A Fictional Murder And A Toxic Love Story: The Killing Of Sister George

by Rachel Bellwoar

“They’re going to murder me.”

Before you know what a movie’s about all you have is the title to go on, so when June (Beryl Reid) calls Alice (Susannah York), telling her to be home when she gets there, it’s possible that she’s right and somebody wants her dead. The Killing of Sister George could be quite literal and if you’re familiar with Robert Aldrich (who directed Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), murder’s not off the table.

The reason you’re inclined to think June is talking about herself is she’s been called “George” by everyone in the movie. When she leaves her change at the bar, the bartender calls out “George.” When Alice pours her a drink, she asks “George” to tell her what’s wrong. To write this review, I had to double check that her real name was June because everyone in the movie calls her George, but the murder that June is referring to is a fictional one. It’s been hinted to June that her character on the long-running BBC soap, Applehurst, might be knocked off, leaving June without a job that she’s been doing for so long, people no longer distinguish between her and Sister George.

A clever deception, that alerts us to just how blurred things have become for June, it’s this thinning of the boundaries between reality and fiction that makes Sister George such a fascinating feature. Personality-wise, no one would mistake June for George. George is spunky, but June’s humor is blue, and when angered it doesn’t matter what damage her outburst might cause. Her career and relationships are fuel for the fire. Kat Ellinger puts it best on her commentary track for Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray when she says June is the only honest person in this film. That honesty doesn’t always make her popular (and for good reason, since June can be downright vicious) but there’s this push and pull with the character, where you’re attracted to her stubbornness but then put off by her meanness.

Sister George is beloved, though, and, as a Brit herself, Ellinger is able to offer interesting insight on soaps and their place in British pop culture. In the original stage run (which Reid also starred in) Applehurst was a radio program, not a TV show, but the switch allows the film to include clips from the fictional series, not unlike Invitation to Love, the soap opera within David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks. That was an American show, and while Aldrich was an American director (and originally thought to cast Bette Davis in the role of George) the movie is very British. What it’s most remembered for, however, is its X-rating on account of June and Alice being lesbians.

This is where some criticism’s been thrown Sister George’s way on the topic of representation. Neither commentary track (there’s also one with David Del Valle, and actor/filmmaker, Michael Varrati) ignores this and while June and Alice are complicated characters, and anyone looking at this film with prejudice could try and generalize, that’s not what the film is doing. June and Alice have a toxic relationship but that’s not because they’re gay. It simply stands out as such because there weren’t many motion pictures in 1968 that focused on gay relationships (for legal reasons or otherwise).

June is a multilayered character, of which being a lesbian is one of those layers (if she weren’t gay, it’d be the age difference between June and Alice that ruffled feathers, or June’s alcohol consumption). Conversation around the film may be obsessed with sexuality but the film and its characters aren’t. June’s lack of tact is what’s alarming to them. You never see June act in fear, because of her personal life, and there’s even a scene filmed at the Gateways Club in London, where patrons were included as extras.

Both commentaries on Kino’s Blu-ray are stellar and touch on different points. There’s a scene where a BBC producer (Coral Browne) comes to visit June and Alice in their home and while Ellinger compares June to a typical, sitcom husband, Del Valle and Varrati approach the scene from the perspective of age, where the adults are talking and Alice (whose nickname in the film is Childie) interrupts them. I love the fact that Del Valle and Varrati bring up the FX series, Feud (a reminder of how recently these commentaries were recorded) and there’s a definite cross appeal, for any fans of the TV show who want to see what a real Aldrich film is about.

The Killing of Sister George is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

 

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