The Killing
Of Sister

MGM Home Video.

Robert Aldrich

Lukas Heller
Based on tha play
by: Frank Marcus

Beryl Reid,
Susannah York,
Coral Browne,
Ronald Fraser,
Patricia Medina,
Hugh Paddick,
Cyril Delevanti,
Sivi Aberg

Originally Rated X
Rated R, 138 minutes

The Madness Of Dame George
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, June 2009

The Killing Of Sister George (1968) is often spoken of in the same breath with The Boys In The Band (1970) because both share a certain notoriety for being hysterically negative representations of queers on the silver screen. I am embarrassed to say that, until last night, I knew the film only by its reputation. It took me a long time but I'm finally able to join the debate.

This is a difficult film to review as it was, in some ways, groundbreaking while also being overly sensationalistic at the same time. Discussing this film will involve spoilers, so be forewarned. The Killing Of Sister George was originally a play by Frank Marcus. The original 1964 production, starring Beryl Reid, premiered in London's West End and opened on Broadway two years later with most of its cast intact. In 1968, director Robert Aldrich brought it to the screen. Aldrich is best known for having directed Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in that Grand Guignol camp classic, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? in 1962. Baby Jane's screenwriter handled the adaptation.

June Buckridge (Beryl Reid) is an actress on Applehurst, a popular BBC television soap opera. The character she plays is a beloved nurse named Sister George. The actress is nothing like the squeaky clean Florence Nightengale who rides a motorbike through the small English village to tend the sick and dispense motherly advice. In real life she is a gin-swilling, cigar smoking, butch lesbian with a sadistic streak a mile long. Early in the film, she staggers drunkenly out of a bar and hails a taxi that is stopped at a red light - and proceeds to accost the two nuns who already occupied the back seat.

Fittingly, she is known to everyone as "George." Because she goes by that name throughout the film, I will do the same in this essay.
George lives with Alice "Childie" McNaught (Susannah York), a younger and child-like woman who enjoys playing with her large collection of Victorian dolls. Childie bears the brunt of George's often drunken anger. George is verbally and sometimes physically abusive, and their relationship dynamic fuses the butch-femme and the master-slave. During a truly repugnant scene, George forces Childie to eat her cigar. Childie does so in a tight close-up; at first her face registers disgust but then morphs into an expression of sexual rapture. George often threatens to rip apart Childie's favorite doll. She repeatedly accuses her younger lover of infidelity. When Childie screams that "Not all of the girls are raving, bloody lesbians, you know," George replies, "That is a misfortune that I am well aware of."
The "killing" in the title is not meant to be taken literally. The producers of Applehurst have decided to kill off the character of Sister George. The actress is becoming a liability; George has walked off the set, her public drunkenness is becoming more and more scandalous, and the incident with the nuns provides the icing on the cake. This bad news is delivered by a network executive named Mercy Croft (Coral Browne) who slowly insinuates her way into George and Childie's lives. She is the classic, well-dressed, predatory lesbian that began to appear in many 1960s films, and she has set her eyes on Childie.
Okay; this is a film from the 1960s featuring abusive and predatory lesbians and it's directed by the man who gave the world Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. Sounds like a groundbreaking film along the lines of Desert Hearts, doesn't it?
This is where writing about this film, from a standpoint four decades later, becomes a bit problematic. The story, itself, is a study in dysfunction that resembles a strange hybrid of Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and Joe Orton. The playwright meant it as a Pinter-esque farce and the play was originally billed as a comedy. The Killing Of Sister George is mildly successful on these levels, but then one has to consider that pesky lesbian issue. If this was Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, and the film was about abusive heterosexual couples, we would not be having this discussion right now. But there weren't a lot of films about lesbians on the silver screen and the audiences who did see The Killing Of Sister George in 1968 were presented with a very unflattering portrait.
In its defense, let us consider George. Unlike the whiners in The Boys In The Band, George is hardly a self-loathing dyke. On the contrary. She might not be the nicest woman in the world, but she is living her life on her own terms and doesn't care what anyone else thinks. George is boisterous, she dresses in masculine attire, she says and does what she wants and the rest of the world can fuck off. She lives openly with Childie and it seems fairly obvious that everyone at the television station knows that they are more than just "flatmates." Even her S&M games with her partner can be viewed as an extension of her role playing on televsion. The decision to kill off Sister George undoubtedly stems, at least in part, from the gay actress' refusal to bury her real identity and remain invisible like a good little girl (at one point George even calls herself a "bad boy").
George's downfall becomes even more humiliating when, at a network party, her visibility is further compromised when she is offered a new part in a children's television show in which she would play Clarabelle the Cow. Learning that she will be a "flawed but credible cow" (because "otherwise children wouldn't believe in her") does nothing to assuage her anger which she takes out on everyone, including her partner. Childie has finally had enough and she responds to Mercy's blatant advances and leaves with her. The film ends with George wandering through the dark television studio, where she discovers that even her character's coffin is fake, and begins to smash everything in sight. Finally, she sits down on a bench and begins to moo - a wail of such despair that it sends chills down the viewer's spine. While George may seem monstrous at times, she ultimately generates the most sympathy and becomes the most tragic of all the characters in the film.
She is also the funniest. Beryl Reid is often a hoot as George and watching her chew the scenery (when she isn't abusing her partner) is a delight. She is privileged with most of the best lines. Sister George's motorbike was the actress' idea (surprise surprise) and, when Mercy innocently remarks that she always looks so cheerful on the bike, George says, "You'd look cheerful too with 50 cubic centimeters throbbing away between your legs."
There is also a wonderful scene in which George and Childie dress as Laurel and Hardy and attend a costume ball at the local lesbian bar. This was filmed at the legendary Gateways Club in London's Chelsea district and most of the bar's regulars were featured as extras and can be seen dancing in the finished film. Despite the movie's depiction of dysfunctional dykes, The Killing Of Sister George at least offers a filmic record of history's longest lasting lesbian bar. (On the downside, one of the extras famously lost her job when her employer recognized her in a publicity still.)
The Killing Of Sister George was not the first mainstream film to feature lesbians, but it is one of the first films in which the dreaded L word was uttered. It is also one of the first films to be rated X under the newly formed Motion Picture Code. This was due to a very explicit (for its day) scene wherein Mercy seduces the distraught Childie. This scene does not occur in the original play, and it is difficult to discern whether or not the director's intentions were noble or simply prurient. Aldrich knew the value of showmanship and perhaps, like fellow director Otto Preminger, was just pushing the envelope for the mere sake of doing so. The scene itself seems designed to shock. It lasts for about three minutes and features kissing, nipple play and extended close-ups of Childie's orgasm. What could have been the decade's most groundbreaking scene of Sapphic passion is rendered almost clinical and emotionless by melodramatic music that would have been a better fit in one of Roger Corman's Edgar Allen Poe films.
It is unfortunate, but the first major film to really explore a lesbian relationship was executed by clueless straight men. It is probably a given that Aldrich and company weren't concerned with giving the world's lesbians a movie that they could embrace and call their own. (The fact that Aldrich also directed, ten years later, Joseph Wambaugh's extremely homophobic cop "comedy," The Choirboys, also gives this reviewer pause.) While Aldrich should probably be commended for "bravely" tackling the subject matter, did he have to do so in such a grotesque manner? George is not a far cry from Bette Davis' Baby Jane Hudson, and Mercy is a prime example of the viperish lipstick lesbian that began to appear as villians in many of the decade's movies. The only way that Childie differs from the other sex kittens of the more kitschy films of the period is that she prefers the company of women.
Forgetting for a moment the entire issue of a filmmaker's responsibility towards portions of his audience, how does the Aldrich adaptation fare as cinema? As far as depicting more adult subject matter in 60s cinema is concerned, The Killing Of Sister George is probably one of the era's unsung films (John Schlesinger's also X rated Midnight Cowboy was still another year away). Marcus' play was opened up considerably (the original took place entirely in their London flat) and Sister George's soap opera was changed from a radio to a television program. The ladies' cluttered apartment is appropriately claustrophobic and becomes a character in itself. The acting is terrific. Elements such as the all-girl band playing in the Gateways Club hilariously date the movie. Much of the background score also dates the film; the music, in fact, ruins George's climactic primal wail in the deserted television studio. As stated earlier, the controversial sex scene seemed designed more to shock and to titillate than to celebrate women in love.
As a gay man, my history with The Boys In The Band goes back many years and I will not try to guess how most of my gay sisters view The Killing Of Sister George. My own final verdict? The film makes for some very unpleasant viewing but it isn't a complete washout. As an edgy play/film in the Pinter/Orton tradition, and as a satire on television, there is much to commend. As cinema, it is an interesting curio that perhaps deserves a little more respect than it is generally accorded. As positive, groundbreaking lesbian cinema it is a resounding and often ludicrous failure. But at least George isn't killed by a tree falling on her like poor Sandy Dennis in the previous year's The Fox.