The Cultural Significance of Melodrama

September 22 marked the first day of fall, and while seasonal changes in LA are more of a state of mind than an actual discernible difference in temperature, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite movies: All That Heaven Allows. Directed by Douglas Sirk, Heaven is a rich melodrama that opens with picturesque scenes: fall foliage in a small New England town, not unlike the one I grew up in. Heaven follows the romance between a rich, older widow and her young landscaper. The romance is looked down upon by both the woman’s family and her peers. Drama - and lots of it - ensues. Heaven is a unique film in that it doubles down on its premise and commits to being an overwrought melodrama. Rather than attempting nuance, it aims for extravagant emotional expression.  

Upon it’s release, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows was panned in the New York Times. The film was called “feminine fiction” full of “outright emotional bulldozing” and “easy cliches” by writer Bosley Crowther. It would be far too cheap and easy to chalk this up to Mr. Bosley having bad taste. How could he have predicted that seventy years later Sirk would be considered an auteur of the melodrama subgenre? But Mr. Crowther’s reaction to this film, one now considered a monument in the realm of melodrama, is a response we continue to see today to modern melodramas. Earlier this month, The Light Between Oceans, directed by Derek Cianfrance, opened to mostly lukewarm reviews. Similar to Sirk’s film, Oceans is a film drenched with dramatics that don’t align with the typical prestige drama that many expected it to be. It seems that cultural appreciation for melodramas is limited. We value Sirk’s work today, but much of the work made in his image is looked down upon. The under-appreciation of melodrama in American popular culture reflects the continued trend of devaluation and trivialization of outright emotional expression.

In understanding this idea, it’s important to talk about how we define melodramas. Terms like “tear-jerkers” or “chick flicks” are often thrown around when we talk about them. These colloquial terms represent a dismissive tendency within the cultural subconscious that devalues melodramatic art. These terms are steeped in sexism as a way of gate keeping; by conflating a film with feminine characteristics, it becomes less likely to be considered culturally significant or prestigious. This is because award winning films, films considered important within the zeitgeist, are often praised for their subtlety, nuance, and restraint. Melodramas represent the inversion of those characteristics.

This isn’t intended to be a take down of nuance - which is plenty valuable - but films are often rewarded for their alignment with the masculine, whereas melodramas are looked down upon for their inherent femininity. Melodramas tell stories that put women at the center, rather than relegating them to the sideline. In assuming feminine characteristics, melodramas become less likely to be considered culturally significant or prestigious. Sirk’s Heaven is a model of a melodrama that broke through the cultural barriers to claim prestige. It’s a film that draws its strength and energy from its female lead (played by Jane Wyman) and does not compromise a single second of emotional expression.

That emotional expression is really at the heart of melodrama. Objectively, it is a genre defined by its stylistic and emotional excess. The aim is to amplify emotions in a way that dramatizes the violence of emotional turmoil. More than that, melodramas are charged with the responsibility of finding an incredible balance between action and inaction. A good melodrama posits its characters in the space between achieving their desires and impossible circumstances that prevent that achievement. A good melodrama places its characters in situations where both action and inaction will have devastating consequences. This balancing act is part of what makes good melodramas so rewarding for audiences. They have the potential to be compelling fantasies that allow audiences to project their own emotional turmoil onto characters in a way that can be therapeutic. Witnessing the expression of emotion in grandiose ways can and should be related to the act of uncorking a bottle of champagne; it provides an cathartic release without risk.

We should value the genre’s ability to provide catharsis and its exploration of emotions on a scale that other films shy away from. Instead, American culture heralds those films that capture a gritty realism. Realism is a word that gets used a lot when describing great films; we respect their ability to capture truth. But in only lauding realism, we fail to give due to the importance of fictionalized takes on reality. As a genre, melodrama does not beholden itself to realism. In embracing the limitlessness of fiction, melodramas are able to explore emotions and situations that which realism cannot. Outright expressions of heightened emotion are looked down upon within American society and the disdain for melodrama is an extension of this characteristic. We must learn to value melodramas as an outlet for this emotional expression and support its continued presence in popular culture.