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Robert Aldrich is known as a tough minded, direct, anti-authoritarian film director whose films often tried to be shockingly confrontational with American audiences. Starting with Kiss Me Deadly in 1955 his liberal side emerged loudly and often. After his assaults on the private eye thriller and the combat film ( Attack!) he set his sights on Columbia's Mogul Harry Cohn in The Big Knife. There Rod Steiger delivers a blistering rendition of a very Cohn-like studio head, a move comparable to Orson Welles' attack on William Randolph Hearst. When Cohn later found out he had hired Aldrich to helm his own The Garment Jungle the renegade director was fired and began a four-year exile in Europe, blackballed not for political views but for daring to throw Hollywood's dirty laundry in its face. In Europe, Aldrich's filmography became even more apocalyptic in nature. Aldrich's Hammer film Ten Seconds to Hell is a melodrama about a suicidal bomb defusing unit. Sodom and Gomorrah takes Deadly's biblical references to their literal extreme, making Jehovah's destruction of the cities of sin a nuclear blast. The conversion of Lot's wife to a pillar of salt is remarkably similar to the fiery end of Deadly's Lily Carver.
Returning to great success in the U.S., Aldrich's subsequent movies retained his anger and a kind of primal ferocity, even those without a fierce theme. The fireworks within the male unit of The Flight of the Phoenix (one of Aldrich's best and most unsung films) bristles with bitterness and regret; it's perhaps the best portrait of men under pressure of the decade.
But Aldrich also indulged his own sense of the grotesque. Unrestrained acting took some of his films over the edge. Certain actors somehow gave Aldrich the worst work of their careers: Jack Palance in The Big Knife is completely out of control (and not much better in Attack!). Aldrich doesn't seem to be able to do much with the awkward casting in something like The Last Sunset and it's the professional charisma of Lee Marvin that seems holds the center of The Dirty Dozen.
In between his male-driven action stories Aldrich made a string of films with female stars that forestall any inclination to draw conclusions about his ability with actors. Autumn Leaves actually has a restrained and impressive Joan Crawford performance at a time (1956) when her career was already veering into bizarre self parody. 1 Aldrich's first '60s smash was the guignol Crawford-Bette Davis slugfest What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? followed by Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. Both were enormously popular and began a craze of famous female stars coming out of retirement to parody their glamorous images in violent horror films. Those professional actresses respected a straight-talking pro who actually cared about quality, and Aldrich became the most unlikely "women's director" of them all.
With the enormous success of The Dirty Dozen Aldrich bought his own studio and embarked on a short-lived independent period, the first two films of which were serious artistic rolls of the dice. The Legend of Lylah Clare was an awkward remake of Vertigo within a scathing critique of Hollywood. Anything like sensitivity was lost in an avalanche of overacting and overdirection. Ernest Borgnine, uniformly terrible in his Aldrich films, plays a parody of Aldrich himself. The haunted, possessed Lylah Clare (Kim Novak) is unconvincingly shown as being bisexual with crass lesbian characters like Rossella (Rossella Falk, known for her sinister villainess in the very camp Modesty Blaise). The butch Hedda Hopper-Louella Parsons gossip columnist Molly Luther is very well played by Coral Browne, who ambles about threateningly on a pair of canes.
This brings us to Aldrich's second independent studio production, 1968's The Killing of Sister George. It has been a notorious film for thirty years, one of the very first rated X under the new code. Like Midnight Cowboy this was before X became synonymous with porn. George is unapologetically about Lesbians. Like The Big Knife it is a filmed play about show business, in this case, a television soap opera.
June Buckridge (Beryl Reid) is the beloved star of an English television soap, where she toodles amiably about an idealized rural town on her scooter as "Sister George," solving problems with a sweet smile and helpful advice. Off camera, June is coming apart with the fear that her character will soon be retired, putting her out of a job in a business unlikely to find her a new role. The tension causes her to go overboard at the local pub, missing a rehearsal and playing into the hands of vicious studio personnel who would like nothing better than to see her dismissed. Drunk and disorderly, she molests two nuns in the back of a Taxi, which precipitates a visit from BBC executive Mercy Croft (Coral Browne), a more deeply closeted lesbian. The political mix is not good. June becomes aggressively possessive of her "flatmate" Alice (Susannah York, humiliatingly subservient in a tacky baby-doll pajama). When it becomes obvious that Mercy is going to allow Sister George to be killed off (a scooter accident timed to coincide with "road safety week"), June deliberately drives off Alice's affections. Alice is offered a studio job by the increasingly solicitous Mercy, who cruelly offers June the opportunity to play the part of a cartoon Cow on a kiddie show. Events finally converge when June finds Mercy and Alice engaged in a mutual seduction.
The Legend of Lylah Clare ends with a vicious parody of a dog food commercial that has the devastating effect of putting the whole movie into shock, with the message that Hollywood commercialism turns all values into cultural dog food. Aldrich's direction could flop on occasion but that last sequence confirmed him once and for all as a director willing to throw down his gauntlet and fight. The Killing of Sister George starts with the same attitude and never relaxes long enough to get out of shock mode; while resolutely refusing to be cheaply exploitative about his ground-breaking subject matter, Aldrich has nevertheless made a movie that comes off as an unpleasant freak show. June is quick and hearty with her laughter but also shrill and strident and vulgar. She's equally as cruel and vicious as her tormentors. The lesbianism (I think I heard that word only once in the movie) is secondary to the grinding expose of the heartlessness of show business, which even in 1968 was old news. Whereas the female-female relationships are intriguing, the real thrust of the story is nasty showbiz politics, which isn't as interesting.
The acting is flawless. Unlike Aldrich's male scene-chewers, pros like Reid and Browne acquit themselves with fearless gusto. When the movies turned to "adult" subject matter, it was never the actors who balked at rough assignments. One doesn't talk respected English actresses like these into playing sexually explicit scenes by snapping one's fingers. And Aldrich doesn't hold back. The "hot" scene is played for keeps, with the sweaty-faced York possibly sabotaging her career as a sweet young thing, reaching an onscreen orgasm unimaginable in 1968. With the swing towards repression again well underway in commercial movies, it's just as shocking now.
What's too bad is that the film is so grimly unpleasant. Since we already know showbiz is nasty and people are No Damn Good, the impression received of The Killing of Sister George is that older women are hysterical and malevolent beyond understanding, like Baby Jane Hudson. June is pathetic but ultimately unlikeable. She's treated unfairly, yes, but shows no self-restraint (the molested nuns) and dishes out appalling verbal cruelty of her own, sometimes without provocation. Since the showbiz life is marginal to "normal" living, her predicament seems anything but universal. The impression given of gay women is that they are unstable and vicious.
For sex, we have some heavy breathing, bared breasts and fondling in the Browne/York seduction. Because Browne's promise of a job hovers over York so controllingly, there's neither joy nor beauty in the relationship. York and Reid get giddy when dressing up as Laurel and Hardy but there's some ugly sadism early on where Reid makes York eat a cigar in a symbolic oral sex ritual. Okay, so such relationships exist, and the screen has every right to be honest. Savant's sensibilities might be too tender but after such a scene he gave up hope for anything like respect in the relationship. Stepping boldly into forbidden territory (a good thing) Aldrich falls for some cheap exploitative effects (a bad thing). The view of alternate sexuality in The Killing of Sister George resembles most strongly the uncomprehending, disgusted "sensitivity" of John Ford's Seven Women.
Anchor Bay's DVD of The Killing of Sister George is a fine presentation of a controversial film. The 16:9 image is as good as one could hope for, with the screen free of blemishes. The London location work meshes well with the Los Angeles-filmed interiors. There are no extras, not even a trailer.
The toppling of the censors and the imposition of the uniform ratings code at the end of 1967 brought forth a pack of movies about gays and lesbians. The Boys in the Band comes to mind as a title, but other films like the Richard Burton/Rex Harrison Staircase have seen little exhibition. Other films toying marginally with the subject, such as Preminger's Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon 2 had good intentions but likewise failed to find an audience. Savant has not a clue about the modern liberated gay consensus, if there is one, on Robert Aldrich's The Killing of Sister George. The maker of The Longest Yard isn't someone one would associate with the subject matter.The Killing of Sister George is excellently acted but cold and unmoving. The call for sympathy for June in the final scene elicits mixed feelings at best.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Try and watch Crawford's Torch Song sometime. It's hideous in every respect.
2. A so-so mess of a film, Junie Moon has a dated but wonderfully open
attitude toward "differentness" in its free-form family of rejects: a black, an unhappy homely
bachelor, a crippled gay guy (no, he doesn't climb Mt. Whitney), a mentally unstable guy and a female
victim of an acid attack. Its best feature, however, is its theme song sung by Pete Seeger in a pair of visual
bookends: Old Devil Time. It should be an anthem for the unfortunate and dispossessed. Find the
old vinyl record; used record stores are full of 'em.