The Killing of Sister George (1968)


(director/writer/producer: Robert Aldrich; screenwriters: Lukas Heller/from the play by Frank Marcus; cinematographers: Joseph Biroc/Brian West; editor: Michael Luciano; music: Gerald Fried; cast: Beryl Reid (June ‘George’ Buckridge), Susannah York (Alice ‘Childie’ McNaught), Coral Browne (Mercy Croft), Ronald Fraser (Leo Lockhart), Patricia Medina (Betty Thaxter), Hugh Paddick (Freddie), Cyril Delevanti (Ted Baker), Cicely Walper (Mrs. Coote), Meier Tzelniker (Mr. Katz); Runtime: 138; MPAA Rating: R; Palomar Pictures/Cinerama Releasing Corp.; 1968-USA/UK)

More wearisome than appealing.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Aldrich (“The Dirty Dozen”) is the writer and director and producer of Frank Marcus’ second-rate play about an aging alcoholic lesbian soap opera actress, who is stressed out over her job and young lover. “George” has entertainment value and a vigorous performance by Beryl Reid, but little else to justify its arty pretensions. The bleak tale, billed as a black comedy, lumbers along as a tear-jerker without any one character that gained my sympathy. It, also, too often repeats itself and always feels heavy-handed. It’s noted for the long lesbian love scene (about 5-minutes), which was controversial for its time but hardly shocking when viewed today. Also, it’s more like a play than a cinematic work and more archaic than modern, and still worse it grew increasingly irksome as the main character could never get a grip on reality and her characterization remained over-the-top. It’s Aldrich’s continued fascination with bitchy melodramas such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, a film he also directed.

June Buckridge is the lovable 50-year-old Sister George (Beryl Reid) on a long running BBC soap opera, but in real-life is a nasty bitch who has trouble separating from her TV character. She’s called George by everyone on the street and is also called George by her young beautiful live-in lover Alice McNaught, who goes by the nickname of ‘Childie’ (Susannah York). Alice is an insecure 32-year-old factory worker still collecting dolls and talking to them like a child would, and who is easily bullied into submission by the crotchety older woman. That scene where Alice is humiliated by being forced to eat a cigar butt to please George, was hard to swallow. But George is also insecure as she jealously hounds Alice about another lover, suspecting she’s having an affair with her Jewish boss.

After George walked out of her rehearsal with sympathetic veteran director Freddie (Paddick), when she became paranoid that she’s being written out of the script, the actress comes home in a snit and takes out her frustrations on poor Alice. Before coming home she left her favorite pub in an inebriated state and forced her way into a taxi stalled in traffic, and made sexual advances on two young nuns. For this unbecoming conduct she gets a visit from devious TV executive Ms. Mercy Croft (Coral Browne), who relates a complaint registered against her by the mother superior to the Director of Religious Broadcasting. While Croft goes to the little girl’s room George steals a confidential file from her briefcase, and learns that she’s losing popularity on the show and has all the reason to be paranoid.

Not prepared to live without the series, George loses track of reality as she can’t distinguish between her television and real-life melodramas. It all leads to the mealy-mouthed Croft telling her in person that she’ll be killed off the show by a traffic accident in a future episode. After an awkwardly done farewell party thrown for Sister George on the set, Croft takes advantage of this disruptive situation to steal Alice away from her. I don’t know how the filmmaker wanted us to feel about that, since George was hardly a lovable character off the soap opera set–suffering from mood swings from too sweet to too nasty. I think Aldrich was entranced by the bitchiness of it all and was more interested in having a go at doing a lesbian relationship thing, even if the relationship was more abusive than appealing. Unfortunately, this overlong melodrama is also more wearisome than appealing.