Sunday, June 8, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: The Killing of Sister George (1968)
Director: Robert Aldrich
Starring: Beryl Reid, Susannah York, Coral Browne
The Killing of Sister George is one of the most bitter films you’ll ever see. It’s also endlessly entertaining even after multiple viewings, and prescient with regards to the place of women in the world of television and film. There can be no happy ending in this story about “a fat, boring old actress” who is being put out to pasture (in more ways than one) by the television show she helped make a hit. There can only be the desperate acquiescence to which June “Sister George” Buckridge eventually succumbs.
June Buckridge (brilliantly brought to life by Beryl Reid), known to all as George after the character she plays on a British soap, is one of the most fascinating characters you’ll ever encounter. She a drunk, she’s paranoid (quite rightly) about getting older in a medium that embraces youth, and she’s a lesbian. Her relationship with Childie (Susannah York) is interesting because it’s the type of relationship that you don’t often see portrayed. For one thing, there’s a large age difference between the two – which isn’t unusual for films which deal with a relationship between a man and a woman, but how often do you see an older woman/younger woman affair played out on-screen? – and Childie, despite having a job, is more or less kept by George. For another thing, the relationship is sado-masochistic, which you hardly ever see played out in films regardless of the sex and orientation of the characters involved. What’s amazing is the way that the film portrays the relationship in a multi-dimensional way. It never comes across as George taking advantage of and abusing the younger woman; instead both are portrayed as active and consenting participants. There is a scene at the beginning when Childie is made to demonstrate her submission by eating the butt of George’s cigar, but instead of playing along like she’s supposed to, Childie pretends to get joy out of the act. “You’re ruining it,” George tells her and begins to storm off. Childie is confused, asking if she doesn’t want to continue this in the bedroom – there’s clearly a give and take to this that both get pleasure from and it’s rare to see this kind of relationship explored in a way that isn’t judgmental and condemning. There’s a real sense of affection between the two – especially in a scene where George tells Childie a story about being infatuated with her before they’d gotten together – that makes the relationship all the more compelling. Despite George’s temper tantrums (and there are several), these are two people who also have a lot of fun together and that comes across to the audience.
George’s relationship with Childie hits an impasse with the introduction of Mercy Croft (Carol Browne), a network executive who also has quite an impact on George’s career. Sister George was once the most popular character on the show, but her place has recently been usurped. George the actress can sense that she’s about to be written out and when her character is given the flu, her behaviour becomes increasingly paranoid and she becomes more difficult to deal with. She’s convinced that Croft is out to get her, especially after finding out that she’s been meeting with Childie to discuss her poetry. When the flu turns out to be passing, George is ecstatic, only to learn from Croft that within a week the character will be felled in a car accident. “It so happens that your death will coincide with road safety week, a cause which we know is very close to your heart,” she informs the actress. Given Croft’s attitude towards George, and the eye she sets on Childie, it’s difficult to imagine that setting George up then knocking her down so brutally occurred as accidentally as she claims. Mercy Croft is, if anything, one of the most ironically named characters ever.
Contrary to convention (but, of course, this film is contrary to nearly every film convention), Croft, the villain, wins. Not only does she take Childie away from George and get George written out of the show, she inflicts on George perhaps her greatest humiliation through the offer of a new show… about a cow, whom George will provide the voice for. George refuses but in the film’s final moments, surrenders herself to the prospect as she sits on her empty, former set yelling “Moo!” The story makes no bones about the way actresses are treated once they’ve reached a certain age. Upon hearing of the show’s intention of writing George out, Childie states that she’s the most popular character. “Well, not quite,” Croft replies. George may have contributed to the show’s rise in popularity, and she may have given it the best years of her career, but she’s reached an age where she’s expendable and her prospects after the show are bleak.
The Killing of Sister George has a great deal going for it, including it’s compelling story and the astounding performance at it’s center. It is also a bitingly clever film and incredibly quotable (“Not all women are raving bloody lesbians” Childie proclaims. “That is a misfortune I am perfectly aware of,” George replies). Rated X when it was first released due to a sex scene between Croft and Childie which seems tame by today’s standards, the film went largely unseen when it was first released. It can be somewhat difficult to track down a copy even today, but it is completely worth it. Never before and never again will there be a movie quite like this one.