Thursday, 30 June 2022

Sister act… The Killing of Sister George (1968)


There are so many remarkable things about this production it’s easy to overlook the fact that it was primarily shot in Hollywood with Director Robert Aldrich shifting the very British cast and crew over to the west coast and his Aldrich Studios in Los Angeles. There are plenty of location shots in London boozers and the streets around Hampstead all the way down to Chiswick to give the right impression but, of course, the soul of repression, and sheer vicious disappointment is uniquely British.


The film is based on Frank Marcus 1964 play in which Beryl Reid had also starred both in the West \end and then in 1966, Broadway when she was given a Tony Award. Marcus’ play hints at the nature of the relations but Aldrich wanted to make a more defined film about the scene in London, a year before make homosexuality was legalised and some of the stigma was removed from lesbianism. The latter was never criminalised because, as legend has it, Queen Victoria refused to believe that it existed… sound unlikely but if true, huge and very unfair on the poor men whose self-slaughter finally persuaded Parliament to take action.


The sexual politics aside there’s some fabulous footage of a lesbian bar which, in contrast to the majority of the film, shows ordinary women getting on with having a loving good time. George’s relationship with the much younger Alice "Childie" McNaught (Susannah York) is sometimes loving but also carries strange intimations of sadomasochism and cruelty. If Childie makes a mistake she has to go down on her knees and accept a punishment such as eating a cigar but, if she starts to pretend to enjoy the tobacco, Georgie gets upset and accuses her of “spoiling things”. Even with this very specifically sexualised reading, there’s more to George and Childie than meets the eye…


This allows for Aldrich not wanting to sensationalise his subject… and I don’t think he does, George is a tortured character and, in some ways, her sadism is just another expression of her sadness and inability to truly connect in a normal way without play acting, acting the fool or sexual role-play. Does she not know herself? She certainly hasn’t worked out what is going to happen to her career and, coincidentally her personal life when fashions change and suddenly, you’re left with a much shorter future.


Reid plays June "George" Buckridge, the titular star of a long-running soap opera called Sister George in which she plays a helpful district nurse riding around on a scooter, helping the locals sort out their day-to-day issues with a lovely west-country burr that could make light of even the most difficult of problems be it a double booking if the village hall or more worldly matters. Any similarity with The Archers and Mrs Dale’s Diaries is purely incidental. Be-loved characters persist in Manchester, as midwives, detectives and pillars of the community.


But George has heard rumours or, more specifically, has had rumours passed onto her in bad faith by some of the enemies she routines makes. George is very funny if you’re on her side by excoriating if you are not. And her acid tongue is the corrosive dark side to her character’s wholesomeness. Is she reaching the end of the line with her character, as other new parts start to finally, move her from the top of the polls.


It's worth mentioning some excellent work from Hugh Paddick as Freddie, the long-suffering director of the show who values George whilst also being aware of the danger she places herself in by kicking against the pricks. Chief amongst these is Ronald Fraser as Leo Lockhart, a proper act-or who has played in higher-brow productions that this and doesn’t mind who knows it. Sadly, he is the one who is winning the popular vote with viewers…


This professional pressure, aligned with George’s myriad self-doubts and irritations drives her to drink, although she doesn’t need much help in heading off in that direction. She skips out of a read through and heads to a local alehouse, drinking it dry before final call at 2.30pm – yes, dear readers, there as a time when public houses opened at 11-2,30pm and then again in the evening from 5.30 to just 10.30! How did we ever cope??


What George really needs is a loving relationship at home and someone who’ll listen to her miserable days with positive feedback and unconditional tenderness. Now Childie might be willing to provide many of these things but George is also at pains to make sure she’s dragged down with her too. Susannah York’s performance is almost the equal of Reid’s and her shocked, hurt response is vulnerable and open hearted. She’s not without resilience though, she plays the role George likes but is capable of more…


They’re an odd couple, Childie is almost half George’s age and very attractive… there are clearly issues and perhaps rather more than is credible. But it’s a drama…


Into this picture comes Coral Browne as Mercy Croft a well-meaning studio executive who visits George and Childie’s flat to discuss the rather thorny issue of when a drunken George got into a handsome cab with two nuns – one of which was a young Madelaine Smith – before assaulting them both verbally and physically… “well, hello girls!”. George defends the indefensible but agrees when she learns that Sister George is not in imminent danger but is falling behind in the ratings.


Then comes that great scene in Gateways lesbian nightclub where George and Childie go dressed as Hardy and Laurel respectively. Here we can see them getting on, the same sense of theatrical humour and the suggestion perhaps that their chemistry is stronger than it seems. Mercy Croft comes to see them in this world which the former married woman finds fascinatingly different… so much so that she starts to worry about George’s influence on the seemingly innocent Childie who’s artistic ambitions as a poet and more than a seamstress she thinks should be encouraged.


George becomes paranoid, especially when Childie goes missing for long hours and appears evasive. She’s always been scared that her pretty young friend will run off with a younger woman or, worse still a man, and takes advantage of the fact that she provides her with bed and board.


But pushing Childie only drives her closer towards the younger, but still older Mercy and, after Sister George’s demise is concerned Childie beg9ns to see more of Mercy… who leads her away from the climactic leaving party during which George leaves no bridge unburned, back home where the films’ most overtly sexual moment happens. It’s a remarkable moment which unnerved both actors but the power play between the two is exceptional and well directed by Aldrich. In the end a bitter George make sit clear that Childie might not be the catch she seems… sharper than a serpent’s tooth with extra venom.


Where is George left at the end of the film? Friendless and with a future as a talking cow on children’s TV? Who knows, but there’s ultimately a reflection that women’s careers in broadcast media were perhaps strictly defined by age than men’s. George isn’t punished for her way of life; she’s punished for her age and her unhappiness stems from an ultimately unhappy inability to really connect with people of either sex.


My memory of this film had it labelled in the “lesbian pays” sub-genre but there’s much more to George than that and Beryl Reid is frighteningly good in the part, spitting her sheer hate at all those who wrong her, a bully perhaps but also someone on the slide, raging against the dying of the light.


Not surprisingly the play has been revived a number of times over the years and this film is still worthy of your attention not least for the excellence of its three female leads.

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