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Buoyed by the runaway box office success of his World War II drama The Dirty Dozen (1967), Robert Aldrich probably could have continued his winning streak by making more films in the same macho action vein. Instead, one of the projects he chose to pursue was the film adaptation of the Frank Marcus play, The Killing of Sister George (1968), that had won Beryl Reid a Tony Award when she played it for more than 200 performances on Broadway in 1966-67; it was one of the first mainstream movies to prominently feature lesbian characters.
The title sounds like it could be one of those cheap horror knock-offs that sprang up after the success of Aldrich's Hollywood gothic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). In fact, the killing of the title is more metaphorical than real. Reid plays a popular British TV star who plays a lovable character named Sister George in a long-running soap opera. Although her character is well loved by the public, the actress, June Buckridge, is a loud, aggressive, hard-drinking and unapologetic lesbian given to scandalous public incidents. The show's producers decide to kill off Sister George, which could put an end to June's career. The cunning predatory producer Mercy Croft poses an even greater threat to the aging actress because of her interest in June's childlike lover Alice (appropriately dubbed "Childie"), the one person who gives June's life meaning.
Despite Reid's award-winning stage performance, Aldrich encountered resistance to her recreating the role on film. She was well-known in England, where the film was shot and financed, so her lack of box office name stateside was not the issue so much as the perception that she was more suited to the light comedies she had often taken on up to that point in her career (including a stint on The Benny Hill Show). But Aldrich was determined to have her in the picture, even to ignoring the reported desire of Bette Davis, his Baby Jane star, to land the role. (Angela Lansbury was also reportedly in line for the part.) His faith in Reid was well rewarded with a complex, wrenching, darkly comic performance that earned her a Golden Globe nomination.
The role of Childie was a stretch for Susannah York, who had been seen largely in ingnue parts to that point. Apparently, the intense lesbian sex scene she had to play with Coral Browne (as Mercy Croft) so unnerved her that she frequently ran from the set in tears. That scene caused some headaches for Aldrich, too. Beyond wrangles with both UK and US censors (who gave the film an X rating on its initial release), the director also had a falling out with his longtime friend and collaborator, composer Frank De Vol, who had written the music for nine previous Aldrich pictures. The love scene reportedly so upset De Vol that he quit the production, and a new composer, Gerald Fried, had to be brought in to write the score. De Vol went on to the far less disturbing task of writing music for The Brady Bunch TV series but returned to Aldrich for Ulzana's Raid (1972) and six subsequent features.
Whatever discomforts the cast may have felt working with such strong gay subject matter must have been shed in light of The Killing of Sister George's critical success and impressive box office receipts. Susannah York took on another female-on-female seduction scene with no less than Elizabeth Taylor in X, Y, and Zee (aka Zee and Co., 1972), though it was considerably toned down in explicitness compared to The Killing of Sister George. Coral Browne played herself in one of the best gay-themed pieces of its time, John Schlesinger's TV film An Englishman Abroad (1983), a recounting of Browne's real-life encounter with defected gay British spy Guy Burgess (Alan Bates) during a theatrical tour she made of the Soviet Union. And Reid played one-third of a sexually fluid triangle in the film adaptation of gay playwright Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1970).
The Killing of Sister George is hardly a "positive" view of lesbianism but it was a groundbreaking drama for its time. On the other hand, despite its share of bitchy dialogue and stereotypical butch/femme posturing, Aldrich's picture does not set out to condemn, laugh at or otherwise criticize lesbians. The characters are what they are, warts and all, because of their own individual foibles and circumstances and not because of their sexuality. The fact that the story takes place in the deceitful, uncertain world of show business (a theme Aldrich often returned to) only adds to its sense of desperation and despair. In other words, audiences looking for well-adjusted, sympathetic gay characters are not going to find them here, but they aren't going to be subjected to gay serial killers either.
Director: Robert Aldrich
Producer: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: Lukas Heller, based on the play by Frank Marcus
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Editing: Michael Luciano
Art Direction: William Glasgow
Original Music: Gerald Fried
Cast: Beryl Reid (June Buckridge), Susannah York (Childie McNaught), Coral Browne (Mercy Croft), Patricia Medina (Betty Thaxter), Ronald Fraser (Leo Lockhart).
by Rob Nixon