The Killing of Sister George

Sistergeorge2.jpgThe Fat Lady Moos
By Leo Goldsmith

The Killing of Sister George
Dir. Robert Aldrich, U.S., 1968
Screening at Film Comment Selects

“The story of three consenting adults in the privacy of their own home” is how posters and promotional material for Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George described the film upon its release, although in truth the words “consenting,” “adults,” “privacy,” and “home” are all stretched throughout. Even the progressive apologia this tagline suggests seems at odds with much of the film’s moral content: sure, Aldrich has constructed a blunt, non-euphemistic film about lesbian relationships, but it’s also salacious, brutal, and grotesque. It’s a wonder that Aldrich acted so surprised when Sister George’s lengthy, Sapphic love scene infamously made it the first major American film to be given an X rating (he sued Jack Valenti and the MPAA over the rating and, when he lost, had to pay court fees amounting to $43,000). For there’s a vague, but appreciable, note of irony in the liberal humanism of the tagline that positions Aldrich’s film a little further away from The Children’s Hour and a little closer to Russ Meyer’s Vixen!, made the same year, which also has a lot of muddled, hilarious, and horrifying ideas about lesbianism.

While today he is largely remembered for individual hit films like The Dirty Dozen and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Aldrich was even by the late 1950s highly regarded by the authors of Cahiers du cinéma, who leagued him with auteurs like Hitchcock and Renoir, both of whom he assisted in his early Hollywood days. This was mainly because his thematic considerations and deep cynicism ranged so widely and consistently across a multitude of genres: noir, Western, sports film, biblical epic, comedy, war blockbuster, Southern gothic. In the cycle of (broadly defined) “women’s pictures” that he made in the Sixties—Baby Jane, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Sister George, Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (produced by Aldrich and directed by Lee H. Katzin)—there’s just as much moral ambiguity, violence, and deception as in his male-centric pictures (even if the villains don’t always wears black, as in some of his early Westerns).

But placed alongside Aldrich’s other films about women, The Killing of Sister George is clearly the odd man out. Like the others, it details a power struggle among women, each in her own way doubled and duplicitous: dowdy, alcoholic middle-aged actress June Buckridge (known to British soap-opera fans and everyone else as Sister George), her young girlfriend Alice McNaught (known to George as “Childie”), and BBC executive Mercy Croft (whose aliases and alternate identities are, for the time being, unknown). But it’s at once more ghastly and more realistic than the others—emphatically gayer, yet rather less campy—involving women who are hysterical, but not quite murderously psychotic.

With her maniacal alcoholism, and her lurid, sadistic role-playing with Childie, George is more of a self-described “bad boy” than one of the dames of the director’s other grand guignols. The "killing" to which the title refers is not a Dirty Dozen–style Nazi machine-gunning or even a planter-dropped-on-the-head (being the method Bette Davis uses to dispatch Agnes Morehead and Joseph Cotten in Sweet Charlotte). Instead, it’s a metaphorical murder, the killing-off of the sweet, folksy motorcycling nun whom June has portrayed for decades on the beloved soap Applehurst. A parody of many similar British programs (like Radio 4’s The Archers, which has been running since 1950), Applehurst exemplifies all that’s bright and beautiful about British life, and Sister George is its apotheosis—demure, restrained, heterosexual, and everything else that June is not. After the actress boozily molests two real nuns in the back of a London taxi (“How was I to know they were novitiates?” wails George, missing the point), Mrs. Croft is assigned the task of offing the beloved character, with as little nuclear fall-out from George as possible.

In the spectrum of Aldrich’s antiheroes, Sister George goes head-to-head with Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, Bette Davis in Baby Jane, and Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen for energy, unshakeable momentum, and sheer balls. And if we’re never quite sure whether to root for or be disgusted by her, we at least admire her unswerving temerity in the face of an almost certain, if merely symbolic death. But naturally, this death is about much more than physical annihilation—for Aldrich, what’s at stake is identity, her individual dignity as well as her status as a lesbian. This battle is fought and lost in the occupied territory of the apartment that George and Childie share, nestled somewhere in the cobblestone convolutions of Camden Mews, a dark, shabby, and constricting flat decorated with George’s meager, manly furnishings and Childie’s creepy, suggestive doll collection. In many ways, it’s a fake world of pseudo-bucolic Englishness, much like Applehurst, an indication of how wrapped up Sister George and June Breckenridge are with one another, and it proves Mrs. Croft’s early, imperious assertion that flats “do reflect their owners’ personalities in an incredibly accurate way.”

Like von Sternberg (though with probably a more pejorative inflection), Aldrich views female sexuality as masquerade, an identity-play with no distinction between artifice and referent. (Contrast this with the rogue’s gallery in The Dirty Dozen, where each character asserts a unified masculine archetype.) George’s life is one of role-playing, and its center is the complex repartee she shares with Childie—butch and femme, mother and daughter, master and slave. But this central relationship, perverse though it truly is, is not pat or obvious—it betrays some influence of contemporary Hitchcock (Marnie, perhaps), as well as Arthur Schnitzler (of whom Frank Marcus, the original playwright, was an adherent). George and Childie engage in a weird, mercurial masochism, shifting the role of victim and oppressor, manipulator and manipulated, back and forth between them. This is seen early in the film, in their first bizarre relationship ritual, wherein George demands that Childie eat her cigar-butt as a sign of contrition. This is apparently a gesture that Childie is used to making, and she upends George’s desire for satisfaction by pretending to enjoy the mouthful. “You’re deliberately spoiling it!” George protests, outraged.

There is almost always a double power struggle going on between them—partly for dominance, partly for victimhood—and their drag double-act as Laurel and Hardy in the middle of the film exemplifies this. Rehearsing together in their flat, they trade slapstick gags, feigned affronts, and escalating bitchiness until the line between performance and reality (and between Ollie/Stan and George/Childie) becomes increasingly blurred. But once onstage—in a scene shot in the Gateways, an actual London lesbian bar with its regulars on hand—the act goes over well. Once they are iberated from the confines of their drab, oppressive domestic environment and into an accepting social sphere, their bitterness recedes and the act of being a couple becomes credible.

While the scenes in George and Childie’s flat were shot (with a deliberately stagey TV-style three-camera set-up) in the director’s own Aldrich Studios (purchased with Dirty Dozen money), this near-vérité location-shooting in an actual lesbian club is a strange, but fascinating decision whose political worthiness has been batted around quite a bit by queer and feminist film theorists. Was this a gesture of empathy or curiosity, or an intrusion? One might wonder if Aldrich is more of a Nicholas Ray, whose interest about subcultures comes across as almost anthropological in films like Rebel without a Cause and The Savage Innocents, or an Otto Preminger, who simply sought to push the envelope of morally acceptable entertainment in films like The Man with the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder. Either way, it offers an incredible document of the lesbian social sphere in 60s London, but it does so in the context of a film that’s largely about their perverse private lives.

Looking again, it seems clear that Aldrich is always both a humanist and a showman. Melodrama, slapstick, romance, exploitation, and psychological horror all vie for dominance throughout the film, giving it an air of fickle, feminine hysteria, which the graphic sex scene at the end of the film—hence that shocking X-rating—makes still more difficult to pin down. On one hand, the scene is calculated titillation, likely positioned at the finale to keep more leering moviegoers in their seats for the duration. But on the other, it’s as long and psychologically complex as any contemporary sex scene I can recall, and the performances of the two actresses—Susannah York and Coral Browne—are sensitive and remarkably brave. In this way, even if the film betrays any limitation in Aldrich’s thinking about homosexuality (and women in general), he nonetheless lets his performers ride: Beryl Reid slipping sweetly into the character of the benevolent Sister before flying into an inebriated rage; York balancing complex variations of victimhood, both real and feigned; Browne maintaining the poise of respectability and joviality, while precisely timing her death blow (“Look at yourself, you pathetic old dyke!”) to both Sister Georges.

Ultimately, problematic though it is, Aldrich’s point of view seems to be one of great empathy with George, even if for the wrong reasons. By the film’s end, which finds her angrily, pathetically mooing in bitter anticipation of her next television role as Clarabelle Cow, it becomes clear that Aldrich is concerned less with the threat to her sexual identity than with the ravages of age. When drunkenly ogling Childie in her translucent baby-doll dress or making lascivious comments about her lovely, pale legs, George comes off not as a tyrannical, demented lesbian, but as merely a dirty old man, a perspective that Aldrich probably wants us all to share.