the film inside out, inverting, and even parodying the conventions of classical cinema. He imbues the lower class with virtue while reversing the conventional intradiegetic politics of the gaze. Cary is a subjective protagonist whose desiring gaze, rather than victimizing her, takes Ron as its object. In this section I will illlustrate how, within her society, Cary initially fills the role allotted to women in classical cinema--the object of male desire. In her relation with Ron, however, which is the focus of the film and which is eventually consummated, Cary comes to occupy the subjective role--conventionally reserved for men--in which she not only controls the gaze and the narrative, but also takes Ron as the object of her desire. Sirk conflates class mobility and sexual mobility to create a subversive text.
In the film's opening scene, Cary's close friend Sara establishes and resigns herself to the traditional patriarchal attitude toward female sexuality found in Cary's society--for men desire is acceptable, especially desire for younger women. Sara tells Cary that she has to find a date that evening for a middle-aged male friend. When Cary shows interest, Sara remarks, "We might as well face it. He's 40, which means he'll consider any female over 18 too old." That evening in her home, when Cary descends the stairs (one ritualized site for the display of the female figure as spectacle in classical cinema) for her date with the much older Harvey, she functions as an erotic spectacle. But given her age and position as a widow, Wyman's sexy red dress speaks sexual desire rather than the to-be-looked-at-ness demanded by patriarchy.
As in classical cinema, Cary's expression of desire in country club society is simultaneous with her own victimization. First, Cary's son Ned who watches her descend the stairs from his low-angle point of view, makes it clear that Cary's dress expresses sexual desire when he remarks with disapproval, "Holy cats mother. Isn't it cut kind of low? I hope it doesn't scare Harvey off." Upon Cary's arrival at the club, Mona says to Cary, "There's nothing like red for attracting attention. I suppose that's why so few widows wear it. They'd have to be careful." Later that night, Howard, a married man, dances with Cary, leading her out onto an empty terrace. He forcefully embraces and kisses Cary, telling her, "Let's run off to New York. I know a place. . . ." As Howard grips her, the camera zooms in to a close-up shot of Cary from Howard's point of view, reflecting his oppressive desire for her. After she refuses him, Howard says, "But I don't apologize for wanting you." Adhering to the sexual double standard in classical cinema, Howard's expression of desire is socially condoned, while Cary is victimized for expressing her desire symbolized by the red dress--a desire which exceeds instantaneous heterosexual coupling.
After this early (classical) scene, Cary adheres to the conventions of the woman's film--she becomes de-eroticized, reverting to conservative gray and brown clothing; she never again is a spectacle, something that would impede identification with her as subjective protagonist. In a sense, after a brief stint as erotic spectacle during which Cary suffers point of view shots from her son and from Howard, she passes the baton to Ron who functions as spectacle for her and the spectator throughout the remainder of the film.
We see that while the film opens with the same politics of the gendered gaze as most classical films, the narrative centers on Cary in the same way that it centers on a male protagonist in classical cinema. As in the woman's film, Cary's story drives the narrative, the vast majority of which explores the working out of Cary's dilemmas without Ron present in the scene. Ron, by contrast, is given few lines and only one brief scene in which Cary is not present. Ron's infrequent appearances arrest Cary and the narrative, functioning in a way traditionally reserved for appearances of the female in classical cinema. Mulvey explains that in classical cinema the presence of a woman "tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.(*1) One example of such a freeze occurs after Cary has left Ron. She is shown at a Christmas tree lot, trying to decide on a tree. Suddenly Ron appears. In a shot that alternates several times between a soft focus close-up of Ron's desiring face from Cary's point of view (shared by the spectator) and a more neutral shot of Cary hesitantly, but unquestionably, expressing her desire, Cary forgets trees altogether.
Occupying a position of power vis-a-vis Ron, Cary, who eventually becomes sole possessor of the desiring gaze, seems to be modelled on controlling male figures found in classical cinema. As pointed out, Cary is much older, and of a higher social class. Cary's power in her relation to Ron is evident in her acceptance and rejection of Ron's marriage proposal, as well as in her decision to return to him. By contrast, Ron's powerlessness, evident throughout, is made especially poignant in a failed hunting scene. After Ron misses another easy shot at a pheasant, Mick jokingly tells Ron, "You should load that gun with shells." Ron replies, "I can't shoot straight anymore." The phallic connotations of Ron's impotent gun are obvious. Mick then tells him to go to Cary and apologize. "For what?" Ron asks. "For anything. Make something up. She doesn't have to make up her mind. No girl does. She wants you to make it up for her." But Ron responds, "I can't. I have to wait for her to come to me."
Though it seems natural that spectators would identify with Cary because she drives the narrative, has more point of view shots, and is de-eroticized, skeptics of the possibility of tracing genuine female subjectivity into film might suggest that, as in the woman's film, the medical gaze undermines Cary's subjectivity. After Cary reneges on her willingness to marry Ron, she sees her doctor at the train station and tells him, "I've been meaning to call you for a check-up. I've been having some miserable headaches lately." The film suggests that the cause of Cary's headaches is the repression of her sexuality. A few scenes later, in her doctor's office (she refers to her doctor as "Dan"), he tells her, "Forget for a moment that I'm your doctor and let me give you some advice as a friend. . . Marry him." When she protests that Ron should come to her, Dan reinforces what the audience already knows--that she controls the fate of the relationship.
Dan's authorization of Cary's desire may function as a strategy of containment in the name of patriarchy--i.e., female desire must be approved by a doctor. But several factors argue against this reading. First, Cary addresses the doctor as Dan, and he addresses her as a friend. Second, Dan recognizes Cary's desire and advises her to own and act on it, whereas traditional patriarchy ignores female desire or punishes any manifestation of it. Most important, however, is the final scene with Ron lying on the couch in doubtful condition. Dan tells Cary, "He'll need rest and care. And he'll need you, Cary." Dan then leaves the room with the nurse, leaving Cary with total freedom to gaze down on the sleeping Ron, a gaze relayed to spectators through several lengthy point of view shots. Cary thus appropriates the medical gaze and combines it with her desiring gaze in the final scene. Rather than undermining Cary's subjectivity, medical discourse reinforces her power as narrative and scopic agent in the diegesis. Cary, her desiring gaze no longer a source of conflict and indecision, asserts her sexuality (despite her society's attempt to control it) becoming sole master of the look.
. . . an actress has to be more than an ordinary woman, and an actor somehow has to be less of a man.
While the enhanced subjective representation and desiring gaze attributed to Cary would make All That Heaven Allows a more radical variant of the woman's film, it is important to discuss what she is looking at and how the dynamics of looking are played out in the film. First, Ron functions as spectacle in ways obviously modeled on conventions of classical cinema, filling the role of the object of desire, a role traditionally played by the female figure. The opening scene is crucial to the establishment of the diegetic politics of the gaze toward Ron as spectacle. Mulvey writes that many classical films such as Only Angels Have Wings and To Have and Have Not open with "the woman as object of the combined gaze of spectator and all the male protagonists in the film."(*1) Similarly, All That Heaven Allows opens with Ron on a ladder (rather than a staircase) in Cary's front yard. Cary and her closest friend Sara are talking on the porch when both women are pictured simultaneously staring at Ron for at least three seconds. Their gaze, another example in which erotic contemplation of Ron arrests the narrative, is condoned by Ron's lower class status--a fact that further cements Sirk's conflation of the issues of class and sexuality. Next, Cary walks Sara to her car to pick up a box of dishes. As Cary turns to walk back to the house, a shot from her point of view shows Ron descending the ladder and coming toward her with his arms open as if he were intending to embrace Cary (and the spectator who identifies with Cary). "Can I help you Mrs. Scott?" he says.
Ron is shown wearing beige work clothes with an open collar that is turned up; he has a deep tan, immaculate hair, classic good looks, and at 6'4'', he towers over Cary. The camera lingers on him throughout the scene. For instance, in a shot showing Cary and Ron sitting at Cary's patio table, Ron's profile, in a medium close up, is pictured in the foreground on the left side of the frame, taking up 2/3 of the frame. Though Ron turns briefly toward the camera and briefly toward Cary, the shot emphasizes Ron's profile. Cary, facing the camera, is more distant. In this and other shots of Ron in which the point of view is not Cary's own, the spectator is gazing at Ron with Cary instead of through her.
Throughout the film, clothing marks Ron as an object of desire. As mentioned, Cary, wearing a red dress, initially functions as an object of desire in country club culture, after which she reverts to brown and gray clothing. After Ron's first meeting with Cary in which he is obviously smitten with her, he takes on Cary's role as spectacle, symbolized by his continuous wearing of red clothing. Most often Ron is shown wearing a red, wool hunting shirt. However, when Cary has announced their marriage and invites Ron to meet her children and friends at the club, Ron arrives wearing a dark suit with a red-striped tie and a red scarf. The significance of red in marking Ron as a spectacle is especially apparent when Ron, on the cliff top, watches Cary drive up to his house--the "old mill" which Ron has restored and freshly painted a bright red made more conspicuous by the white winter landscape. Successive cuts from Ron in his red hunting shirt to Cary staring pensively at his red house suggest that Ron, marked with the color red, functions as the object of Cary's fantasy.
As mentioned, performance, of a musical number for example, is an important ritual for the casting of woman as spectacle in classical cinema. The most obvious instance in which Ron fulfills this role is at Mick's party where he opens a jug with his teeth (while all watch), dances wildly, and then plays the piano and sings a complete song. While Ron performs, shots of Ron from Cary's point of view and shots from a neutral point of view that show Cary gazing at Ron establish Ron as the object of Cary's gaze. Another instance Ron "performs" and is treated as a spectacle is when Cary invites him to a society party at Sara's house. Rumors of their relationship have titillated the community. Several characters at the party watch anxiously out the window for Ron's car to arrive. In a crosscut to Cary's home, Ron asks, "Do we really have to go?" Asserting her control over Ron, Cary tells him, "I want to show you off." Cary understands that to be shown off, Ron only needs to be physically present. Back at the party a woman remarks, "I don't want to miss this arrival." Again suggesting a link between sexuality and class, when Ron's clunky old car pulls up to the party, one woman says disapprovingly, "Just look at that car." Another responds breathlessly, "Just look at that man." When Ron fills the doorway we hear a female voice remark, "So that's Cary's nature boy." Then, "He's fascinating. And that tan. . . ." Ron's stunning physical presence is performance; women within the diegesis readily acknowledge him as an object of desire.
In another parallel to classical cinema's treatment of the female as spectacle--fetishization--the film builds up a fetishistic relationship between Ron's body and trees. As mentioned, in the opening scene Ron, a caretaker of trees, is in Cary's tree, which in a parallel to Cary's mature sexuality, is in its fall splendor. After mentioning plans to give up gardening so that he can begin tree farming full-time, Ron tells Cary the name of her tree and gives her a branch from it. That evening, after her disastrous red-dress-night at the club, Cary returns home to her bedroom and gazes longingly at the branch Ron gave her and then tenderly fondles it. Meanwhile, Cary's daughter Kay is overwhelmed with passion, necking with her date just below Cary's window. Crosscuts between these two scenes establish the tree branch as the fetishized object of Cary's erotic desiring gaze for Ron.
The second time that Ron and Cary meet, a tree again serves as a fetishistic substitute for the phallus. Ron, packing up his tools, tells Cary he won't be coming back to work on her yard because winter is coming on. Recognizing the mutuality of their desiring glances, Ron invites Cary to visit his house. "Would you like to see my silver-tipped spruce?" he tentatively (provocatively?) asks. In the next scene, Ron is shown hoisting his five-foot spruce which he holds directly over his groin for Cary to see. When Cary expresses disappointment at the small size of the tree after five years of growth, Ron, his masculinity not impugned, explains, "If you're impatient, you have no reason to grow trees." Not only does the choice of a conifer as fetishistic object connote a fountain of youth sexuality--it stays green year-round--but it also suggests a patient sexuality, one that stands in marked contrast to Howard's impetuous propositions. The silver-tipped spruce is again invoked later in the film, when, alone at a Christmas tree lot, Cary gazes at the trees and tells the salesman that she wants a silver-tipped spruce. Suddenly Ron himself appears.
In addition to suggesting a fetishistic relation between Ron's body and trees, the film, in the same economy, idealizes Ron's character and body. Mick's wife Alida, does an over-the-top job of idealizing Ron's character. After telling Cary that Ron saved her marriage, Alida explains that Ron doesn't have money or a high position, yet is "secure." Ron's motto Alida says is "to thine own self be true." When Cary picks up Walden, Alida explains that Mick quotes from it constantly. Cary asks if Ron reads Thoreau, to which Alida replies, "He doesn't need to read it. He lives it." Ron's secret, we learn from Alida is that "he refuses to let unimportant things become important." Ron's limited diegetic presence preserves the ideality of his character which reflects and, to some extent, de-sexualizes the ideality of his physical appearance. In one of the numerous instances in which characters fetishize Ron's virile body, Cary's son Ned tells her, "I think all you see is a good-looking set of muscles." The fetishization of Ron's body is so ubiquitous that it hardly needs comment.
Contributing to diegetic representations of Ron as ideal spectacle is Rock Hudson's star status as a fetishized object of desire. The year before making All That Heaven Allows, Hudson had his first starring role in Magnificent Obsession, a star vehicle. Jerry Oppenheimer and Jack Vitek, in their biography of Hudson remark, "There could hardly exist a better vehicle than Magnificent Obsession for packaging and presenting a new heartthrob." Hudson's biographers note the reaction: "When [Magnificent Obsession] was released, thousands of teenage girls had no trouble deciding what was magnificent about it: its leading man, Rock Hudson". They further explain, "Since the Jane Wyman character is distinctly older than the man, the film fueled house-wife fantasies across the country."(*1) Hudson's sex appeal was established in Magnificent Obsession and then intensely marketed in advertisements and fan magazines. Universal frequently forced Hudson to pose in bathing suits for fan magazines, and "in the mid-fifties, when Rock's box-office appeal was rising to its height, Universal did their best to hawk him to the masses as the 'Beefcake Baron.'"(*1)
In spite of or, more correctly, because of Hudson's fetishized figure, Cary controls the relationship and the story. Expression of desire in Cary's own middle class world is taboo, yet the lower class Ron represents an alternative, the choice of which signifies Cary's desire. We see that unlike the gothic film in which the female protagonist's gaze lacks an object and therefore engenders anxiety, and unlike the classical film in which the female is not allowed the gaze (not allowed desire), Cary sheds the role of erotic object prescribed for her in middle class culture and becomes the agent of a desiring gaze that takes Ron as its object. Invested with scopic subjectivity, Cary drives the narrative. In what appears to be a reversal of terms, Ron, as object of desire, adheres to conventions elaborated for the presence of females as spectacle in classical films. The star system contributed to the creation of Hudson as a male sex symbol who, as object of the female gaze, exemplifies to-be-looked-at-ness. The result for the female spectator, as outlined by Mulvey for the male spectator of classical cinema, would appear to be twofold: greater identification with a gazing protagonist (Cary) who is more deeply invested with subjectivity; increased visual pleasure, resulting from the projection--both mediated by the protagonist's gaze and unmediated during moments of performance--of sexual fantasy onto Ron.
Before concluding that the representation of Cary's desire escapes patriarchal control in the same way that Cary escapes from patriachal society in the diegesis, we must examine the nature of the desire represented, taking into account the gay sensibility Ron's character embodies, Ron's own expression of desire and its contribution to and complication of his function as erotic object, and finally, the Oedipal structure of the plot. In his book The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, Vito Russo notes that the 1950s was an intensely homophobic decade during which representation of homosexuality in film was forbidden by the Production Codes. Russo explains that a gay sensibility "can be present even when there is no sign of homosexuality, open or covert, before or behind the camera. Gay sensibility is largely a product of oppression, of the necessity to hide so well for so long." Speaking specifically about characters in film, Russo adds, "The equation between being different in any way and being homosexual" is "noticeable in an era of rigid conformity such as the 1950s."(*1)
Hudson's character in All That Heaven Allows has a gay sensibility, and the script includes a gay subtext. Hudson plays a single male who, in addition to being beyond the typical age for marriage, defines himself rigidly against patriarchal culture. Although necessarily crude, hints of homosexual stereotypes include Ron's life alone in the country, his preoccupation with decorating the interior of his home, and his love of plants. Ron is passive (he doesn't force his desire on Cary), and patient ("If you're impatient you have no reason to grow trees," he says). He is also sympathetic and motherly (when Cary first leaves him, instead of raging, he tells her, "Don't forget your boots. You mustn't catch cold.").
The film also implies a homosexual relationship between Ron and Mick. When together the two act like boys and/or young lovers with their antics and private jokes. When Ron and Cary arrive at Mick and Alita's party, Ron walks directly over to Mick, whispers something, and the two of them laugh. Cary, obviously distressed, gets an explanation only later that night after demanding to know what they were talking about. Ron, trying to assuage her anxiety, incongruously tells her, "I just told him that you have the most gorgeous legs I've ever seen." Alida further suggests a homosexual relation between Ron and Mick, when she tells Wyman that Hudson and Mick met in the Navy, a site with a long history of homosexual connotations. Further, Alida remarks the dramatic change their meeting had on Mick.
In addition, the film's gay subtext is so explicit in places that the Hollywood community, aware of Hudson's homosexuality, must have gasped:
Cary: "You'll have to think about [marriage] someday.You'll meet a nice girl and. . ."
Ron: "I've met plenty of girls, nice and otherwise."
Cary: "Well maybe not the right one. Or do you think you're not susceptible?"
In a later conversation Hudson explains, "Mick discovered for himself that he had to make his own decisions. That he had to be a man." To which Wyman queries, "Maybe you want me to be man."
Without positing a rigid essentialism (yet aware that only the Hollywood community was aware of it at the time), I believe the fact that Hudson himself was gay also adds to Ron's gay sensibility. Linking the characters he played in films to his private life, star discourse on Hudson was generated in part by celebrity gossip, which influenced spectators' reception of him. And Hudson's role in All That Heaven Allows is surprisingly parallel to his actual life. In Hudson's biography, Marc Christian, one of Hudson's last lovers, says, "If anything can be said in Rock's favor about his image, it's that what you saw on the screen is basically what he was in private." Oppenheimer and Vitek write that Hudson "displayed a deep-seated passivity, an almost fatalistic docility." They explain that Hudson had the "irresistible combination of big virile man and lost child."(*1)
Distinguishing Ron from traditional representations of females as objects of desire, and not incompatible with his gay sensibility (as we will see), is Ron's own desiring gaze. Speaking about All That Heaven Allows, Sirk explains that "in melodrama it's of advantage to have one immovable character against which you can put split ones."(*1) From the outset, Ron is blatantly expressive of and immovable in his desire for Cary. While shots of Cary emphasize her hesitancy and indecision, Ron's face, like a prop, is shown consistently in rapture. In an essay on Valentino and female spectatorship, Miriam Hansen explains that "Valentino's appeal depends, to a large degree, on the manner in which he combines masculine control of the look with the feminine quality of 'to-be-looked-at-ness.'"(*1) In an economy similar to that pointed out by Hansen in the Valentino films, Ron's desiring gaze, instead of reflecting his mastery over Cary, shows how completely he is at her mercy. Hansen writes, "When Valentino's eyes become riveted on the woman of his choice, he seems paralyzed rather than aggressive or menacing, occupying the position of the rabbit rather than the snake." Ron's subordinate desire is subject to Cary's control of the narrative and her final lone possession of the gaze.
Occupying the position of erotic object, Ron's face is the site of a convergence of pleasures: the pleasure in his desiring gaze, and the narcissistic pleasure of his being the object of desire. One obvious demonstration of Ron's positioning as subject and object of the look takes place in the "old mill" when Ron and Cary first kiss. During the kiss, a long take shows Ron's face--predictably handsome and full of ardor--followed by a much shorter take showing desire mingled with hesitancy on Cary's face; the camera then returns to rest again on Ron. In the case of Valentino, Hansen describes this convergence between subject and object of the look as "a narcissistic doubling" in which "the subject of the look constitutes itself as object, graphically illustrating Freud's formulation of the autoerotic dilemma: 'Too bad that I cannot kiss myself.'" In "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" (from which Hansen quotes) Freud's explanation of autoerotism is tantalizingly close to his explanation of inversion. Both cases involve attempts to recreate early pleasures experienced between the mother and child through the use of objects either not extraneous to the body (autoerotism) or identical to the body (narcissistic object choice). Freud writes that after leaving behind a "shortlived fixation to a woman (usually the mother)," inverts "identify with a woman and take themselves as their sexual object."(*3) Further reinforcing the close relation between autoerotism and homosexuality in Freudian psychology, Michael Ruse notes that Freud speculated that homosexuality was the result of arrested development in the auto-erotic phase.(*3) The peculiar concentration of pleasures arrayed around Ron's face displays striking affinities to Freud's description of homosexuality.
Taking into consideration Ron's gay sensibility and the psychological complications of his own desiring gaze in his function as spectacle, Cary's desire for Ron can be either perverse in a way that subverts patriarchal sexual prescription or a patriarchal manipulation of the representation of female desire that contains it by pathologizing it or both. Three possible explanations account for Ron's attractiveness to Cary. First, the contention that women are attracted to gay men because of their unavailability. Russo quotes Fleming: "[James Bond] liked the look of her. He felt the sexual challenge all beautiful lesbians have for men."(*3) Does Ron's gay sensibility pose a parallel challenge for women that incites female desire? A second possibility is that Ron's gay sensibility is invisible to Cary who is attracted to the image of Ron as an adult heterosexual man. Third, Ron's childlike nature, his "arrested development," may stimulate desire in women for what Freud has called the most perfect relationship: that between mother and son.
While all, some, or none of these factors may operate in the film, All That Heaven Allows most strongly plays up the third explanation of female desire for Ron, the lost child. A careful look at the narrative structure reveals that the film is a retelling of the Oedipus story from Jocasta's (Cary's) point of view. In an early scene, Cary's pop-psychologizing daughter invokes the Oedipus complex, setting the stage for its playing out. Rather than the son killing his father and marrying his mother, Cary (who is given the most point of view shots and the most narrative agency) symbolically buries her husband and marries her son (Ron). Though the cause of Cary's husband's death is never made known, one year earlier (the time that Cary's husband has been dead), Hudson teamed up with Wyman in Magnificent Obsession in which Hudson (Oedipus) is unknowingly responsible for the death of Wyman's husband. Cary's husband's trophy on the mantelpiece is established as a symbol for her husband when a suitor reminisces about the time Cary's husband made them all drink champagne from it. After telling Ron she will marry him, Cary is shown putting the trophy in the basement, symbolically burying her husband, replacing him with Ron. Cary's son Ned notices the trophy's absence and angrily asks her why she removed it, ending with "How can you even think about marrying Ron Kirby when you're father's wife?"
Ron not only looks young enough to be Cary's son, but is repeatedly referred to as a son. In the opening scene Cary's first line to Ron is, "Oh, you're Mr. Kirby's son." When Cary tells her children that she plans to marry Mr. Kirby, Ned responds, "The only Mr. Kirby I know is a gardener, and he's dead." Humiliated, Cary responds, "It's his son." At the society party Ron is referred to as "Cary's nature boy." Ron plays the passive role of a son in his relationship to Cary throughout the film, accentuated by his fall from the cliff and resulting concussion which further infantilizes him.
In essay 33 of Freud's New Introductory Lectures in Psycho-analysis entitled "Femininity," he writes:
The feminine situation is only established, however, if the wish for a penis is replaced by one for a baby, if, that is, a baby takes the place of a penis in accordance with an ancient symbolic equivalence. . . Her happiness is greater if later on this wish for a baby finds fulfillment in reality, and quite especially so if the baby is a little boy who brings the longed for penis with him.(*3)
According to Freud's theory, Cary's desire for a penis is satisfied when she satisfies her feminine desire for a son (Ron). Ron's homosexuality, popularly theorized as a permanent arrestment of development during the stage when the son fixates on his mother, insures Cary's permanent possession of him--a permanent substitute for her lack, a permanent relationship. Ron's homosexuality ensures Cary's possession of the penis. The film, then, plays out what Freud might call the ultimate female fantasy: consummated love between mother and son, illustrated in the final scene in which Cary's gaze on the infantilized and sleeping Ron conflates her sexuality with maternity. The movie ends the "pathos" Doane suggests "is generated by a situation in which maternal love becomes a sign of the impossibility of female desire which must remain unfulfilled precisely because it is 'out of sync' with the proper order of the generations."(*3)
Though the "romantic" conclusion of All That Heaven Allows may alleviate the pathos Doane describes, the channelling of female desire into a permanent mother-child relationship between Cary and Ron is hardly liberating. The film reduces female sexual desire, confusing it with the desire to mother. The mother-son Oedipal relation is a phase that fails to articulate the possibility of an intersubjective relationship between psychologically mature adults. Despite the illusion of Cary's escape into a world where true feminine desire can be signified, the patriarchal unconscious re-contains female desire by representing it within the phallocentric Oedipus story. The mother-son relationship is doomed to permanancy through the use of a homosexual male as an arrested spectacle and the positing of the female's desire for a son as an essentialist condition. As a result, heterosexual men are protected from the threat of genuine female desire that may have been directed at them. Patriarchy's use of the homosexual male as the substitute phallus for the female protagonist is another instance of patriarchal oppression that insures--in a way that parallels the containment of female desire--homosexual desire will be contained in the mother-son complex. Rather than revealing female desire, All That Heaven Allows reveals that all that patriarchy allows is a bounded and bankrupt representation of female and homosexual desires--the desires that threaten heterosexual men most.
*1. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" Screen (Autumun 1975) 16: 6-18,p. 8.
*2. Linda Williams, "When the Woman Looks," Re:Vision: Essays in Feminist Criticism, eds. Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp and Linda Williams, (Frederick MD: University Publications of America, 1984), p.83.
*3. Mulvey, p. 12.
*4. Ibid., p. 11.
*5. Ibid., p.13.
*6. Ibid.,p. 14.
*7. Ibid.,p. 10.
*8. Maria LaPlace, "Producing and Consuming the Woman's Film," Home is Where the Heart Is, ed. Christine Gledhill, (London: British Film Institute Publishing, 1987), p. 139.
*9. Mary Ann Doane,"The Woman's Film," Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Criticism, eds. Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp and Linda Williams, (Frederick MD: University Publications of America, 1984), p. 179.
*10. Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940s, (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987), pp. 54-69.
*11. Ibid., Desire, p. 136.
*12. Ibid., "The Woman's Film," p. 69.
*13. Ibid., p. 70.
*14. Ibid., Desire, p. 13.
*15. Ibid., "The Woman's Film," p. 80.
*16. Mulvey, p. 11.
*17. Ibid., Interview with George Cukor, p. 151.
*18. Mulvey, p.13.
*19. Jerry Oppenheimer and Jack Vitek, Idol: The True Story of an American Film Hero, (New York: Villard Books, 1986), pp. 47-49.
*20. Ibid., pp. 31, 59.
*21. Vido Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), pp. 92, 99.
*22. Oppenheimer, pp. 107, 8, 94.
*23. Jon Halliday, Sirk on Sirk, Interview, (London: Martin Secker & Warburg Limited, 1977), p. 98.
*24. Miriam Hansen,"Pleasure, Ambivalence, Identification: Valentino and Female Spectatorship," Cinema Journal(Summer 1986), 25(4): 6-32. p.12.
*25. Ibid., p. 15.
*26. Ibid., p. 12.
*27. Sigmund Freund, "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality," The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey, (London: The Hogarth Press, 1933), vol. 7, p.145.
*28. Michael Ruse, Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1988), pp, 25-26.
*29. Russo, p. 155.
*30. Sigmund Freud,"Femininity," Standard Edition, vol. 22, p. 128.
*31. Doane, Desire, p. 94.
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_____. The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940s. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.
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Lewes, Kenneth. The Psychoanalytic Theory of Male Homosexuality. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1988.
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Oppenheimer Jerry and Jack Vitek. Idol: The True Story of an American Film Hero. New York: Villard Books, 1986.
Ruse, Michael. Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1988.
Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York: Harper and Row, 1981.
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Williams, Linda. "When the Woman Looks." In Doane, Mellencamp and Williams, eds. Re-vision. pp. 83-99.