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The Killing of Sister George

Sat 6 Aug 2005 In: Movies View at Wayback View at NDHA

THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE Dir: Robert Aldrich UK, 1968, 2hrs 20mins Starring: Beryl Reid, Susannah York, Coral Browne Until recently, Robert Aldrich's movie The Killing of Sister George was dismissed as a poisonous load of homophobic crap. However, some lesbians are re-evaluating this interpretation of prefeminist lesbian life. Here's the plot. June Buckridge (Beryl Reid) is Sister George, a loveable rural nurse on Applehurst, a popular British radio soap. Off-mike, she's a rancorous, alcoholic middle-aged butch in love with a younger femme, Alice MacNaught/Childie (Susannah York). June faces competition from Mercy Croft, a scheming middle-class closeted television executive with designs on Childie. Unfortunately, she succeeds in undermining June and Childie's relationship, and June's performance suffers. At the end of the film, she is sacked from Applehurst, and is last seen mooing disconsolately at the empty studio set, where a plain pine coffin has been deposited for publicity shots of her character's demise. Sound dreadful? Surprisingly, some lesbian reviewers have disagreed with this negative assessment. Jewelle Gomez remembers it as the first lesbian-themed movie that she encountered as a young African-American lesbian, and praises it for dealing effectively with class antagonisms, as well as the positive depiction of sex worker Betty Thaxter (Patricia Medina), June's long-time best friend. For older lesbians, it also has nostalgia and historical value. Jill Gardiner and Kelly Hankin celebrate one memorable scene set in the Gateways Club, which was a long-lived lesbian pub that lasted for nearly four decades (1945-1985). When June and Alice enter Gateways, there is an ensemble scene, effectively dispelling the myth of the 'solitary lesbian.' Here, there is welcome evidence that a lesbian community exists. Some butch/femme lesbian critics dislike the film, though. They argue that Sister George negatively distorts the actual balance of economic power within butch-femme couples before the advent of feminism. As femmes could pass outside lesbian communities, they were often the breadwinners in these couples, as butches found it difficult to obtain non-traditional manual labouring work. For still others, Sister George is a celebration of lesbian sexuality, social networks and overall transgression for most of the movie. Who says that viewers have to accept the unhappy ending when most of the film depicts a loving lesbian relationship? Are all of these interpretations valid? Is Sister George therefore a mixture of positive and negative messages about lesbianism, class antagonisms, butch/femme couples and the difficulty of building lesbian communities? Should its positive aspects be celebrated, as well as its historical content? As it is widely available on video and DVD, perhaps the viewer should judge for herself. Filmography: The Killing of Sister George (1968): Producer/Director: Robert Aldrich: Palomar Pictures: Cast: June Buckridge/Sister George (Beryl Reid): Alice MacNaught/Childie (Susannah York): Mercy Croft (Coral Browne): Betty Thaxter (Patricia Medina): Colour: 135 minutes. Recommended Reading: Jill Gardiner: From the Closet to the Screen: Women and the Gateways Club: 1945-1985: London: Pandora: 2002. Kelly Hankin: The Girls in the Back Room: Looking at the Lesbian Bar: Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 2002. Shameem Kabir: Daughters of Desire: Lesbian Representations in Film: London: Cassell: 1998. Not Recommended: Frank Marcus: The Killing of Sister George: Hamilton: London: 1965. Online References: Jill Gardiner: "The Gateways Club" (December 2000): Jewelle Gomez: Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review (31.07.99): Sally Hussey: "Scene 176: Recasting the Lesbian in Robert Aldrich's The Killing of Sister George: Gary Morris: "The Killing of Sister George on DVD" Craig Young (political columnist) - 6th August 2005    

Credit: Craig Young (political columnist)

First published: Saturday, 6th August 2005 - 12:00pm

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