Dykes in distress in Robert Aldrich’s late ‘60s masterpiece
Robert Aldrich ranks with Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray as one of the “golden boys” of postwar commercial cinema whose formal chops and aggressive social critique made that period so exciting. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, when culture gave way to counterculture, conventional wisdom has it that all three were washed up. That opinion can be supported for Ray, who made no films at that time. Fuller’s star had fallen with the butchered Shark (1967) and the enjoyable but minor Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1972). But Aldrich was arguably at the peak of his powers, with a string of brilliant, demanding and not always commercially successful films that, taken as a unit, outstrip such earlier classics of his as The Big Knife, Kiss Me Deadly, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? This rich period included megahits (The Dirty Dozen, 1967), scorching attacks on Hollywood (The Legend of Lylah Clare, 1968) and American ideals (The Grissom Gang, 1971), and the key “lesbian picture” of that era, The Killing of Sister George (1968).
Sister George, now available in an excellent widescreen transfer on DVD (no extras), was one of Aldrich’s personal favorites, but also one of his most problematic in its production and reception. The huge success of The Dirty Dozen gave him the money to start his own studio in August 1968. “The Associates and Aldrich,” as the company was called, would allow him the freedom to tackle more personal projects, and first up was Frank Marcus’s hit play The Killing of Sister George. This controversial property was a good fit for Aldrich, who was always drawn to outsiders and the ways they manage (or fail) to survive in a crass culture that won’t tolerate truths that aren’t sugar-coated.
The “killing” in the title is a metaphorical death – that of “Sister George,” a smarmy apple-cheeked do-gooder who stars in a sentimental BBC series about village life. “George” is played in the series by June Buckridge (Beryl Reid), a brassy, bitchy, hard-drinking bull dyke who’s the antithesis of the sickeningly sweet character she plays. In spite of the enormous popularity of George, her “death” is inevitable due to the constant embarrassments to the BBC of the woman who plays her. Her indecencies are quite public; they include enraged walkouts from the set, drunken binges, and most egregiously, an assault – which Aldrich treats as high comedy – on two novitiate nuns in a taxi.
George (I’ll refer to her as “George” throughout this review, as the film does) has a much younger lover, Alice aka “Childie” (Susannah York), who collects dolls and is generally dim; a good friend in the dominatrix next door Betty Thaxter (Patricia Medina); and a nemesis at the BBC, the powerful Mercy Croft (Coral Browne), a more respectable dyke who secretly covets Childie and is the constant bringer of ill tidings for poor Sister George.
Much of the film is taken up with the strange domestic relations between George and Childie. George is insanely jealous of Childie and verbally, sometimes physically, violent with her. When Childie causes her some anxiety (which was mostly generated by George), June forces her to recite a little contrition speech and eat the butt of a cigar while on her knees. During a visit with Mercy Croft, George becomes hysterical over some mindless chitchat between Mercy and Childie about scones, and she screams at Childie to shut up, then pelts her with the scones. Even the comic sequences have a thrillingly nasty edge, as when the duo are dressed as Laurel and Hardy for a visit to the local gay bar and their horseplay becomes ever rowdier.
A mere plot synopsis might suggest the film is an exercise in grimness and that George is an unsympathetic, even monstrous, character, but Aldrich in fact treats much of the action as exceptionally black comedy and makes George the most sympathetic person in the drama, for the simple reason that she’s the only “real” person in a sea of fakes.
This 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.
Aldrich always had a keen eye for publicity, and his decision to include a lengthy sequence in a real lesbian bar, the Gateways Club in London, nicely dovetails that impulse with his insistence on authenticity. (In this regard there’s a strong link to Sister George, who also insists on living authentically at any cost.) This was a novelty for audiences of the time, seeing lesbians dancing, flirting, and generally carrying on in a safe environment without any obvious disapproval from the film, and it generated considerable notice. But, unlike much of what passes for queer cinema at the time, the scene plays with drama and humor, but without sensationalism.
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 encountered numerous difficulties during and after the production. Susannah York bristled at the film’s most notorious sequence, an extended scene of lesbian lovemaking between Childie and Mercy Croft that was so raw it caused the film to be banned in several locales. Aldrich said that “Susannah was a bitch to her [Browne]” because she (York) simply didn’t want to do the scene, which involved blatant nipple-gnawing, sizzling kisses, and other upfront touches. Cameraman Joseph Biroc recalled how tense the director was during the shooting, which took much longer than anticipated. The scene even ended (for a few years) Aldrich’s work with longtime collaborator Frank DeVol, who quit the film in disgust. Still, there’s an undeniable erotic power there that made York’s discomfort a small price to pay. Unfortunately, between the time the film started and ended production, the movie industry had instituted a new ratings system: P, PG, R, and X. Largely on the basis of the lesbian love scene, Sister George received an X rating, which limited its exposure in theatres and thus its commercial potential. Aldrich’s lawsuit (he spent $75,000 battling the X rating) was ultimately dismissed, and the film died at the box office.
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.”