Johnny Belinda, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows

Rock Hudson
Rock Hudson

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JOHNNY BELINDA

D: Jean Negulesco (1948); with Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead, Lew Ayres, Charles Bickford, Stephen McNally, Jan Sterling.

MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION

D: Douglas Sirk (1954); with Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead, Rock Hudson, Otto Kruger.

ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS

D: Douglas Sirk (1955); with Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead, Rock Hudson, Virginia Grey.

Jane Wyman -- a competent and reliable actress and a really classy dame whose amazingly scandal-free career has ranged from 1932's The Kid From Spain, in which she is billed as Sarah Jane Fulks, to the successful Falcon Crest television series of the 1980s. What a stretch of the imagination that the actress whose sensitive portrayals in The Yearling (1946) and Johnny Belinda (1948) would become television's hard-edged harridan par excellence, Angela Channing, but there are few things more gratifying to a fan than to see the object of their affections reveal previously unseen talents. But play the parts she does, and everything in between, with her signature tenacity and sincerity. She has had multiple award nominations, and won the Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe for her efforts. Is she really an Oscar-caliber actress? Perhaps not by today's standards, but her solid performances over almost 60 years deserve acknowledgment for Lifetime Achievement. She has not appeared onscreen in over a decade, even declining to attend the 70th Academy Awards celebration -- sad, since the next time we see her at the Academy Awards will probably be when they show her photo to commemorate her passing. Wyman's Academy Award -- won for a performance in which she didn't utter a single word, is for Johnny Belinda. In this, she plays "The Dummy," as she is insensitively called by her father (Bickford) and aunt (Moorehead), but she is simply a deaf/mute girl who has never received any of the attention she desperately needs to help her communicate. She is discovered by a doctor (Ayres), who teaches her to read lips and use sign language. She is raped by the town bully, bears his child, and is ostracized by the community, as is the doctor, who is suspected of fathering the child. When the bully comes to forcibly take his child, Belinda shoots him, and goes on trial for murder. (In real life, "devoutly" Roman Catholic Wyman broke up her marriage to Ronald Reagan so she could marry Ayres. That marriage also ended in a divorce.) Director Negulesco, among his many accomplishments, is one of the premier directors of "women's movies," including Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Woman's World (1954), The Best of Everything (1959), and Phone Call From a Stranger (1952). He handles Johnny Belinda without the slick sheen of soap, and Wyman fares extremely well for that. Unintentional humor is added when it becomes apparent that poor Belinda must have been pregnant for a very long time, since she gives birth to an extraordinarily large infant who is clearly several months old. Jan Sterling appears here as the rapist's wife, replete with what would soon become her signature shrill histrionics in such classics as Caged (1950), Female on the Beach (1955), and Women's Prison (1955). Sterling is always adorable but not deeply talented. She burns up the screen in every role, but succeeds like an aftertaste, lingering long after a sip. But the bravura performances are in the hands of Bickford, playing Belinda's father, Black McDonald, and the incredible Agnes Moorehead as her Aunt Aggie. Moorehead, nicknamed "The Lavender Lady," supposedly for her propensity to wear the color to complement her flame-red tresses, has, according to many reliable sources, given her nickname a more accurate definition by being hailed as one of filmdom's best-loved lesbians. And, according to the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com), "She was one of the cast members of the ill-fated film The Conqueror, which was filmed in 1954 in the Nevada desert close by to where the government was doing nuclear testing. In later years those tests were suspected to have caused the cancer deaths of several of the films stars, including John Wayne, Dick Powell, Susan Hayward, and Lee Van Cleef." Moorehead was a favorite of Orson Welles, and her film debut was in Citizen Kane in 1941 followed the next year by The Magnificent Ambersons, which established her as a very serious actress -- and one whose charm would endure long after her death. Epitomized by her Endora character on television's Bewitched, perhaps her greatest (and certainly her most popular) achievement, she, in fact, does herself a disservice by allowing that campy, over-the-top portrayal to overshadow her brilliant dramatic talent as evidenced in The Blue Veil (1951), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Pollyanna (1960). Her pairing with Jane Wyman in five films has an odd flavor to it, but both are absolute professionals and present themselves with utter perfection. In Johnny Belinda, Moorehead is the stern taskmaster, in Magnificent Obsession, she is a caring friend and nurse -- the sort of role she repeated often. Wyman is beset with physical and emotional infirmities in most of her movies and often needs a caring friend and nurse. Magnificent Obsession, a remake of a 1934 Irene Dunne film directed by John Stahl, is a different animal than many of Sirk's productions. All the classic Sirk-ian elements are present, but he refuses to allow this to slide into the ranks of an estrogen-fest such as Imitation of Life (1959). But it gushes nonetheless with plot devices that sorely test reality -- the only resuscitator available that could have saved an ailing but beloved doctor's life is co-opted by a playboy/sportsman who crashes his boat. The playboy (Hudson) feels bad about that and tries to make amends with the widow (Wyman), clumsily forcing his good intentions upon her, and in her haste to get away from him, she is struck by a car and blinded. Then the playboy feels really, really bad and becomes a doctor to try and save her sight. Hudson's pairing with Wyman is almost stranger than Moorehead's. In both Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows, he is the strapping, younger hunk, and she the prim matron that, after much emotional brouhaha, finds his sexiness irresistible. He is standard-issue Hollywood hunk, and not deeply talented either, but always engaging. Magnificent Obsession is gloriously filmed, and Sirk frequently employs large picture windows in his interior shots, with lush scenery in the background, perhaps as a dramatic counterpoint to the aching dramas that occur indoors. It is a first-rate melodrama, with the luster of silk satin and an ageless appeal. The triple-threat of Wyman/Hudson/ Moorehead is repeated in All That Heaven Allows, another Sirk soap-fest. Far more cloying than Magnificent Obsession, the film imagines itself to be cut from the same mold. Indeed, they were made very close together, with cookie-cutter casts, crews, and locations, but the message is very different in this, and carries more social import. Here we have Wyman as, of course, a wealthy older woman, who falls in love with her nurseryman. Everybody's mortified, especially her prissy children, who give her a TV and tell her that that's all she'll need for company. She bows to the societal pressure. All That Heaven Allows also allows us more to laugh at than the previous movie -- in the 21st century, it's very difficult to watch Rock Hudson play the heterosexual stud. In a hysterical bit of dialogue that never fails (now) to bring down the house, Hudson confides to Wyman that all his friends have to be men. Wyman lifts her doe eyes up to him and says without a trace of irony, "Do you want me to be a man, too?" But that pales beside the imagery created in the final scene, as the stricken-but-recovering Hudson is lying prone on Wyman's couch covered by a blanket. As Wyman draws closer to kiss him, he raises his knee under the covers, and it looks like nothing so much as an enormous erection rising to meet her. All That Heaven Allows also includes the wonderful Virginia Grey in the cast. A favorite of Sirk, who used her in numerous films, Grey can also be seen in a spectacular bit part as the malicious sales clerk who works with Joan Crawford at Black's Fifth Avenue in The Women (1939).

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