Monday Editor’s Pick: The Killing of Sister George (1968)

by on April 17, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Mon April 23 at 8:00 at IFC Center [Program & Tix]
*Surprise special guest presenter

 
Queer/Art/Film” series presents another groundbreaker. Originally scheduled host Lady Bunny is not able to attend, but IFC promises an extra special surprise replacement.
 

We at Alt Screen are still smarting from Susannah York’s Oscar “In Memoriam” slight. Her performance is one of many poignant attributes of Robert Aldrich’s daring lesbian melodrama.
 

Melissa Anderson for Film Comment:

Sister George certainly wouldn’t win any retroactive GLAAD media awards for its portrayal of a butch-femme couple. Yet Aldrich’s film endures not because it’s an example of bad, pre-Stonewall homo images but because of its sly way of celebrating dykes. Though she has lost both her girlfriend and her job (with Mrs. Croft’s humiliating offer to star in the children’s show The World of Clarabelle Cow her sole hope of employment), George is the only character who has not compromised herself or exploited others. Sister George may be the first movie in which an alcoholic, unrepentant butch who molests nuns is redeemed by her unwavering commitment to her sexuality. “Not all girls are raving bloody lesbians, you know,” Childie snarls at George during one of the latter’s jealous rages. “That is a misfortune that I am perfectly well aware of,” the tubby woman retorts.
 
Where are those raving bloody lesbians to be found? In the Gateways Club, a real lavender night spot on the Kings Road where Aldrich filmed the pivotal scene in which Mrs. Croft tells George and Childie (dressed in drag as Laurel and Hardy) about the fate of the former’s soap character. Actual club patrons were used as extras; to this viewer, the Gateways (which closed in 1985) looks like lesbo paradise—and certainly far more enticing than the dull scenes set at Meow Mix in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy. An all-girl quartet, in matching powder-blue sleeveless minidresses and groovy shags, plays both fast and slow; guests are greeted by two dapper women; the club is packed; everyone wants to dance; ladies flirt; the bartender is fast and deft; the pool room is empty. We see the club through first-timer Croft’s eyes, or rather, through the rise and fall of her eyebrow. After descending the staircase to the club’s main entrance, she looks around at all the writhing sapphistry on display. As she joins George and Childie at the bar, she takes another lascivious, fascinated look around: “Yes, it’s most, um, entertaining,” she nervously chuckles.

 

 
Writer/Director Matt Tyrnauer explains its induction into the “50 Essential Gay Films” for Out Magazine:

One of the first films to explicitly deal with a same-sex relationship, The Killing of Sister George can be viewed as a distant precursor to The Kids Are All Right — an unselfconscious examination of a lesbian marriage. The protagonist, George, played brilliantly by Beryl Reid, is the most popular soap opera character on the BBC. George’s alcoholism is beginning to jeopardize her relationship with her younger lover (Susannah York), and when she drunkenly molests two Irish nuns in the back of a London taxi, the BBC decides to kill off her character, a beloved eccentric, Vespa-driving village nurse. The film features an explicit same-sex scene, wherein York’s character betrays her longtime lover with an imposing BBC executive. The lesbian sex landed the movie an X rating and launched one of the most dramatic censorship battles of the 1960s. Aldrich spent $75,000 fighting the rating, but lost. In the U.K., the movie was cut in some cities and uncensored in others; people traveled around the country seeking out the uncensored version. Aldrich paid a huge price when the movie bombed at the box office due to the rating, but he created an extraordinary portrait of a life and marriage in crisis. It’s one of the great tragic love stories of the screen.

 

 
David Savage for Cinema Retro:

A little-seen but oft-cited film in the queer canon, Sister George still packs a subversive punch 40 years after its release, not least for its still-unbested, two-minute lesbian sex scene. Beryl Reid (who won a Tony for the role she originated on Broadway) plays an aging, gin-soaked actress, June Buckridge who, in turn, plays a kindly country nun on a popular BBC soap opera, Applehurst – but not for long. The producers of the show have decided to kill off her character. Meanwhile, June’s live-in, blond bombshell girlfriend “Childie” (Susannah York) is getting restless. Enter Mrs. Mercy Croft (Coral Browne), one of Applehurst’s producers, who finds her first female attraction with Childie. The love triangle that ensues is still jaw-dropping 40 years later.

 

Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

Although one can’t deny the entertainment value of Aldrich’s adaptation of Frank Marcus’s play about an ageing lesbian actress whose life falls apart as she loses first her job in a TV soap series and then her young lover, it could never be described as either realistic or sensitive. Rather, with its grotesque stereotyping and tour de force bitchiness and hysteria, it’s like yet another installment in the What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? saga. Cynical, objectionable, and fun, distinguished by Beryl Reid’s marvellously energetic performance.

 

 
Andrew Sarris for The Village Voice:

Sister George contains the most erotic sequence I have ever seen in an otherwise artistically respectable, responsibly distanced production. For once, the audience is not punished for its erotic expectations. Not only do we participate in the seduction of an attractive woman, but Aldrich’s very formal sequencing of camera set-ups establishes the unattractive sedutress as the surrogate for our sensual curiosity. The baring of Susannah York’s breasts is not so much a demystification of lesbian tactics as a celebration of the magic of all sexual mysteries. Aldrich is even merciful enough to interrupt the seduction at that precise point when shame engulfs curiosity. Ethical afterthoughts aside, the scene works for what it is: a perceptive peep show. It may not be the greatest art, but it is absorbing spectacle. It is not so much realistic as ritualistic, and that too is as it should be with the depiction of sex on the screen.

 
Elliott Stein, also for the Voice:

Aldrich’s often moving and hilarious adaptation of Frank Marcus’s play about an ageing lesbian actress, despite some grotesque stereotyping is one of the great breakthrough movies of the 1960s—homosexuality had become a fact of life. Beryl Reid, loud, aggressive and butch is magnetic in the principal role.

 
Sister George has low intentions, all right, but it’s as fresh as Joan Crawford’s smile.” Pauline Kael slammed the movie, and Aldrich, but its worth a read.

 

 

Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

Dirtier than The Dirty Dozen, said the critics, blind to Robert Aldrich’s beauties in either case, anyway. The battlefield is the living room, though the testosterone still flows, Susannah York in a pink nightie lounging in a London flat full of dolls while Beryl Reid bulldozes outside to the cramped, side-sliding credits. Sister George is Reid’s beloved TV character on a BBC soap, whose dipping popularity gets credited to the actress’ real-life truculence, if not her cyclonic relationship with York, the aspiring poetess and full-time baby dyke she lives with. Reid trades the studio for the pub, leaves soused to hop a cab and grope a couple of novice nuns in the backseat, before going home to sniff out infidelity from York’s outings — Reid forces her out of the bathroom by threatening to decapitate her favorite dolly, then brings York to her knees for faux-phallic punishment, munching on a cigar butt, spoiled by York’s mock-ecstasy while chewing the stogie. The “lesbian film,” originally X-rated and accused of sweaty-palmed leering, but the knives here are used less on uncloseted queer romping than on showbiz cruelty, a companion piece on TV for the acid poured over the cinematic industry the same year in The Legend of Lylah Clare. The Reid-York team, by contrast, is the central gag in Aldrich’s subtle-vulgar comedy, the Laurel & Hardy contrast brought out, along with the duo’s latent homo-potential, to “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” mimed by an all-girl quartet in the Gateways Club, where the camera seeks out glimpses of lesbo action circa ’68. Along comes Coral Browne, corseted where Reid is obstreperous, and scoops Fox away with the promise of success, the young woman luing in bed with her top unbuttoned, fingers traveling below her waist, and out of the frame — “That’s life,” Browne says, but Reid had already croaked “There is not enough kindness in the world” earlier on, in Sidney Greenstreet’s tones. Sex is power, and Aldrich understands how replaceable people can be, in business and in relationships. Reid thrashes the empty studio, moos in the dark, and Fassbinder takes notes.

 

 

Rob Nixon with some background for TCM:

Despite Reid’s award-winning stage performance, Aldrich encountered resistance to her recreating the role on film. She was well-known in England, where the film was shot and financed, so her lack of box office name stateside was not the issue so much as the perception that she was more suited to the light comedies she had often taken on up to that point in her career. But Aldrich was determined to have her in the picture, even to ignoring the reported desire of Bette Davis, his Baby Jane star, to land the role. (Angela Lansbury was also reportedly in line for the part.) His faith in Reid was well rewarded with a complex, wrenching, darkly comic performance that earned her a Golden Globe nomination.
 
The role of Childie was a stretch for Susannah York, who had been seen largely in ingénue parts to that point. Apparently, the intense lesbian sex scene she had to play with Coral Browne (as Mercy Croft) so unnerved her that she frequently ran from the set in tears. That scene caused some headaches for Aldrich, too. Beyond wrangles with both UK and US censors (who gave the film an X rating on its initial release), the director also had a falling out with his longtime friend and collaborator, composer Frank De Vol, who had written the music for nine previous Aldrich pictures. The love scene reportedly so upset De Vol that he quit the production, and a new composer, Gerald Fried, had to be brought in to write the score.
 
Whatever discomforts the cast may have felt working with such strong gay subject matter must have been shed in light of The Killing of Sister George‘s critical success and impressive box office receipts. Sister George is hardly a “positive” view of lesbianism but it was a groundbreaking drama for its time. On the other hand, despite its share of bitchy dialogue and stereotypical butch/femme posturing, Aldrich’s picture does not set out to condemn, laugh at or otherwise criticize lesbians. The characters are what they are, warts and all, because of their own individual foibles and circumstances and not because of their sexuality. The fact that the story takes place in the deceitful, uncertain world of show business (a theme Aldrich often returned to) only adds to its sense of desperation and despair. In other words, audiences looking for well-adjusted, sympathetic gay characters are not going to find them here, but they aren’t going to be subjected to gay serial killers either.

 

 
Gary Morris for Bright Lights Film Journal:

The idea of reality vs. fakery is one of Aldrich’s great themes, and nowhere is it more fully fleshed out than in Sister George. George, in spite of being in a career that calls for constant pretense, is disgusted by the lies by which everyone around her lives. She puts all kinds of spirit into her performance as the jolly Sister George, but can’t pretend that the values that character, and the series, espouse have anything to do with reality. Thus when Mercy Croft tells her how reassuring it is to see her character riding “cheerfully” through the village on her “little motorbike,” Sister George cackles, “You’d look cheerful too with 50 centimeters throbbin’ away between your legs!” George’s unrepentant lesbianism — and unbridled sense of humor — make her ultimately the most attractive character in the film. Reid’s performance is complex and riveting, and in some moments heartbreaking, as during her famous three screams of “Moo” at the end (in reference to her presumed fate to move from Sister George to playing the part of Clarabell, “a flawed, credible cow.”) The film also occasionally softens her hard edge in scenes with her dour prostitute friend Betty Thaxter, and in witty sequences that show her music hall talent as she mimics Oliver Hardy and Sydney Greenstreet.
 
The look of the film also shows Aldrich’s powers as a formalist undiminished. In the opening sequence, we see George storming through the streets of London on her way home to, it’s hinted, exact revenge against some transgression by Childie. The camera seems to be oppressing, even crushing her, as she moves through cramped lanes, with walls visible on either side. Joseph Biroc’s photography constantly reinforces this feeling of oppression with an almost Sirkian sense of palpable doom through heavy shadows in the interiors. George and Childie’s flat is crowded with so much clutter the effect is suffocating. This sense of suffocation is something that George constantly fights against; she’s frequently seen pushing or throwing things, trying to gain space for her expansive personality. Nowhere is this more evident than in the final sequence, where she demolishes the empty soundstage on which she worked, knocking over heavy lights and thrusting a casket — the one intended for her character — through a window. This occasions one of her most evocative lines as she lifts the featherlight casket and screams: “Even the bloody coffin’s a fake!”
 
Sister George remains an important work in Aldrich’s canon and a major contribution to early queer cinema, though some commentators have seen it as homophobic in portraying George as a monstrous version of a lesbian and Childie as a goofy, unevolved babydyke. But it’s ultimately less a comment on lesbianism (though it is that) than an exegesis of the human condition. Aldrich was right when he said “Sister George’s loud behavior and individuality . . . are encompassed in her personality, they’re not a product of her lesbianism. . . . She didn’t give a shit about the BBC or the public’s acceptance of her relationships. That’s why they couldn’t afford her.” Like Aldrich himself, “she didn’t fit into the machine.”

 

 

Alain Silver and James Ursini
in their book “What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?”:

The centerpiece o the film is the performance of Beryl Reid as June Buckridge, also known as “Sister George” after the successful television character she has created. In the opening sequence, Aldrich consciously manipulates iconic signifiers. He presents the audience with an aging, rotund, benign-looking woman with graying hair sitting at a bar and joking good-naturedly with the bartender. Her amicable nature seems to epitomize what the BBC television viewers came to love in the character of “Sister George.” Then accompanied by a dramatic burst of music, George leaves the bar after an angry conversation on the phone. In a montage of shots, under the titles, she is shown walking forthrightly, even agrily, in a mannish dress suit was a decidedly “masculine” gait, through the streets of London. Her manner now contrasts markedly with her initial appearance. As the audience becomes uncertain about its perception of the character, Aldrich breaks that tension in the scene between George and her “flat mate.”
 
What ultimately destroys their “domestic bliss” is not Alice’s real or imagined discretions or their bickering but the entertainment industry. Throughout the film June/George goes in and out of her character, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. When June/George has scones with Mrs. Croft, the TV executive who has the power to decide the fate of Sister George as a character and as a real person, June starts off the encounter playing the role of George, replete with smarmy maxims and treacly Irish accent. But by the time Mrs. Croft has begun flirting with Alice, the rough, vulgar persona emerges. Intermittently during Aldrich cuts to black-and-white footage from the soap opera in which June appears as George and creates a visual correlative for the other personality of the protagonist. From a scene in which a drunken George/June molests two nuns in the back of the cab, Aldrich cuts to a sequence from the show where Sister George tells a group of young women to pray. The underling irony is that virtually everyone in the film calls June “George.” Zarkan believed that “we make the legends, and the legends become truth”; George tells Alice about the soap opera, “It’s real to millions of people, more real than you or I.”

 

 
Leo Goldsmith for Reverse Shot:

Like von Sternberg (though with probably a more pejorative inflection), Aldrich views female sexuality as masquerade, an identity-play with no distinction between artifice and referent. George’s life is one of role-playing, and its center is the complex repartee she shares with Childie—butch and femme, mother and daughter, master and slave. But this central relationship, perverse though it truly is, is not pat or obvious—it betrays some influence of contemporary Hitchcock (Marnie, perhaps), as well as Arthur Schnitzler (of whom Frank Marcus, the original playwright, was an adherent). George and Childie engage in a weird, mercurial masochism, shifting the role of victim and oppressor, manipulator and manipulated, back and forth between them. This is seen early in the film, in their first bizarre relationship ritual, wherein George demands that Childie eat her cigar-butt as a sign of contrition. This is apparently a gesture that Childie is used to making, and she upends George’s desire for satisfaction by pretending to enjoy the mouthful. “You’re deliberately spoiling it!” George protests, outraged.
 
There is almost always a double power struggle going on between them—partly for dominance, partly for victimhood—and their drag double-act as Laurel and Hardy in the middle of the film exemplifies this. Rehearsing together in their flat, they trade slapstick gags, feigned affronts, and escalating bitchiness until the line between performance and reality (and between Ollie/Stan and George/Childie) becomes increasingly blurred. But once onstage—in a scene shot in the Gateways, an actual London lesbian bar with its regulars on hand—the act goes over well. Once they are liberated from the confines of their drab, oppressive domestic environment and into an accepting social sphere, their bitterness recedes and the act of being a couple becomes credible.
 
Looking again, it seems clear that Aldrich is always both a humanist and a showman. Melodrama, slapstick, romance, exploitation, and psychological horror all vie for dominance throughout the film, giving it an air of fickle, feminine hysteria, which the graphic sex scene at the end of the film—hence that shocking X-rating—makes still more difficult to pin down. On one hand, the scene is calculated titillation, likely positioned at the finale to keep more leering moviegoers in their seats for the duration. But on the other, it’s as long and psychologically complex as any contemporary sex scene I can recall, and the performances of the two actresses—Susannah York and Coral Browne—are sensitive and remarkably brave.

 

And Melissa Anderson discusses her “cinema bride” Susannah York:

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