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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Unsung Performances: Beryl Reid, The Killing of Sister George

“Not all women are raving bloody lesbians, you know.”
“That is a misfortune I am perfectly aware of!”

This happens to be one of my favourite exchanges in film. It also happens to come from one of my favourite films, which just so happens to feature one of my favourite performances in film. Coming out in 1968 and tackling subject matter that was far (far) from mainstream, I suppose it’s more surprising that it got any awards attention at all (a nomination for Beryl Reid as Best Actress from the Golden Globes) than that it was widely ignored by both the film industry and audiences, who shied away from the massive controversy it provoked. But despite the film's controversial aspects, the power of Beryl Reid's performance can't be denied. In this movie, she is utterly fearless.

To call Reid’s performance in The Killing of Sister George “good” would be one of the greatest understatements you could make. “Real” would be more appropriate, “seamless” even – there isn’t a moment when you can see the space between actor and character. This is a complex, layered and lived-in performance that makes June “Sister George” Buckridge very human rather than the caricature she could easily have become. George is an actress fighting a losing battle against the reality of aging in show business. She’s also a closeted lesbian, a not so closeted alcoholic, and prone to remarkable mood swings. Her sadomasochistic relationship with her much younger girlfriend is absolutely fascinating and the story allows for it to be explored from multiple angles so that rather than seeming abusive, it’s clearly a relationship of give and take in which both have some need that is being fulfilled.

Through the course of the film, Reid switches easily between comedy and drama, making snappy asides, throwing tantrums, and occasionally displaying a raw vulnerability that makes it impossible to hate her regardless of her often hurtful and selfish behaviour. It’s hard to pinpoint Reid’s best scene in the film – the scene where George and Childie get ready to out to a club is wonderfully light, their first scene together in wonderfully tense, George’s first meeting with arch enemy Mercy Croft is a marvellous display of anxieties continuously floating up to the surface, and the final scene is totally devastating – but my favourite is a scene when George tells Childie about how she used to observe her before they’d officially met. Her speech is wistful and just a touch desperate – she knows that Childie is beginning to slip away from her and she wants nothing more than to hold on to what they have because Childie is the only person who has ever really understood her in any meaningful way. In this one scene Reid takes George through a series of emotions from longing to anger to regret to loneliness and never misses a beat, never lets the transitions feel false.

Although I think that both the film and the performance are criminally underrated, I can understand how it is that they ended up so far off the radar. The film was rated X when it was first released due in large part to a sex scene which seems tame by current standards, particularly given the ubiquity of same sex love scenes between women in films today. That scene, along with the sadomasochistic element of the central relationship, as well the fact that some scenes were shot inside an actual lesbian bar (which means, gasp that there are actual lesbians and not just actresses playing lesbians in the movie) pretty much guaranteed that the film wouldn’t be embraced by most audiences. Luckily, it’s also good enough that it was bound to become a cult classic and Reid is the major reason for that success.

I wouldn’t normally advocate this, but given how difficult it can be to track down a copy of this particular film, I’ll point out for those interested that it appears to be available in its entirety via Youtube at the moment. I dare you to watch it and tell me that Reid's performance isn't a great one that managed to slip through the cracks.

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