MGM // 1968 // 140 Minutes // Rated X
Reviewed by Judge George Hatch (Retired) // December 15th, 2005
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
The Killing of Sister George was the first American film with a legitimate cast and a major, well-known director to receive an "X" rating. Purportedly, the decision was based on an explicit lesbian love scene late in the film. In their biography, What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, Alain Silver and James Ursini note that the director was willing to trim the scene, but a friend in the Production Code Administration told him it was too late. "Jack Valenti said that it gets an 'X' no matter what you do to it. The 'X' is based on the subject matter alone."
In The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo's landmark study of homosexuality in the movies, he says, "It was a transitional time for filmmakers. Aldrich had begun shooting under the old Code system, and completed it under the new rating system." Russo confirms, "Technically, Sister George was given an X on theme alone."
Marketing the film became the next obstacle, so it opened in New York City in only two theaters: the posh East Side Beekman, with the hope that it might appeal to an art-house audience, and The Orleans, a seedy dump on West 49th Street that catered to the soft-core porn crowd.
With scathing reviews, The Killing of Sister George flopped in both venues and fell into a cinematic limbo.
June Buckridge (Beryl Reid, The Carry On Collection) is the star of the BBC's most popular soap opera, Applehurst. As "Sister George," she rides around the little village on her motor scooter dispensing good will, sage advice, and benevolent aphorisms to those in need of comfort. June has become so identified with her character that everyone in the real world calls her George. But off-camera June/George is a vindictive, paranoid alcoholic, verbally abusing the cast and crew and storming out of rehearsals on a whim. June is well aware that her self-destructive tendencies have placed her starring role in jeopardy, and she feels certain that "Sister George" will soon be killed off.
She vents her frustration on her flat mate and lover, Alice "Childie" McNaught (Susannah York, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), a willowy shop girl at least half George's age who tries to cope with the older woman's jealous tantrums and castigating demands. Childie has yet to discover her own personality and is caught between the fantasy world of her collection of porcelain and rag dolls that recalls her "Childie"-hood, and her grown-up penchant for parading around in seductive blue baby-doll teddies and skimpy black bras and panties, a vision that is most appealing to George.
When Childie is reprimanded, George demands that she eat one of her cigars until she chokes and vomits from revulsion. Tired of being force-fed one of George's tools of punishment, Childie now pretends to enjoy and savor the cigar, like a mouthwatering chocolate treat. George is flummoxed and angrily warns Childie that she's flagrantly violating the rules of their relationship.
But circumstances continue to conspire. On one of her drunken sprees, George goes too far and is accused of molesting two young nuns in a taxicab with behavior so outrageous that one of the novitiates "went into shock believing she was the victim of satanic intervention." BBC executive Mercy Croft (Coral Browne, The Ruling Class) drops in on George at home and demands that George write a sincere letter of apology to the Director of Religious Broadcasting. Mercy also makes several subtle passes at Childie, and they don't go unnoticed by George.
Tension builds as Mercy takes control of George's television career and her love life. Sister George will be written out of the show. "She'll be hit by a truck while riding her scooter -- and the episode will nicely coincide with advertisements for Automobile Safety Week." With an even crueler stoke, Mercy advises George that she can still have a job. "We do have an opening on one of our children's shows. You can play Clarabelle the Cow. All you have to do is wear a mask and say, 'Moo!' -- That's if you choose to accept the role."
Noted film critic Richard Schickel wrote that "The Killing of Sister George recreates the whole lesbian world. [It] really penetrates the queer mind and milieu and is sure to give the audience a good sense of the demi-monde lesbians share with fags, prosties, etc. [The film] is tacky, tawdry, repellent, and true." Pauline Kael's extremely negative review was titled "Frightening the Horses." In The New York Times, Renata Adler remarked that, "The prolonged, simultaneously serious and mocking treatment of homosexuals, I suppose, inevitably turns vicious and silly -- as homosexuality itself inevitably has a degree of parody in it." And regarding the scene that earned the film its X rating, Adler added that it "sets a special kind of low in the treatment of sex -- any kind of sex -- in the movies now."
Sister George was released just six months prior to the Stonewall Riots in June 1969, an event that changed the way gays and lesbians were treated and viewed by the general public -- including critics. Those harsh attacks on the characters and the film itself were toned down and gradually mitigated to "enlightened" praise for upcoming films depicting gay life. William Friedkin's The Boys in the Band (1970), based on Mart Crowley's groundbreaking play, was hailed by The Times's Vince Canby as "a landslide of truths." And according to Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet, "the film was viewed by the press as a 'serious study' of gay men. On the strength of its stage reviews and its billing as a comedy despite it's dead-serious intent, The Boys in the Band was taken for gospel in an America populated by people who had never met a real homosexual in their lives."
Obviously, The Killing of Sister George was ahead of its time, further demonstrating director Robert Aldrich's intuition for finding or creating new cinematic outlets that provoked audiences to take different and thoughtful looks at what was being presented on the silver screen.
After turning out two well-praised westerns in 1954, Apache and Vera Cruz, Aldrich tackled film noir with Kiss Me Deadly, one of the last acknowledged classics toward end of the cycle, and Hollywood with The Big Knife, both released in 1955. After directing several action-packed war films, including Attack! and Ten Seconds to Hell, he created an entirely new genre, grand dame guignol, with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Need I mention his crowd-pleasing action classics, The Dirty Dozen, The Longest Yard, and Emperor of the North Pole?
Robert Aldrich chose The Killing of Sister George because he was fascinated with behind-the-scenes probes of the entertainment industry and believed that Sister George was the story of a character "struggling to salvage her self-esteem." Sister George falls into the same category as Charles Castle in The Big Knife, in which an actor is in desperate need of a comeback vehicle. As both George and Charles watch their careers derail and their personal lives crumble, they try to keep a heroic façade that conceals their neurotic but well-founded insecurities. Both make the wrong moves when chaotic figures enter the picture. Omnipotent industry insiders (a producer and a sleazy ad exec) attempt to blackmail Charles by revealing a well-kept secret that ultimately pushes Charles beyond his limits.
In The Killing of Sister George, the powerful television executive, ironically named Mercy, doesn't offer George and comfort or security at all, but psychologically tortures George with hidden knowledge about the fate of her character. And upon meeting Childie for the first time, Mercy makes it clear that she intends to sabotage George's TV character and her personal life as well.
George only makes matters worse when she resorts to tactics that reveal the crudest side of the actress's nature. Mercy insincerely acknowledges how "cheerful you always look on your scooter." "Well, you'd look cheerful, too, with 50 cubic centimeters of engine throbbing between your legs!" George's joke backfires and confirms that keeping the Sister George character on prime-time TV would prove detrimental to Applehurst's continuing success should George's lesbian lifestyle became fodder for tabloid exploitation.
As for Childie, Mercy makes it clear -- in front of George -- that she is most appreciative of Childie's refined homemaking talents (freshly-made scones properly served at the official time of British "high tea"); and she also takes note of Childie's subservience to George. When George catches on to the innuendoes shared between Mercy and Childie, she flies into a venomous attack on both, hurling the scones at Childie and challenging Mercy's ultimate intent.
The Killing of Sister George presents three opportunistic characters, each manipulative and vulnerable in their own way. Sister George's TV personality gives her a lot of ratings clout, but her personal lesbian life is a threat to Applehurst's universal appeal. Mercy has a secret attraction to women that could destroy her career, so she's forced to keep herself "in the closet" in order to preserve her power and credibility. Childie, however, is something of a wild card. As a simple sales clerk, she has really nothing to lose regarding her sexual preference or whatever social status she may lay claim to. Childie plays both George and Mercy to her advantage. To Childie, George offers only more and more games and role-playing, while Mercy just may be her ticket out of her relationship with George.
At one point, director Aldrich delivers a punch to the solar plexus by having George accidentally walk in on an intimate and climactic moment between Childie and Mercy -- the scene that triggered the censors of both the old Production Code and those of the new ratings system. George is emotionally and psychologically traumatized, but instead of resorting to one of her typically vicious confrontations, George goes to the TV studio set of Applehurst and smashes the fake balsa wood coffin her character is to be buried in. "Nothing is real! It's all fake! Everything's fake!" -- including June/George's on-and-off-screen life.
The Killing of Sister George is a harrowing film experience. The emotions are raw and realistic; whether you're gay, straight or just curious, the performances strike a nerve. Beryl Reid (who won a Broadway Tony Award for her portrayal of "Sister George"), Susannah York, and Coral Browne hold this film together by adding in-depth characterizations that develop into unpredictable, often searing, revelations about each personality.
In a small but pivotal role, Patricia Medina (Mr. Arkadin) plays Betty Thaxter, a sympathetic prostitute and George's only true friend. Sometimes George visits Betty, "just so I have a place to cry." Aldrich regular, cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc (Hustle, Ulzana's Raid), brings his expertise to an assortment of challenging indoor and outdoor scenes, adding local color and a taut, tension-filled noirish intimacy to the film's most controversial moments. One of the scenes was filmed in Gateways, a real lesbian club just off King's Road. In The Lavender Screen, author Boze Hadley claims that, "Unfortunately, the bar is peopled with the butchest, most unsympathetic stereotypes imaginable. They make June/George seem matronly, despite her legs-apart posture."
The same criticisms were fired at Otto Preminger in 1962 for his portrayal of the Washington, D.C., underground "gay bar scene" in Advise and Consent. A closeted senator runs from one gay club to another, but the audience gets only peripheral glimpses inside these establishments, and they are all typically clichéd interpretations. But keep in mind, Preminger was one of The Production Code's most notorious bête-noires, who fought tooth-and-nail to include the words "virgin" in The Moon Is Blue (1953) and "panties" in Anatomy of a Murder (1957). Despite what the Code allowed, both Preminger and Aldrich managed to get their presentation of gay life, however compromised, into public view. Aldrich took Sister George a major step further by concentrating on the more intimate aspects of lesbian character development as opposed to placing them in a flamboyant and inaccurate environment.
For the record, Aldrich's longtime composer, Frank De Vol, was so disgusted by the lesbian lovemaking scene that he quit the production and didn't work with Aldrich for several years. The original score is credited to Gerald Fried who shared an Emmy Award with Quincy Jones for the television production of Roots.
MGM's 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is a major improvement over Anchor's Bay's 1.85:1 non-anamorphic release of 2003. The film still has an independently-produced look and feel that aptly reflects the maverick appeal of Robert Aldrich's films as both a director and producer. MGM's new transfer is remarkably clear of artifacting and bland, washed-out images. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono renders the dialogue crisp and clear, but if you have trouble following that snappy British dialogue, the subtitles are accurate and easy to read. Unfortunately, MGM cops out again by not providing a single extra.
With a running time of 140 minutes, The Killing of Sister George admittedly has stretches that may be considered too talky, as is often the case with screen adaptations of stage plays. But the acid wit and barbed-wire dialogue more than compensate as they delineate and enhance complex characters and provocative situations.
If you want a film that boosts what I call the CTF (Cheap Titillation Factor) of a lesbian love scene, I recommend Bound (1996), directed by the Wachowski Brothers. The once-controversial scene in Sister George doesn't hold a vibrator to the one between starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon. But that's today; Sister George was yesterday.
Robert Aldrich frequently referred to The Killing of Sister George as one of his personal favorites and he was more than pleased with the casting. Originally, he courted Angela Lansbury and Bette Davis to play the lead. Lansbury had only negative comments about playing a lesbian -- "one of those people" -- and Davis had already committed herself to another British film, The Anniversary. But having seen Beryl Reid's performance on Broadway, Davis graciously told both Aldrich and Reid that Reid was the only actress who could bring "Sister George" alive on the screen.
That's quite a compliment coming from a legendary Hollywood icon. Take her word for it.
Not guilty! Fasten your scooter safety belts. As "Sister George" might say, "You're in for a 'boompy' ride!"
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 1968
MPAA Rating: Rated X
* Robert Aldrich at The Golden Years