Sister George is pre-Stonewall Lesbian fun
by Scott Rice – SGN Contributing Writer
God Save the Queens film series
The Killing of Sister George
Opening April 23
The year was 1968. The Stonewall Riots were still a year away. In cities across America, patrons were routinely dragged out of Queer bars by the cops and tossed in jail. Then their names were published in the local police blotter.
1968 was also a year of turmoil and change. Martin Luther King was shot, Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslavokia, undeclared war raged in Vietnam, and President Lyndon B. Johnson singed the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
While all these big events took the spotlight, versatile director Robert Aldrich would release a little film about women that would earn itself a big fat X rating and turn the film world upside down & for about 15 minutes.
In The Killing of Sister George, Beryl Reid plays June “George” Buckridge, a beloved British soap opera star with waning popularity and a bad case of paranoia. She also has a drinking problem and a dysfunctional relationship with her lipstick-Lesbian girlfriend who bounces around the apartment they share in see-through teddies and a perky blond pixie-cut (the stunning, if dimly coquettish, Susannah York as Alice “Childie” McNaught). George is certain she’s being written out of the script of the long-running Applehurst when TV producer, and possible Lesbo-couger, Mercy Croft (Coral Browne) arrives on the scene to deliver the bad news.
From the opening scene dripping with sarcastic irony and playful misdirection, to the honking horn that blows over George telling the Australian Amazonian production assistant to “fuck off,” The Killing of Sister George has a darkly comic heart. The black and white scenes lifted from the fictional television program are hilarious with smart double entendre laden dialogue, and the Laurel and Hardy bit by York and Reid is priceless.
Along with a darkly comic heart, the film also has a mean streak. George is a gin swilling, beer tipping, screeching, tweed-wearing brute with a jealous streak that runs squarely down her center. Unfortunately, as edgy as the film is, I can’t help but lump this character into the crazy Lesbian model so pervasive in Hollywood films and pulp fiction novels. Though George gets trapped in this stereotype, she also defies it as the only real textured character on the scene. Her real trouble comes when she refuses to tone down her butch bravado and likewise refuses to feel badly for her drunken turn in a taxi with a couple of frightened Irish nuns.
Childie is George’s girl-toy and sometime bondage kitten. She’s the pretty girl gone bad, the femme who should have been straight but due to a cruel world ends up emotionally (and financially) dependent on the domineering George. Childie looks good in lingerie, but that’s about the most interesting thing her character does. It’s hard to give a shit about a woman in her 30s who talks to dolls and looks upon her own abuse with little more than wan sadness.
Mercy Croft completes the love triangle that complicates the already complicated relationship between George and Childie. Mercy is a venom-tongued, mountain-climbing TV producer who either wants to save Childie from the clutches of sin or would like to get her own shot at those milky legs and perky breasts.
The famous bar scene, shot in an actual Lesbian bar complete with masturbation jokes and a panoply of real Lesbian extras, is the big step forward for this film that seems caught between pre-French New Wave Hollywood stereotype and post-’60s vérité. Butch, fem, young, middleaged, mature; they all are all present, and they are all hot – and visible. The butch combing her pompadour in the bathroom with a leather vest and jeans is the stuff dyke dreams are made of, that perfect blend of woman and dude that makes the girls swoon. Man enough to take control, woman enough to do it well and smart enough to make it last.
The most important thing about this scene, in spite of the stereotypical crazy-lezzy lead character, is that women were present and they were hot and they were decidedly sexual beings. This is a step forward because previously Lesbians hadn’t even existed according to the conventional wisdom of the patriarchy. Women in general weren’t supposed to be sexual in the first place. And besides, “What could two women do?” asked the pre-birth control heterosexual male head-scratchers trying to figure out how sex could happen without a penis. Enlightenment comes in lots of different shades.
Aldrich is responsible for such diverse fare as the biblical epic Sodom and Gomorrah, the wonderfully campy Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and über macho flicks such as The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard. He’s not a director you can easily pigeonhole. Since I’ve always loved The Killing of Sister George because it’s plain old fascinating filmmaking, I’m going to have to take a weekend and lose myself in Aldrich films.
The Killing of Sister George plays the Northwest Film Forum April 23 as part of their Queer Thursdays: God Save the Queens film series.