June 27, 2011

14 Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

****
Country: UK
Director: John Schlesinger


Today it's unlikely that experienced moviegoers find the notion of openly gay mainstream filmmakers like Pedro Almodóvar, Lisa Cholodenko, or Todd Haynes particularly novel. But this wasn't always the case. The history of cinema before about 1970 is filled with gay filmmakers who were obliged to conceal their sexuality, both in their public lives and in the films they directed, to protect their careers. The astute viewer can perhaps in hindsight detect a covert gay sensibility in the work of directors like F. W. Murnau, George Cukor, Luchino Visconti, or even Nicholas Ray. But unlike experimental filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger, gay commercial filmmakers were not free to express their sexuality in their work. While young directors just beginning their careers in the seventies like Rainer Werner Fassbinder made no effort to conceal their sexual orientation, some older directors who had worked in the industry in more closeted times were just beginning to acknowledge their own sexuality and to make films that dealt candidly with gay themes. One of the first of these was the British director John Schlesinger.

Schlesinger's 1965 film Darling did have one minor character who was gay, the female main character's male "gay buddy," a character type that eventually became so familiar—and so acceptable to mainstream audiences—that a popular television sitcom was built on this premise. When Schlesinger made Midnight Cowboy in 1969, the film received an X rating on release (it was later reduced to an R rating), largely for its sexual content. But aside from one or two brief "gay for pay" encounters, the main character's escapades as a male prostitute were strictly heterosexual. As for the exact nature of the relationship between Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo, Schlesinger chose to take the Of Mice and Men route by making one character apparently heterosexual and ignoring the sexuality of the other altogether, thus creating the appearance that the relationship between the film's two main male characters was one of platonic devotion. Just two years later, however, Schlesinger was at last ready to tackle the subject of gay sexuality head-on in Sunday Bloody Sunday, which he has called "the most personal of all my films." The film's treatment of the subject may seem mild by today's standards, but I recall seeing the movie in a theater during its first run, when the sudden—and plainly erotic—kiss between Peter Finch and Murray Head a few minutes into the film had much the same galvanic effect on the audience as Sissy Spacek's hand popping out of the grave at the end of Carrie a few years later: nearly the entire audience reacted collectively with a gasp of shock and surprise.

Sunday Bloody Sunday is a film about one of the oldest subjects in movies, the love triangle. The difference here is that the love object at the apex of the triangle is a bisexual young man, Bob Elkin (Murray Head), and the two people competing for his affections are a straight woman, Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), and a gay man, Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch). The film takes place over a period of about ten days, its plot consisting of the alternating interactions of Bob with each of his lovers. Although the film follows Alex and Daniel even when Bob is not with them, it shows little of Bob's life on his own and nothing of his family or background. In contrast, we meet Alex's parents when she has Sunday dinner with them and Daniel's family when he attends his nephew's bar mitzvah, and both Alex and Bob have one brief stream-of-consciousness flash memory that economically limns a background for them.

Alex is a thirtyish divorcée who works in an employment service. Her parents are quite well off, so it is likely that from childhood she has enjoyed a privileged upper middle-class life and education. She has too resilient a disposition to be called depressed but is obviously unhappy with her life. When she tells Bob she's working on a project for her office, she is in fact drafting a letter of resignation from a stultifying job she hates. After the dinner she has with her parents, her conversation with her mother (Peggy Ashcroft) tells us that this is also the case with her marriage and that is why she walked out on it. When her mother urges her to have a more practical attitude toward marriage, Alex's response is that she is not going to settle for a passionless and sexless marriage in exchange for a comfortable life, as her mother has. She is clearly besotted with Bob, and the basis of her feelings for him is equally clearly his sexual appeal. A possessive woman, Alex plainly resents having to share him.

Daniel Hirsh is a doctor who appears to be in his forties. He may be discreet about his sexuality—when he attends that bar mitzvah, it is obvious that his family has no idea he is gay—but he is a sexually active man. The appraising glances he gives good-looking young men he happens across and a chance encounter with a former one-night-stand (Jon Finch) make this apparent. The way he relates to his patients shows us that he is a sensitive, nurturing man, a man who genuinely wants to help the people who seek his professional help, often for reasons not strictly medical. Yet he is too realistic and observant to believe that any help he offers beyond medication is likely to be acted on. His attitude toward Bob seems much the same. Even though he clearly has expectations of a certain level of commitment from Bob, he seems to sense how temperamentally incapable Bob is of meeting those expectations.

If the film sketches complete and individualized personalities for Alex and Daniel, it presents Bob as an enigma. Bob is an artist who expresses himself through his work. Yet what we see of his work is very much like Bob himself—imaginative and flashy yet at the same time glib and rather characterless. Simply put, there doesn't appear to be a great deal to him beneath the surface. As he says to Daniel at one point, "I know you're not getting enough of me. But you're getting all there is." I've read more than one review of this film that complain it is a mystery what two intelligent, sophisticated people like Alex and Daniel see in someone as shallow and opaque as Bob. But I've always thought that his blankness explains his appeal to Alex and Daniel in psychological terms which are actually quite persuasive.

For one thing, his freedom of personality makes him appear to be everything they are not but perhaps would like to be. Both Alex and Daniel have lives that are in all ways constrained—by their personal histories, their work, their education, their social position. Bob strikes me as exactly the kind of aimless, mercurial, and unconventional person who would appeal to such people. His very blankness allows—indeed encourages—them to project onto him whatever it is they would like to see in him. And his mild personality makes him quite compliant, but only up to a point. That point is when they seem to be implicitly demanding some kind of commitment from him, for such a demand is the very thing guaranteed to bring on an avoidant reaction. One begins to wonder if he is juggling two relationships precisely because this means he won't be obligated to commit fully to either of them.

Places are very important in this film. One of the first things we see in the movie is the home of each of the three main characters, and the environment each one lives in immediately tells us a great deal about them. Alex's flat, with its huge all-purpose downstairs room and upstairs sleeping loft, is the home of a rootless young professional. When she returns from a weekend spent with Bob house sitting the home of friends and looks around the flat, with dirty dishes piled in the small sink and ashtrays spilled on the carpet, you can see her dismay at the dreariness of her life. Daniel's elegant terraced house, with its orderly bookshelf-lined walls, traditional furnishings, downstairs surgery, and rear garden featuring one of Bob's installations, reflects his profession, income, and social class. Bob's small flat is largely an artist's studio, a chaotic workplace crammed with works in progress. It's hard to believe that anyone actually spends much time living there, and that seems entirely congruent with what we see of Bob, that what emotional life he has is as an extension of the emotions of Alex and Daniel.

The exemplary screenplay by Penelope Gilliatt—it deservedly received many awards including an Oscar nomination—offers Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch, both of whom were also nominated for Oscars, rich opportunities, and both turn in remarkable performances. Jackson always seemed able to project strength effortlessly, but here her natural forcefulness is tempered with uncharacteristic emotional neediness, a most compelling combination. Peter Finch, who has never been better, is a revelation in a role that would seem more naturally suited to Dirk Bogarde or Alan Bates (who was indeed Schlesinger's first choice for the part). His direct-to-camera monologue that ends the film is just stunning. Even though John Schlesinger later said he regretted casting Murray Head as Bob ("I'd have cast someone else, someone funnier who would have made them [Alex and Daniel] laugh," he said in a 1994 interview), I find Head most convincing as a beautiful cipher. A more skilled actor might have been unable to avoid suggesting some depth to the character. Numerous smaller roles are filled with a roster of wonderful actors from Peggy Ashcroft and Maurice Denham to a surprisingly young June Brown (she has been in the cast of EastEnders since 1985) as a depressed patient, and look fast for an unbilled fourteen year-old Daniel Day-Lewis as a juvenile delinquent vandalizing cars.

In its way, Sunday Bloody Sunday is as much an advance in the portrayal of gays in mainstream movies as The Boys in the Band or Brokeback Mountain. But it is a landmark film not because it deals with being gay or with the social and personal problems that entails, but precisely because it doesn't deal with any of those issues. It takes a gay character in love and treats him as though he is like any other person in the same situation. This is a movie about people, not polemics. By taking the character of Daniel Hirsh and making absolutely nothing special of his gayness, it makes him a human being first and a gay man second. It presents a gay man (and also a bisexual man) not as something Other, but as someone entirely ordinary and universally understandable. In other words, exactly like anyone else.

This post is part of the LGBTQ blogathon at Garbo Laughs. For more on the blogathon, click here.

14 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for this engaging synopsis and discussion. I too was in the audience for the first run of the film, and that kiss was electric, exciting, wonderful. The film showed me spaces and possibilities that were utterly new to me: including the conservative shul and the kitchen where Glenda Jackson unabashedly overeats in her anxiety/distress. The idea that it is possible to want many different sorts of people and many different sorts of things (as well as BE different things at different times) is still an idea that provokes and engages.

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  2. Excellent review. I haven't seen the film but I especially appreciated your analysis of this movie within the context of Schlesinger's career, as well as your appraisal of Schlesinger's context within the history of queer filmmaking. Thank you for this well-researched and insightful contribution to the blogathon.

    -Caroline

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  3. Also, since this is a contribution to the Queer Film Blogathon, would you mind putting a link back to my blog in your post? Thank you!

    http://garbolaughs.wordpress.com/2011/06/27/queer-blogathon/

    Banners (if you'd like to use one) can be found here: http://garbolaughs.wordpress.com/2011/05/07/queer-film-blogathon/

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  4. R.D. - I remember when this film was first release and the uproar it caused. The "big scene" of course was the kiss between the two men and as you mention it was considering highly shocking at the time. And here is Schlesinger who just had a critical and financial hit with MIDNIGHT COWBOY now announcing to the world he was gay, a brave act at the time. But you are right, once you strip away all the so called "shock," this is a simple love triangle story. Both Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson are wonderful here. Great pick of a film you really do not hear too much about these days.

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  5. Stephanie, thank you for leaving a comment. One of the reasons I like this movie so much, and the reason I chose to write on it for the LGBTQ blogathon, is that it shows the gay and bisexual characters not as something alien and exotic but as people who accept their sexuality and aren't all that different from the other characters in the movie. Aside from that, it's also an outstanding film.

    Garbo, it was a pleasure to contribute to the blogathon. I had difficulty finding something I really wanted to write on. A couple of other possibilities didn't work out, then at the last minute this film occurred to me. I hadn't seen it in years and wanted to know if it would seem as good as I remembered it. I've added a link back to the blogathon at the end of the post. I also put one of the banners that can be clicked for a link in the sidebar. The banners were all great. My favorite was the Dietrich one, but so many people were using it that I decided to go with my next favorite, the Sal Mineo-Alan Ladd banner.

    John, this is for me Schlesinger's best movie and it seems to have been his personal favorite as well. He seems one of those directors who was reliant on the screenplay to inspire his creativity, and when the writing was as exceptional as here, the results could be thrilling. I don't think his later films approached the quality of this one, although I quite liked "Day of the Locust" despite the strange miscasting of Karen Black.

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  6. R.D., really good review of a movie that I remember was shocking when it was released, but mainly how good it was. It was a story about people, not social politics as its main theme but as a part of life so hard to to deal with in those days. It was a great character study, one of my favorite genres of film.

    Finch and Jackson are just marvelous, as they always are. It's been such a long time since I've seen it, I would have to re-view it to remember all of the details, and I plan to find it soon. Your comments about how difficult it was for the older directors, who just couldn't be open in their day, made me think of George Cukor, one of the greats, and James Whale, whose story was told so well in "Gods and Monsters." Such a sad thing for them.

    The only part of your article I found surprising and just don't agree with is the assessment of "Of Mice and Men." I've read the book, seen every movie version, and never saw any indication of homosexual under-or-over tones, nothing to even make me think of it. My personal opinion, of course. I really liked your thoughtful and well-written piece!

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  7. Becky, I certainly agree about the appeal of movies that are character studies, although the fact that I've always been interested in literature probably has a lot to do with that preference. Technical prowess may draw me into a film and with exceptional directors last after the film is over, but for me it's usually the emotional engagement with characters and situations that really sticks with me. I'm currently reading the autobiography of Elia Kazan. In it he talks about how it is the job of the director to externalize the inner lives of the characters in a play or movie, and I think there is a lot to be said for that approach to film directing.

    As for "Of Mice and Men" (also "Midnight Cowboy"), I didn't mean to imply I found a gay subtext in them. Only that the situation did give me pause, especially as neither George nor Ratso show any interest in the opposite sex. Since the exact nature of the relationship between the two men is ambiguous, viewers (or readers) can interpret it however it suits them. Steinbeck could have disposed of any questions by making George unambiguously heterosexual. That he didn't do so, thus leaving the possibility open in the minds of readers, makes me wonder if this was intentional. But, as I said, I don't find anything in either movie that clearly indicates a sexual component to the relationship, only that the absence of anything that definitely rules it out raised the question in my mind.

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  8. I'm definitely putting this film on my to-watch list. The only other Schlessinger film I'm aware of having seen is Marathon Man (which I love because of Laurence Olivier's performance), and I quite like Peter Finch as an actor. Thanks for the great review!

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  9. Kendra, I hope you're able to find this one. This was the first movie I ever saw Peter Finch in, and I think it's his best performance, even more so than his more famous one in "Network." I'm sure you're aware of his history with Larry and Viv. I didn't mention that the movie takes place in London, so you might be interested to see what it was like in the early seventies.

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  10. I know this film quite well, and did manage to see it myself in the theatres back in 1971 as an impressionable teenager. As you rightly note, the Penelope Gilliat (she was a film critic as well, writing for the New Yorker)screenplay won awards and is especially profound, and the performances by the love triangle are extraordinary. Finch is certainly as exceptional here as he was in NETWORK five years later. Your exceptional lead-in tracing the advent of homosexuality in the cinema is dead-on. The silent film MICHAEL by Carl Theodore Dreyer and the later MADCHEN IN UNIFORM by Leontine Sagan are the earliest examples of homoeroticism and gay themes in the cinema, and both were quite powerful. The most acute observation in ythis superb review is the rightful contention that SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY is no follow-up to other gay themes films, as it uniquly examines the characters as people in love, akin to the relationships of heterosexuals.

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  11. Sam, thanks for your comment. I remember when Penelope Gilliat shared reviewing duties at the "New Yorker" with Pauline Kael, who tended to overshadow her. I read an interview with John Schlesinger describing how this movie came about. Gilliat showed him the first draft and although he thought it needed more work, he was so taken with that last scene that they continued to brainstorm on refining it. Apparently the relationship between Daniel and Bob was based on a relationship he'd had, which is one of the reasons he called the film his "most personal." (He was also Jewish like Daniel.) He called the screenplay "wonderful writing" but added that "the only thing I think is missing from it is enough humor." (Don't think I'd agree with that last part. I don't see this as a humorous movie, and Schlesinger's satirical brand of humor doesn't seem to me in the right tone to sit easily with the rest of the film.) Apparently he didn't get along too well with Gilliat. Here's what he said about her:

    "We didn't like each other very much--she was an intellectual snob and I resented that. There was a kind of tension between us but I think that, perhaps, out of that tension came a very good film."

    I hadn't seen the film in a long, long time and revisiting it was a great experience.

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  12. I enjoyed your great discussion of this film, which I saw as a young man upon its initial release. As you indicate, movies with this subject matter simply did not occur at that time, so the film had a great impact on me.

    As I recall -- and which you may be aware -- Schlesinger had objected to the initial proposed advertising (posters) for the film, which depicted Glenda Jackson reacting in shock/horror to her realization that Head and Schlesinger were sexually involved. The content was changed at Schlesinger's insistence.

    I loved the subtle humor -- the scene with Head & Jackson in bed with the children: "Are you kids smoking pot?" and the intellectual/husband referring to Jackson's tardiness: "The late Miss Greville" and his wife: "Papa made a joke!"

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  13. So glad that I took the time to read your terrific post about this film. I haven't seen it in some time and you're sending me back to dig it up out of my DVD pile.

    You make all the points that I would want to make myself. Chiefly that the film's even-now compelling triangle is made so not because one side of it is gay, but because the individuals involved are a well-delineated trio of characters. This was my first Peter Finch film as well, and I too think of it as his best work. When i think of this film I can hardly wrap my mind around the fact that the same director gave us that awful Madonna/ Rupert Everett film.
    I enjoyed reading this. Your writing would inspire a person who'd never heard of the film to go and seek it out.

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  14. Penelope Gilliatt, who wrote the screenplay, also wrote a several thousand word article, in the 19502, when she was in her 20s, in defense of LGBT human beings, arguing for the right to marry, adopt, etc., She was always astonishingly prescient. She was also a master short story writer, a brilliant theatre critic, a book critic, a brilliant novelist, profilist, opera librettist, wrote the narrative for Lindsay Anderson's documentary on the American western, an award-winning equestrian, and a writer on politics and former editor of a political magazine. Pauline Kael, in comparison, seems so limited in her abilities. Can you think of another writer today, who works at such a high level of achievement as Gilliatt across so many different literary and journalistic forms. She was simply an astonishment, despite illness with alcoholism. She was also called by the New York Times, in the 70s, as the most beautiful living writer on earth. What a human being!

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