Thursday, November 21, 2013

Raving Bloody Lesbians

Alcoholic, paranoid and nearly desperate at the thought of losing her long-running role on a BBC TV series, an aging actress lashes out at the world in general, and her much-younger female lover in particular. It’s a plot pregnant with dramatic possibilities, and The Killing of Sister George (1968) explores them all in frank and often explicit detail.

“Not all girls are raving bloody lesbians,” young Alice tells her jealous lover during one of their many altercations, but in this film’s insulated world, the vast majority are. This is far from just a movie about homosexuality, however. It’s a cautionary tale about the cutthroat world of show business and the terrors of growing old and being alone, set against the backdrop of the swinging mod London of the late 1960s and seen through the lens of sharply drawn female archetypes.

Beryl Reid in the title role

Directed by the legendary American auteur Robert Aldrich and based on the stage hit by British playwright (and theater critic) Frank Marcus, Sister George is as absorbing in its portrayal of the cynical world of TV production, where bustling, behind-the-scenes backstabbing is the bill of fare at the BBC, as it is when exploring the intimate moments of women in love and in conflict.  

As June Buckridge, aka Sister George, the beloved spinster character she plays on Applehurst (think Coronation Street or East Enders), Beryl Reid is at turns humorous, tragic, wistful, spiteful, warm and outrageous, but always compelling and endearingly human. Reid, a one-hit wonder whose film career never took off despite this legendary performance, commands the screen with her fully realized and in-depth characterization. Though the film, with its then-considered-unsanitary subject matter, was shunned by the Oscars (Oliver! was chosen that year’s Best Picture), Reid did receive a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actress for her tour de force portrayal.

Susannah York as Alice
The beautiful Susannah York aces the difficult role of Alice, the child-woman who chafes against George’s smothering and mood swings yet plays Virginia Woolf-worthy mind games herself and is not as innocent (or young) as she professes. The minute she meets the successful BBC program director Mrs. Croft (who pays a visit to George to rake the actress over the coals for unprofessional behavior), Alice makes plans to hitch her wagon to the high-powered lady executive and ditch her falling soap opera star lover. With her pixie hairdo (the rage of 1968 for gamines like York, Goldie Hawn and Mia Farrow) and soulful doe eyes, York’s performance is a skillful blend of intensity and vulnerability.

Coral Browne as Mercy Croft
The smug, uptight and terribly upper-crust BBC program director Mercy Croft is played with venomous finesse by the versatile character actress Coral Browne, best known for her iconic role as Vera Charles in Auntie Mame (and as the wife of the great Vincent Price). But here, as the frosty middle-aged widow whose latent tendencies are stimulated by George’s pretty blond flatmate, Browne is given her juiciest role ever, culminating in one of the most startling and searing sex scenes ever put on mainstream film up to that time. Far from a Penthouse soft-focus girl-on-girl fantasy, the love scene between the older and younger woman, as staged by Aldrich under unforgiving lighting in unrelenting close-up, is as much a ghoulish nod to his grand guignol roots (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte) as it is unexpected eroticism.

Chock full of irony and wit, not to mention loads of bitchy and catty repartee, Sister George is the female version of Boys in the Band, ground-breaking for its time and still eminently watchable.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The Aussie Gay Mafia

Secret societies rule the world—or so the conspiracy theorists believe. Whether fact or fiction, the mythos of the behind-the-scenes machinations of the world’s power brokers and their hush-hush gatherings, from Skull and Bones to the Bohemian Grove to the Bilderberg Group to the Vatican, is a fascinating mystery story, its convoluted plotlines ripe for unraveling and revealing.

Based on the novella by Frank Moorhouse, The Everlasting Secret Family (1988) is a little-known Australian film that takes conspiracy theory to an imaginative new level, positing an elite Illuminati-like sex cult that rules behind a cloak of secrecy and respectability. As initiated members of the Family, influential men are free to sample the forbidden fruit of ecstasy as long as they remain bound in secrecy and obey the rigid rules of the hierarchy of power. In Moorhouse’s world, the key players are homosexuals.

In the Family, each has a role to play, hence the archetypal character names that Moorhouse (who also wrote the screenplay based on his book) gives his characters: The Youth, The Lover, The Senator, The Chauffeur, The Judge, The Pottery Woman, The Wife…

The occult and metaphysical nature of the group is evoked in the masked sword-stepping ceremony that is performed by initiates in an ancient chapel, who are told that ecstasy must be matched by secrecy—sub rosa, as it were, a nod to the Freemasonry’s Fraternal Order of the Rose.  

The plot of Secret Family is simple: A Youth (Mark Lee) is procured by a Senator (Arthur Dignam) as his Lover, giving the boy entree to a world of wealth and privilege. When the Senator marries to further his political career, the Youth struggles to ensure his survival in the Family as the years go by.

This is a tale of clandestine sexual encounters by members of a power-hungry and hedonistic all-devouring Family that must be constantly replenished by fresh new faces and experiences. Yet the tone of this film is far from flamboyant or vulgar...its low-key pacing and intimate point of view are subtle and gentle, and only vaguely menacing.

Mark Lee as The Youth
Mark Lee, known to American audiences through his torrid hetero-bromance with Mel Gibson in Gallipoli, plays the character of The Youth from young teenager to mid-30s. Lee’s transformation from an innocent and naive schoolboy whose favorite cocktail is creme de menthe, to a cynical, world-weary Family veteran undergoing experimental anti-aging protocols to maintain his favored position in the hierarchy, is remarkable.

The Senator (Arthur Dignam) and The Youth
Unlike the Senator’s jaded chauffeur and henchman (Dennis Miller), who was once a young Lover himself but now trapped into a role of lifelong servitude, Lee’s character of the Youth is determined to maintain his physical appeal long enough to vouchsafe his future life of privilege. He finally succeeds, as the babysitter, constant companion and finally Lover of the Senator’s beautiful young son (Paul Goddard).  

The Chauffeur (Dennis Miller) and Pottery Woman (Beth Childs) tempt The Son (Paul Goddard)
The Judge (John Meillon)

The Wife (Heather Mitchell)

Along the path of his anti-hero’s journey, the Youth gives his body to all who can help him along the way, from the erotic-maternal Pottery Woman (Beth Childs) who gives him occasional comfort and succor, to the elderly, once-powerful circuit court Judge (John Meillon) he presses for the secrets of the Family that entraps him. But we don’t blame the Youth...who is also forced by his benefactor the Senator to “give pleasure” to important friends and colleagues. In this world, sex is used as a bargaining tool, a commodity, and is the only card our protagonist can play. No wonder he wants so desperately to retain his fleeting beauty.
Recruiting new Youth to play the role of Lover is a recurring theme. A particularly subtle yet sinister moment occurs as The Senator tours a country grammar school, interestedly eying a beautiful blond child in the crowd and singling him out for special attention: “What is the difference between stars in the skies and stars in your eyes?” The Senator asks the little boy, eyes dancing flirtatiously. The implication is chilling...had Mark Lee’s character of The Youth been similarly groomed and singled out for his role in the Family years before puberty?

The performances are uniformly excellent, from Dignam and Lee to Miller, and especially Meillon as the masochistic Judge, Beth Childs as the voluptuary cougar and Heather Mitchell as The Senator’s brittle wife.  

All in all, this is an engrossing film about absolute power and absolute pleasure, and the price that must be paid for both.