THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE (1968)
In 1968 the hit West End play THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE was adapted for the cinema. It contained a subtle lesbian theme rarely dealt with in that early climate of permissiveness and for the film version the Sapphic side was more overt. It also retained its lead actress Beryl Reid in the role of June Buckridge, a TV soap opera actress struggling more with age, vanity and jealousy than her sexuality. The director was Robert Aldrich, who would seem an unlikely choice if you only recognised him from the ‘guys on a mission’ machismo of THE DIRTY DOZEN. He had however already directed strong women to great acclaim in female-centric films: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE and then Ms Davis in HUSH...HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE.
The drama here focuses on Buckridge’s private and professional life crumbling around her. She plays a nurse, a long-running character in the TV series ‘Applehurst’ but her increasingly bad attitude will not go unpunished for much longer. The show is a quaint, rural piece reminiscent of ‘The Archers’, (indeed the axing of Grace Archer in that show is said to be a major satirical inspiration here). In ‘real life’ Buckridge’s nature is far from the sweetness of the nurse she plays. She is a masculine, rude and inconsiderate person, insensitive both to her colleagues and ‘Childie’ (Alice, played by the delectable Susannah York) the simple-minded young woman she lives with in a lesbian relationship. The last straw professionally comes after one of her thoughtless rehearsal exits in a script huff when she has a heavy session in the pub and then drunkenly molests two nuns in the back of a taxi. A complaint from the Mother Superior leads to a reprimand visit at Buckridge’s home by the powerful Mrs Croft (Coral Browne) from the production. June is on a warning and after ludicrously protesting that the nuns frightened her, resembling “Albino mice”, she is forced to accept a two-week suspension. The pompous Mrs Crofts appears to take a personal interest in Alice and her poetry, who is described by Buckridge just as a flatmate, barely concealing her own jealousy at the attention her concealed lover is receiving.
The relationship between June and Alice is complex and sexually perverse. June is vindictive and sarcastic with her, alternating with mothering her and role-playing a sado-masochistic game where Alice is forced to eat her lover’s cigar-butts, feigning enjoyment. June’s selfish viciousness also spills over into their social life; when they impersonate Laurel and Hardy for a lesbian fancy-dress club night, June inevitably plays Ollie and torments Alice cruelly. Mrs Croft meets them at the party, invited by June on a whim, but after being surprised by the guests has a greater shock in store for June. She is to be written out of ‘Applehurst’ after all, dying when her beloved motorbike is hit by a truck. June’s reaction is ego-driven outrage: “I refuse to die in such a ridiculous manner!” (Her high-handedness echoes another possible influence on SISTER GEORGE, that of Tony Hancock’s hilarious episode ‘The Bowmans’ where he reacts the same way on hearing his radio soap regular will be killed off).
As if this isn’t bad enough, June’s constant paranoid insecurity about Alice having an affair reveals she’s actually been fraternising with Croft behind her back. With nothing to lose, June’s self-destructive side goes into over-drive, showing up drunk for the staged bike crash, trying to make the other actors ‘corpse’ and lashing out at her cast and crew at her farewell dinner. The final indignity is an offer by a producer for her to voice an animated cow for a children’s series. “Why don’t you piss off?” she replies, burning her last bridge.
Back home, Croft vows to protect Alice by taking her away, revealing her own lesbianism in a predatory attempted seduction of Alice in the bedroom. Just as this is about to be consummated, a dark silhouette is ominously framed in the door-way. It is June, looming like a Grand Guignol murderer. “What a perfect little gem for the Sunday press” she spits, her worst jealous fears proved correct. This is the catalyst for a slanging match of hugely enjoyable bile between she and Croft, the latter dropping her earlier smug diplomacy to give June a taste of her own bitter medicine with caustic home truths: “You’re a fat, boring actress and people are sick to death of you!. Look at yourself, you pathetic old dyke!”. Reeling from these unbridled blasts, June still has enough strength for a parting shot to wound both women as they go. She exposes Alice as being far from the little girl that Croft (and hypocritically herself) like to infantilise. Her escaping lover is really aged thirty-two, and has a daughter she abandoned. June tries to softly appeal to Alice, but as always it is a self-serving sensitivity and she is left alone.
Her final futile gesture is to break into the studio, where she knocks over a light and then proceeds to trash the set in disgust at what remains of her legacy: “Even the bloody coffin’s a fake…”. She sits down and then moos, a self-piteous imitation of where her career has led her…
THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE is a raging powerful piece whose battles weren’t just on-screen. Director Aldrich had to fight the censors in the USA and the UK. America’s new MPAA board critically sabotaged its box office by awarding it the kiss-of-death ‘X’ rating in order to keep the seduction scene in, which drastically reduced newspaper advertisements and wide release. In the UK, after a protracted battle with the BBFC over sexual language as much as content, the uncut version was only released nationally in 1970. The struggle for integrity was worth the effort, though. It’s a real pleasure to see a film dominated by a female ensemble that creates gutsy, meaty showcases for York, Browne and especially Beryl Reid who has a ball as the greedy, tyrannical June, allowing her to use multiple character voices and roar foul-mouthed insults at all and sundry as her world implodes. This is truly adult cinema and in dealing with edgy, controversial issues confounds preconceptions male audiences might have.
A cast without testosterone can create a film with balls…