Controvesial Depictions of Lesbianism in Old(-ish) Hollywood

Last night I took in two old Hollywood films which, by chance, proved something of a lesbian-themed double feature. Hardly risqué by contemporary standards, each was nevertheless considered somewhat scandalous in its day: the first can claim one of Hollywood’s earliest implied lesbian characters and was widely-banned abroad, while the second received one of the first X-ratings for its alleged prurience. Any guesses?

The first is Michael Curtiz’ 1950 Young Man With A Horn, its unfortunate title suggesting anything but a lesbian picture. Essentially a whitewashed retelling of the Bix Beiderbecke story, it stars Kirk Douglas as whiz-kid trumpet player, Rick Martin, and Lauren Bacall as Amy North, the frigid society girl he falls for. When their marriage founders, Amy takes a sudden interest in a female painter friend and contemplates going to Paris with her. Unaccountably away from home one night, it’s hinted at that she had a sleep over with her new lady friend. Chaste as that may sound, it was enough to keep the film from circulating much outside of he United States until an international re-release in 1962.

The second (and in my humble opinion, superior of the two) is Robert Aldrich’s 1968 picture, The Killing of Sister George. Hot off the success of The Dirty Dozen, Aldrich had recently founded his own production studio which enabled him to pursue material that might have elsewhere been considered outré. The film concerns aging, alcoholic actress June Buckridge (Beryl Reid), who fears that her much beloved “Sister George” character on tv’s Applehurst is in danger of being written off the show. She goes on an extended bender, and takes out a great deal of her frustration on her live-in lover, the younger, dim-witted Alice “Childie” McNaught (Susannah York) until a cutthroat tv executive intercedes in their personal life. The film treats the characters’ sexuality very matter-of-factly, and but for a very awkward (and again, rather chaste) love scene probably would have gone forward without too much controversy. But the MPAA instituted a new rating system while the film was in production, and despite a lawsuit by Aldrich, the scene earned Sister George an x-rating which significantly affected the film’s box office.

There’s no trailer online, but here’s a rather delightful clip of Buckridge on a rampage, molesting a couple of nuns:

Whether for their respective scandals or no–again, I saw them together by happenstance–both films are well worth a rental.

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