Victim (1961)

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Synopsis: Barrister Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) is really going places. He’s seemingly happily married to the beautiful Laura (Sylvia Syms) and is on course to becoming a Queen’s Counsel. However, when his friend “Boy” Barrett (Peter McEnery) steals a large sum of money and then commits suicide, Farr finds himself increasingly involved in the investigation being led by Detective Inspector Harris (John Barrie). It seems Barrett was being blackmailed by someone threatening to turn him in to the police for being a homosexual — and he’s not the only victim. How far will Farr go to find Barrett’s killer — and how much is he willing to reveal about himself at the risk of destroying his career, his image, and his life?

Say, folks! If you’re interested in the topic of queer images in film, have I got an event for YOU! From June 18-22, Garbo Laughs (that’s me) and Pussy Goes Grrr will be hosting the Queer Film Blogathon. Check it out now to find out how you can contribute and even win prizes. The party simply won’t be the same without you!

Basil Dearden‘s Victim broke major ground when it was released in the United Kingdom in 1961. For one thing, it was the first English-language motion picture in which the word “homosexual” had ever been used. Secondly, in its fictionalization, it brought to light what was then a major problem in England: the issue of blackmailers using the long-outdated anti-sodomy laws as a way to extort money from gay (and straight) men. Basically, if you engaged in homosexual activities (or somebody just said you did) and an extortionist found out and said they would rat you out to the police if you didn’t give them a large sum of money, you either had to fork over the cash or let them squeal on you to the cops, which likely meant you’d face a fine or prison sentence, not to mention the complete annihilation of your career and public image.

Sound familiar? Why yes, Victim covers essentially the exact same territory as 1919’s Different from the Others, only in a different time and place and with a different outcome. While Different from the Others fell on fairly deaf ears, Victim was relevant enough to contemporary audiences to start a real public debate on the British law against homosexuality, eventually leading to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which decriminalized homosexual acts in private between men over the age of 21. Mind you, the age of consent at the time for heterosexual acts was 16; the age of consent was not equalized for both hetero- and homosexual acts until the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act of 2000.

Bogarde’s Melville Farr is a victim no longer.

Rising to prominence as a matinee idol, Victim‘s star, Dirk Bogarde, was one of the most popular British actors of the 1950s, starring in the 1954 hit comedy Doctor in the House and the 1958 screen adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. A consummate bachelor and rumored homosexual, it was a risk for Bogarde to take on Victim, yet one he reportedly embraced without the slightest hesitation. Not only that, but he claimed to have a direct hand in making the film as revolutionary as it was. “It was the first film in which a man said ‘I love you’ to another man,” Bogarde would later recall. “I wrote that scene in. I said, ‘There’s no point in half-measures. We either make a film about queers or we don’t.'” Although met with overt hostility from members of the film’s crew and production staff, Bogarde was proud of the ground Victim had broken. “I believe that the film made a lot of difference to a lot of people’s lives.”

Although Britain may have been ready for a film which so frankly tackled homosexuality, America – or at least its motion picture censors – was not. The Motion Picture Association of America found Victim unacceptable because of its “candid and clinical discussion of homosexuality and its overtly expressed plea for social acceptance of the homosexual to the extent that [he] be made tolerable.” Although not much could be done about the latter problem, given that it was the basis for the entire film, credit should go to director Basil Dearden for refusing to cut the forbidden words “homosexual” and “homosexuality” from the soundtrack. Victim was released in the United States without an official seal of approval from the MPAA – similar to a film today being released as “unrated” – dooming it to commercial failure. Critics, many with their own ingrained biases, refused to comment on Victim other than to note with distaste its earnest pro-homosexual message, and it achieved only mild success in the art house circuit while being overwhelmingly shunned by the general movie-going public.

Without question a historically important film and earth-shaking at the time of its release, watching it today Victim does wind up feeling sadly dated. Yet, at the same time, it’s almost too modern for me. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have anything against the frank discussion and depiction of homosexuality in film. (I mean, I do host this blogathon.) But I think I’ve been spoiled by queer theory and using my own powers of deduction to find coded allusions in older films. It’s fun for me. Victim is kind of like receiving a puzzle that’s already been put together for you. The acting is stellar and the black-and-white cinematography is truly gorgeous, but I found myself a little bored by Victim. Still, if you’re interested in the history of queer images in cinema or even in the history of modern cultural attitudes toward homosexuality, this film is invaluable.

Victim (1961) – 3.5/5 stars

The Killing of Sister George (1968)

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Synopsis: June Buckridge (Beryl Reid) has spent so many years portraying a kind-hearted nurse on the BBC soap opera Applehurst that even in real life everyone has taken to calling her by her character’s name – Sister George. However, off screen George is nothing like her saintly fictional counterpart, appearing drunk in public and forcing her younger lover Alice “Childie” McNaught (Susannah York) into cruel and twisted games. When the fictional George is slated to be killed off due to low ratings, the real George also begins to come apart at the seams. With Childie becoming increasingly defiant and her boss Mrs. Croft (Coral Browne) encroaching on both her professional and personal territory, George fears her days as a beloved actress and parent-like provider to Childie are numbered.

Here on Garbo Laughs, I’m dedicating the entire month of June to the topic of Queer Cinema (LGBTQs, and depictions thereof, in classic film). This includes reviewing one relevant film from each decade from the 1910s to the 1990s. This is all leading up to my Queer Film Blogathon on June 27th. Won’t you join me in celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month by contributing a post or two (or three)?

I considered making this a one-word review, but “ick” doesn’t really come close to describing how uncomfortable this film made me. The lead character is a total monster with no redeeming qualities; she drinks constantly, she has no regard for what is and isn’t appropriate behavior, she’s sadistic and abusive – and none of it in a fun way. Her girlfriend Childie is pathetic and poorly written as a character, and Mrs. Croft is just your typical predatory-older-lesbian stereotype. This movie was directed by Robert Aldrich, who of course scored a hit six years prior with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and again in 1964 with Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. While he proved with these two previous endeavors that films which are somewhat exploitative and which appeal to baser sensibilities can still be enjoyable (and how!), here he doesn’t have the star power or the outright horror context that made those two films successful, and his directing brought into the light of day seems hokey and amateurish. While this film is somehow considered “historic” for its explicit portrayal of a lesbian relationship, in absolutely no way is this a healthy or positive portrayal, so what’s so special about it? I mean, I really don’t understand what’s so groundbreaking about making queer people look bad. I do give it points for the stellar performances by Beryl Reid and the recently-late Susannah York – even if I hated or didn’t understand their characters, I still think they did a great job at portraying them – and for the few scenes shot in the authentic 1960s underground lesbian bar the Gateways Club. But otherwise this was an utterly joyless film and, at two hours and twenty minutes, utterly torturous to sit through. Maybe I’m just not cut out for 1960s “black comedies” set in working-class Britain, since they seem intent on exploring themes that make me squirm. If you’re into that sort of thing, maybe you’ll like this one, but I certainly can’t recommend it from my perspective. Like its title character, The Killing of Sister George is just unrelentingly awful the whole way through.

The Killing of Sister George (1968) – 1.5/5 stars

Hud (1963)

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Synopsis: Self-confessed ruthless jerk Hud Bannon (Paul Newman) spends his nights brawling in bars and sleeping with the women (married and unmarried alike) of his small Texas town, and his days avoiding the responsibilities designated to him by his ranch-owning father Homer (Melvyn Douglas). He also unwillingly takes on the function of role model to teenage nephew Lonnie (Brandon De Wilde), who is finally coming of age and trying to decide what kind of man he wants to be: a principled cowboy like Homer, or a pleasure-seeking ladies’ man like Hud? Hud spends his remaining free time trying to get under the skin of world-weary housekeeper Alma (Patricia Neal), who seems to be the only woman in town immune to his charms. But the brewing conflict between Homer and Hud comes to a head when the local veterinarian (Whit Bissell) delivers bad news about the family’s cattle herd. With pressure from Hud to sell the infected herd off to unsuspecting neighbors, will Homer be able to maintain his lifelong dedication to stoic morality – even if it means losing everything he’s worked for?

Patricia Neal (January 20, 1926 – August 8, 2010) was born Patsy Louise Neal in Packard, Kentucky, and grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. After studying drama at Northwestern University, she landed her first Broadway job as an understudy in The Voice of the Turtle. Her second play, Another Part of the Forest, earned her the 1946 Tony Award (the first year the awards were presented) for Best Featured Actress in a Play. She made her film debut in 1949’s John Loves Mary opposite Ronald Reagan. That same year Neal appeared in The Fountainhead and began an illicit affair with her married leading man, Gary Cooper. In the early 1950s she appeared in several films, including the classic scifi drama The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), before suffering a nervous breakdown over the end of her relationship with Cooper and returning to Broadway to star in a revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. In 1953 she married British author Roald Dahl, with whom she would go on to have five children. Neal then starred in a string of hits, beginning with 1957’s A Face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan; Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961; and finally Hud in 1963, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress as well as the New York Film Critics’, National Board of Review, and BAFTA awards. However, public success was mixed with private tragedy. In 1960 Neal and Dahl’s four-month-old son Theo was left with permanent brain damage after his baby carriage was struck by a New York taxicab. In 1962 their daughter Olivia died at age seven due to complications from the measles. Finally in 1965, while pregnant with her fifth child, Neal suffered three strokes in rapid succession and was in a coma for three weeks. She gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Lucy, but it was doubted that Neal would ever walk or talk again, much less return to acting. However, Neal made a triumphant recovery from her strokes, due in no small part to her husband’s strict rehabilitation regimen. She made her long-awaited return to acting in 1967’s The Subject Was Roses, for which she was again nominated for an Academy Award. She would go on to appear in a variety of film and television productions throughout the next four decades, publishing an autobiography, As I Am, in 1988. Patricia Neal died from lung cancer at her home in Edgartown, Massachusetts, on August 8, 2010, at the age of 84.

I already gushed about Hud in my review of Hombre (1967), the last of three collaborations between director Martin Ritt, cinematographer James Wong Howe, and star Paul Newman. Hud was the first movie where these three great artists came together, and while I haven’t seen their second film (1964’s The Outrage, a Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon), I’m willing to bet Hud is the best of the bunch. Then again, I have a hard time coming up with any film that is better directed, better filmed, or better acted than Hud. It’s a cinematic perfect storm. (more…)

Queen of Blood (1966)

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Georgy Girl (1966)

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