Saturday, June 29, 2013
THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE
"You don't remotely believe you're any young girl's dream of bliss?!" -- Mercy
Alice: "Not all girls are bloody raging lesbians."
June: "That's a misfortune I'm very well aware of."
In 1964 Frank Marcus' play "The Killing of Sister George" reportedly presented three main characters who people presumed were lesbians, even if it wasn't made explicit. Robert Aldrich's film version of the play makes it very explicit, especially in a once-censored sex scene between two of the principals. June Buckridge (Beryl Reid) plays a nurse character named "Sister George" on a very popular TV soap opera entitled "Applehurst." June has lived for several years with a younger woman named Alice (Susannah York), and the two have a loving, affectionate, if not very passionate, relationship. June is very jealous of Alice, who is much more attractive, and imagines her having mythical affairs with men. There is a touch of sadomasochism in the relationship as well [delineated in one ill-advised sequence in which an angry June insists that Alice eat her cigar butt, which the latter turns into a sensual experience to annoy June]. When June discovers the possibility that her beloved character on the show might be killed off, she is frightened and furious and, as usual, takes it out on Alice. Then along comes an initially kindly TV producer named Mercy (Coral Browne), who is appalled at the way June treats Alice but also finds the younger woman quite attractive ... To take this black comedy as any kind of serious look at the lives of lesbians would be a big mistake -- apparently the play was never intended to be seen that way -- but on its own terms it's quite entertaining, has highly interesting characters, and is often very funny. The three leads are all splendid, with Reid giving an especially terrific performance as the fascinating, touchy, oddly likable June, although -- rightly or wrongly -- she resists making her overly sympathetic. One mistake Lukas Heller made in adapting the play [considering that the movie makes their sexual orientation more obvious] is that we never learn how these three women feel about being homosexual in the more oppressive sixties. It is also barely suggested that June could probably get the sack merely for being gay. On the other hand, there is no "Boys in the Band"-type angst about their sexuality, either, which is a definite plus. A bit with a drunken June accidentally getting into a cab with two nuns and supposedly "molesting" them [or at least trying to see what they've got under their robes] is funny but problematic. Another problem area is the aforementioned, protracted sex scene between Alice and Mercy, which begins with the latter coming on to the former while horror movie-type music plays in the background [as if composer Gerald Fried thought what the two women were doing was somehow "evil"]. The music stops once the sex starts, and things get comparatively graphic for the period. The supporting cast includes Cyril Delevanti as an elderly colleague of June's on the show, and Patricia Medina [The Beast of Hollow Mountain] as a prostitute next door; both are fine.
There are times when you may not quite know what to make of Sister George, and it often seems like several different movies in one. Still, as personified by Reid, June Buckridge is a very memorable, three-dimensional [if somewhat exaggerated] character with humanity and imperfections intact. Sadly, the film was probably seen as just a freak show by some [especially given the sexuality of the characters] and one wonders if that was why Aldrich was tapped to direct, because of his work on other "freak" shows such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? [Bette Davis herself was considered for the role of June, but thank goodness Reid, who played the role on the stage, got the part.] The ad campaign's tag line was "The story of three consenting adults in the privacy of their own home," which seems a little disingenuous considering the movie doesn't really delve into the true lives of gay women.
Verdict: Certainly arresting if nothing else, but take with a grain of salt. ***.