Sunday, 13 January 2008

The Killing of Sister George (1968)

The Killing of Sister George is a movie I’ve seen many times. Robert Aldrich, who directed the film, has become one of my favourite directors. It achieved considerable notoriety at the time it was released in 1968. The Region 2 DVD I recently bought presented the movie in widescreen and uncut. I’d actually never seen the uncut version. The movie is about June, a middle-aged soap opera actress who is almost always referred to as George, the name of the character she plays, Sister George. She lives in London with her lover Alice, known as Childie. When it appears that her character is going to be killed off (that’s the killing referred to in the title) her world starts to crumble.

What makes this movie so surprising for 1968 is that their lesbian relationship is treated so casually. Only a few years earlier in William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour homosexuality is still something to be whispered about. Traditionally when homosexual characters have made an appearance in Hollywood movies they’ve almost invariably been shown killing themselves or at least ending up unhappy as their punishment. The ending of The Killing of Sister George is much more complex than that. And George herself (wonderfully played by Beryl Reid) is a complex character, a person who finds it difficult to survive in the world because of her absolute refusal to compromise – she makes no effort to hide her sexuality, she makes no effort to hide her scorn for fools, she expects the world to accept her as she is. Alice (a superb performance by Susannah York) could easily have become a stereotype, the femme lesbian who collects dolls in a relationship with the butch George, but in fact her character is also complex. While in the case of George what you see is what you get, Alice’s character is revealed gradually as we see that there is more to her than the childlike persona she adopts with George.

This is a very moving story, but the film is also extremely funny – lots of humour, most of it black (my favourite kind). A very good movie that repays repeated viewings.

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