Let Sister George Do It; or, Whatever Happened to Radio, Mr. Aldrich?

Well, as I always say, beware of unemployed lesbian radio actresses. Okay, so it isn’t something I say all that often. I mean, who the hell talks about radio actresses these days? Last night, I once again felt myself robbed of an opportunity to say it, and am consequently somewhat cheesed off. I was watching The Killing of Sister George (1968), the first movie to roll out of director Robert Aldrich’s production company. Earlier this week, I allowed myself to ponder Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, having raked in Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves not too long ago. So, I was quite prepared to face yet another aging woman on the verge of a crack-up.

“George,” played by Beryl Reid, sure is that; in danger of losing it all, she is not about to “go gentle” into what, in melodrama, makes for a good nightmare. The “Sister” is about to be written out of a television “soap opera” (however imprecise a term when applied to BBC offerings, considering the absence of commercial sponsors), and the aging “George” who plays her finds both her personal and professional lives under attack. Though not a thriller, Aldrich’s British outing quite easily tops Whatever and its follow-up, Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte, in making mental anguish and secret passions visible. It’s the kind of picture William Castle might have made if he’d been Samuel Naked Kiss Fuller.

Aldrich makes a Killing of nostalgia. That is, his characters attempt to retreat into the make-believe of a longed for long gone (as in the above homage to Laurel and Hardy) only to be dragged right back into the make-believe of his reality, a nasty stand-in for a modern world inhabited by the cruel, deluded, and disillusioned—the kind of people to the labelling of whose fantasies we owe Venus in Furs author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch a word.

The Killing makes a spectacle of homosexual desire, the overt expression and realization of which had been decriminalized in the UK not long before the release of the film, but were still illegal when the play was conceived for the stage. Now, I do not know just how much of Frank Marcus’s play has been reworked for Aldrich’s film version; but the legal recognition and acceptance of the relationship portrayed are certain to have changed the dynamics of this double-life narrative. However slowly the mores adapt to written law, “George” and the eagerly infantile “Childie” (Susannah York) are no longer forced to remain closeted. Opening up the play, the camera, like a Peeping Tomboy, follows them into a nightclub packed with slowdancing lesbians, shooting close-ups of a world once closed off.

As the medium modernizes, it destroys, doing away with what it cannot show. In Marcus’s stage drama, the “Sister” is not a television persona but a radio character, a disembodied voice, a nobody beloved by everyone. “George” enjoys popularity only by becoming invisible and by materializing before her audience—her listeners—as they choose to visualize her in their mind’s eye.

Having made a career of being lovingly constructed by unseen others, “George” very much relies on “Childie” to escape the incorporeal by exerting physical control over the body of a desired other. It is this interplay of the tangibly private and the abstract public, the ample body and the word not quite made flesh, the said and the done that gets undone by Aldrich’s cinematic show-themship, an exhibition in which “Sister George” is being killed all over again for the sake of casting a shadow on the screen . . .

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