Although sexuality by no means defines the protagonist in Robert Aldrich’s ‘The Killing of Sister George’ (1968) it is undoubtedly what the cult film has become most known for. Its infamous tagline ‘The story of three consenting adults in the privacy of their own home’ sets the tone for how lesbianism will be dealt with: sensationally. The lack of chemistry between June (Beryl Reid) and her girlfriend Alice ‘Childie’ (Susannah York) is palpable from their first scene together (it depicts a heated argument). Both embody stereotypes of gay women at that time: June (also referred to as George) is a jealous aged lover and Childie is a much younger, naive blonde who flirts with men at her office job. As in Aldrich’s earlier psychological horror thriller, ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’, the main protagonists are women who are part of a profession where youth is everything.
The film industry was, and is, notoriously brutal once the camera starts to detect laughter lines on the faces of its female leads. June is the star of a BBC soap opera, and her character is about to be killed off. Her character ‘Sister George’ is everything she is not: a caregiver dedicated to supporting her community and virtuous to the point of foregoing a relationship, to better serve her vocation. She is an anchored woman one would turn to for advice, rather than one needing it herself on a daily basis. Despite this contrast, the actor and character have evidently now become one; colleagues and lovers refer to her as ‘George’. June’s identity is so subsumed into George’s that her fear is what would be left if ‘George’ was taken away.
Although the film may be viewed by some as inherently progressive by the very fact it’s plot centres around lesbians, Aldrich’s construction of them as absurdist figures should not be overlooked. Cue George drunkenly assaulting young nuns in the back of a taxi. Cue Childie spending much of her screen time in a variety of see through negligees. Cue George using the local prostitute as her personal agony aunt. Moreover, if the film was intended to provide a glimpse into a gay relationship, it is not a pretty one. Make no mistake, this would have been viewed as an abusive relationship both then and now. The unreasonable possessiveness, verbal humiliation in front of strangers, and most bizarrely, the eating of George’s cigar butts as a standardised punishment for any perceived slight.
What saves the film from complete parody, and makes it worth a view, is Reid’s mesmeric performance. She plays George as a gothic pantomime dame in reverse. Both terrifying and hilarious within the same sentence. Gleefully threatening to tear the head off Childie’s favourite doll unless she vacates the bathroom immediately. Bette Davis couldn’t have done it better. Reid is able to imbue her character with a sense of foreboding, then react with equal measures of vindictive bitterness and sanguine resignation, whilst making both positions believable.
It is also interesting to note her refusal to take part in the sex scene Aldrich was eager to include when adapting the film from its more implicit play source material, causing him to use a different female character and actor. The ‘swinging sixties’ had begun to free filmmakers from the eagle eye of the film censor and the Hays code. This was a catalyst for an inevitable rush to tackle ‘difficult’ subjects head on, in a way that could have only been alluded to previously. Lesbian sex scenes have historically been portrayed in a problematic and fetishized manner or, more often than not, removed from the narrative completely. The now infamous scene in The Killing of Sister George was therefore understandably considered ground-breaking for its time. This is further elevated by the major censorship battle it caused in England; the BBFC eventually gave it an X rating despite the scene being less than two minutes long and the epitome of mild.
The end of the film does not escape the all too common trope of made-by-men lesbian fiction: an unhappy ending. In a poignant moment where George catches sight of an on-set coffin at her retirement party, she screams in anguish: “Even the bloody coffin’s a fake!” The final scene sees her sitting alone, howling into the void (the voicing of a cow being the only part she has been offered since her ‘retirement’). Her young lover is about to run off with a BBC producer. Her lifelong job is lost. Her descent into alcoholic oblivion assured. In some ways, despite her exaggerated flaws, George should be celebrated for her unwaveringly unapologetic attitude: when her lover shouts “Not all women are raving bloody lesbians you know!” George plainly responds, “That is a misfortune I am perfectly well aware of.”
There is much skill evident in the film’s creation. Ultimately though, it is a period piece that does not transcend its time and culture. However, some of the themes concerning the fragility of a woman’s position in society remain still with us.