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"THIS BOOK is about love, not sex," said the blurbs for Lolita. A number of disappointed readers found this to be true: Lolita's Humbert Humbert is a sad aging man who needs love, but wants it only from little girls. Nowadays the blurbs have changed, and The Killing of Sister George is enthusaistically described as "the most explicit and sensational of flock of films on lesbianism." Perhaps. Sister George is about love too--aside from the one scene that has given it its notoriety and its major flaw.
Robert Aldrich's film is a fairly straight adaptation of the play by Frank Marcus, which opened in London in 1965 and subsequently came to Broadway. Much of the humor in the film comes directly from Marcus's script; Beryl Reid, who starred in the play, supplies the rest. As Sister George, she plays an again television actress who is being written out of her part in the soap-opera she helped to create. "They are going to murder me," she announces to her flatmate. "I've suspected it for some time."
Applehurst's cheery district nurse is to be killed off in one of the next few installments, leaving June Buckridge without a job and without the identity she has built since the start of the serial six years ago. Off-screen she has a tendency to get drunk, still spouting the platitudes of Sister George--along with her own opinions. Beryl Reid plays her scenes with a witty flair that none of the other characters ever approaches.
JUNE'S voluptuous flatmate Childie (Susannah York) is funny rather than witty, as when she and June dress up as a droll Laurel and Hardy for an evening at their club. Mercy Croft, a prim, trim executive from the BBC who becomes the "other woman," carries off her starchiness and professional sympathy with exactly the air of inhumanity required. Throughout the film she is constrasted with June, the earthy, outspoken dyke who never pretends to be what she is not. In the end, Mrs. Mercy shows her true colors in the famous "explicit scene"; she is the one who is after sex--June merely wants love.
Childie throughout remains an enigma; she is almost entirely passive and hasn't really grown up. Near the end June reveals that Childie is thirty-two with a wicked past, but this particular turn has so little foreshadowing that one simply dismisses it. A revelation is not an explanation.
ALIDRICH has built his film around the talents of Miss Reid, who until her role in the play was a music-hall comedienne. She enjoys her lines, as when she tells Mercy Croft, who has been praising Sister George's "air of happiness" as she rides through Applehurst on her motorcycle singing hymns, "Wouldn't you be happy with 50 cc throbbing away between your legs?"
To the funny sex and blazing love-hate of Marcus's dialogue Aldrich has added his own version of warm sex in the evening at the club. The atmosphere is close, the music--four unspectacular girls in blues dresses--loud and pedestrian, but the women her are enjoying themselves. One gets the impression of lots of bodies and the human yearning for closeness satisfied in tune to the music without any of the deathly stillness and self-consciousness of the "explicit scene."
The Scene occurs almost at the end, and annoyance to voyeurs who could have come an hour late without missing a thing, and to the other, decent-minded people in the audience who are kept on tenterhooks wondering how much longer they have to enjoy the film before it is time to walk out. As it happens, this scene of explicit sex is irrelevant to the rest of the story and was not included in the original play. Aldrich would probably justify the raw sex a s showing up Mrs. Mercy's basic physical nature in contrast to June's never more than hugging Childie--who takes what comes without much thought.
However, five minutes of nipples and mouths could easily have been condensed to one, keeping the audience in touch with the context. Instead the audience sits bored-except for Miss York's beautiful and exposed chest--by the tameness of the sex, and tensely awaiting the fade-out to signify.... Suddenly Sister George walks into the room and the thread of the story is picked up with a thunderclap, rather than merely resumed with the more usual "fifty minutes later" effect.
The contrast between love and sex is no new idea, and I could not call Sister George a "not-to-be-missed" film for that reason; but this particular portrayal is extremely funny. Of course the love is not the normal give-and-take love of the mental-hygiene textbooks. Instead of turning the play--which Marcus subtitled a comedy--into one of your modern tedious exposes of shallowness and love-hunger, Aldrich has created a flawed but solid delight.
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