For those who don’t know it, the film stars Beryl Reid as George, an obnoxious tweed-wearing bull dyke storming drunkenly around 1970s London, and making her baby dyke paramour, poor Childie (Susan George), eat cigars. With its garish London hues and unrepentant nastiness, it’s like the BAD SANTA of its day, or even the MY FAVORITE YEAR. We’re supposed to laugh because this lady is so nasty and she plays a prim church lady on the daily soaps (Sister George, of the title).
For the positive take on Aldrich’s film, I recommend Gary Morris’ excellent review in Bright Lights #28. He astutely points out that:
..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.
While I agree I’d also point out that though its not directly anti-gay, the story freely presumes the “in for a penny in for a pound” theory of sexual transgression (Childie is a masochist who lets George abuse her and obsessively collects icky porcelain dolls; George guzzles gin, molests nuns and hangs out with the neighbor prostitutes). I’m not blaming Aldrich, whose love for the grotesque by then was etched in the celluloid unconsciousness (he must have been scared by a porcelain doll as a child). I’m merely pointing out that the film buys into the idea of homosexuality as an aberration. The sickness surrounding the characters here is perversion and emotionally arrested self-absorption first and foremost, with lesbianism thrown in, as far as I can see, for added shock value, and little more.
This especially refers to the climax, where the conniving new dyke in town, Mercy Croft (Laurel Brown) and Childie get it on. In this long, hideous scene, Childie gyrates and alternately recoils from and accept the Nosferatu-like attentions of Miss Croft, who looms over Childie in bed, staring down at her in expressionistic contortions representing naked desire. This is the controversial sex scene of the film and worse than amoral or shocking it’s guilty of the crime of being “ugly.” We are treated to long close-ups of a sweaty, excited Ms. Croft looking down at her squirming prey; we see the beads of sweat forming under Croft’s thick white drag queen makeup; she looks like she just crawled in from a hard day of drinking on the set of Fellini’s SATYRICON.
I don’t see anything wrong with older and younger people getting together, but I can’t imagine seeing a long horror show sex scene like this if it was a hetero couple, say, Danny De Vito and Hillary Duff. That’s not cinema! We didn’t have to see Henry Fonda and Kate Hepburn in ON GOLDEN POND! Kee-rist!
My point is that I think Aldrich intends us to recoil in horror at the thought of any two girls kissing, not just this freaky pair, and so he amps up the squirm factor to 11. Watching this sex scene gives us the same sense of discomfort Aldrich gave us watching Bette Davis sing and dance for a smilingly horrified Victor Buono in BABY JANE. It’s the same discomfort that, well, if you ever wound up in bed with someone who physically disgusted you and had to just fake your way through for whatever reason, then you will recognize what’s at play.
Certainly, SISTER GEORGE may have helped crack the glass on the gay visibility issue, one that would one day explode with Rock Hudson’s AIDS. But dammit, I want my cinematic lesbians to be sexy!
If anything, KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE makes you realize why attractiveness and love are so important for the movies. Strip away the beauty and the delusion and this is what you are left with: trashed sets, hurt feelings, ugly, arrested egos; nauseous stomachs, and an angry, ugly old woman mooing into the void. That may be art, but I sure as hell don’t want it in my house! MoooOO!