“The story of three consenting adults in the privacy of their own home” is how posters and promotional material for Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George described the film upon its release, although in truth the words “consenting,” “adults,” “privacy,” and “home” are all stretched throughout. Even the progressive apologia this tagline suggests seems at odds with much of the film’s moral content: sure, Aldrich has constructed a blunt, non-euphemistic film about lesbian relationships, but it’s also salacious, brutal, and grotesque. It’s a wonder that Aldrich acted so surprised when Sister George’s lengthy, Sapphic love scene infamously made it the first major American film to be given an X rating (he sued Jack Valenti and the MPAA over the rating and, when he lost, had to pay court fees amounting to $43,000). For there’s a vague, but appreciable, note of irony in the liberal humanism of the tagline that positions Aldrich’s film a little further away from The Children’s Hour and a little closer to Russ Meyer’s Vixen!, made the same year, which also has a lot of muddled, hilarious, and horrifying ideas about lesbianism.
While today he is largely remembered for individual hit films like The Dirty Dozen and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Aldrich was even by the late 1950s highly regarded by the authors of Cahiers du cinéma, who leagued him with auteurs like Hitchcock and Renoir, both of whom he assisted in his early Hollywood days. This was mainly because his thematic considerations and deep cynicism ranged so widely and consistently across a multitude of genres: noir, Western, sports film, biblical epic, comedy, war blockbuster, Southern gothic. In the cycle of (broadly defined) “women’s pictures” that he made in the Sixties—Baby Jane, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Sister George, Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (produced by Aldrich and directed by Lee H. Katzin)—there’s just as much moral ambiguity, violence, and deception as in his male-centric pictures (even if the villains don’t always wears black, as in some of his early Westerns).
The film screened last week at Film Comment Selects.