|Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn|
William Wyler had already directed These Three, a sanitized film version of Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour, when he decided it was time to tackle the play and its sub-theme head on. Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) co-own a young girls' boarding school in a small but wealthy community. Karen has held off her marriage to Joe Cardin (James Garner of They Only Kill Their Masters) because she wants to make sure the school is a success before she leaves. With the unwitting aid of Karen's miserable Aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins), a hateful child named Mary (Karen Balkin) tells a malicious lie about the two women. Her grandmother, Amelia Tilford (Fay Bainter), believes the lie and spreads it around that Karen and Martha are lovers, with the result that all of the parents take their daughters out of school. Does Martha have deeper feelings for Karen than she wants to admit? Hellman's play was certainly ahead of its time, and some of the dialogue that may have seemed "politically correct" in the sixties was actually already in the play, produced about thirty years earlier. Martha goes on about people "who believe in it, who want it, who've chosen it for themselves," but this is something she just can't do. (Of course today it's more accurate to say gay people choose to accept themselves.) The dated, but not unrealistic for the period, line is Martha saying "I feel so sick and dirty I just can't stand it anymore," which is roughly equivalent to "Show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse" from The Boys in the Band. However, I've never felt Children's Hour was as offensive as Boys, because the latter is a mostly negative depiction of acknowledged gay characters while the former not only looks at the devastating results of gossip and innuendo but functions, whether intended or not, as a trenchant study of both external and internalized homophobia. These women's lives are ruined simply because people think they're lesbians, a revelation which Martha only acknowledges at the very end. The suicide in the film may strike modern-viewers as horribly dated but it's also quite moving, as is the conflicted character of Martha. John Michael Hayes' [Rear Window] script is excellent, William Wyler's direction is sensitive and splendid, and the acting from virtually the entire cast is simply incredible. Hepburn and MacLaine are perfection, Bainter and Hopkins come close to stealing the show, James Garner (whom I've never much cared for) gives probably the best performance of his career, and the little girls, including Veronica Cartwright as Rosalie, are so good it's almost scary. Add a lovely score by Alex North, fine cinematography by Franz Planer (who also shot Wyler's The Big Country), and expert editing from Robert Swink and you've got a near-masterpiece.
Verdict: Whatever its flaws, this picture plays. ***1/2.