How the Movies Taught Me to Love Women Without Killing Myself
Author: Victoria Brownworth
January 14, 2013
I’m not sure how old I was when I fell in love with film, but it was early. My parents were cinephiles, so our one common outing as a family was to the movies. As it happened, one of the best art house and repertory movie theaters on the East Coast, the Bandbox (second only to St. Mark’s in the East Village which I would frequent later), was only a few miles from my home. I could walk there, or ride my bike. There were always matinees and always a double or even triple feature, which meant slipping into the cool dark of the front row and sliding down into the seat, to be transported for the next few hours. (It had to be the front row, so there was nothing between you and the film, nothing between you and what was happening on the screen.)
It was there, at the Bandbox, that I would meet an international array of beautiful, sexy and enticing women, the women of my dreams. Smart women, vulnerable women, calculating women, mysterious women, seductive women–the women who would school me about romance and heartbreak, sex and danger, life and love. Some could say I had a type–tall and willowy with auburn hair, high cheekbones and full lips. Sometimes they were darker and more voluptuous, like the Italians and the French.
And on occasion–like when I became obsessed with Ingmar Bergman’s films–there were even a few blondes.
I remember those women well–the way they moved on screen, their smouldering, passionate displays or their cool, icy, withholding control. Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Dana Wynter. Diana Rigg, Audrey Hepburn and Julie Christie. Jeanne Moreau, Claudia Cardinale and Simone Signoret. Brigitte Bardot, Dominique Sanda and Anouk Aimee. Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson and Tippi Hedren. Isabelle Adjani, Fanny Ardant and Catherine Deneuve. Glenda Jackson, Isabelle Huppert and Jean Seberg. Anna Magnani, Ava Gardner and Rita Moreno. Sandy Dennis, Kim Novak and Suzy Parker.
These women weren’t always classically beautiful, but they were always wholly, fully, intensely feminine. And at one time or another I was in love with each of them. Some were mere flirtations, others more lasting affaires du coeur.
I didn’t see a lot of first-run movies as a child or even as a teenager, because my parents took us to the Bandbox with its black & white independent features or old classics. At home one had to sneak downstairs to watch the late-night movie, because television was meted out in our house like candy or cookies: a little was a treat, too much would rot your brain. My mother’s response to almost everything was the same:
“Read a book.” And most of the time that sufficed.
But once I was introduced to the Bandbox and the strange and exciting new world of black & white films in foreign languages with the little white strips of subtitles at the bottom, books had a fierce competitor–each vied for my full attention, yet I found myself cheating on books more and more with my new passion, film.
In the 1960s and 70s, 1930s and 40s repertory cinema had found a resurgence in America among the hip. (In his own early films, Woody Allen consistently references these classic films, like Casablanca, as he later does foreign films–for example in Manhattan, people are always waiting in line to see Max Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity.)
While retro films were cool, being a devotee of foreign cinema was emblematic of an ultra-hip intellectualism that my parents naturally had. But I, stumbling toward adolescence by awkward way of the repressions of Catholic school with its list of condemned books and films, had no clue how to access that hipness without going straight to hell.
Until I found the Bandbox.
I’ve read many queer memoirs where the writer has said how he or she knew they were gay at four or five or at some other seemingly pre-sexually-aware age. I admit I have always disbelieved those; sexuality is so innate–how does one know one’s sexuality before the age of reason and true cognition? And does one really remember such an early thought so cogently–and in such adult language? That perception notwithstanding, I was in sixth or seventh grade when I began to know I was attracted to women.
It wasn’t the nuns or my Catholic girls’ school. It was the movies, of course.
I understood for the first time, that my attraction to the female lead was not because I wanted to be her, like my friends did, but because I wanted to have her. I wanted to be the one who kissed her and held her and carried her to the bedroom, like Clark Cable did with Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind or Cary Grant did with Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember. I wanted to be the one who pushed the girl up against the wall for the passionate kiss, like George Chakiris with Rita Moreno in West Side Story or Howard Keel with Ava Gardner in Show Boat or Marlon Brando with Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront. I wanted to be the lure for the mystery woman, like Tyrone Power was for Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution or Jean-Paul Belmondo was for Jean Seberg in Breathless.
But most of all I wanted to follow that solo woman going off on her own. I wanted to meet her and talk to her and see what it was she might really want, since she wasn’t with a man and seemed to have a bond with other women that I couldn’t quite explain, but I could definitely sense.
That was how I felt as I watched Audrey Hepburn leave the convent and walk out onto the little cobblestoned Belgium street at the end of The Nun’s Story. Sister Luke–now back to being Gabrielle Van Der Mal–pushes the bell for the porteress to let her out, leaving her life as a cloistered nun behind as the door clicks shut behind her. She wears a long cloth coat and her hair is cut short and the street is empty and bleak (and black & white, naturally) and she has left her community of women for…what?
I knew, even then, I wanted to be at the end of that street, waiting.
How was that right, thought the Catholic school girl that I was? And yet the thoughts continued to be there, hovering at the periphery of my consciousness, its own camera obscura.
(As it happens, the woman who wrote the book upon which the film was based, Kathryn Hulme, was herself a lesbian, as was the Belgian nun/nurse upon whom the novel was based, Marie Louise Habets. So the tingling of my adolescent lesbian spider sense was not wrong.)
The Nun’s Story was the perfect metaphor of a film for the Catholic school girl that I was. Sister James, one of the nuns who had taught me was just like Sister Luke: tall and slender and despite the nun’s habit that obscured so much of her, very beautiful with the black Irish looks of creamy skin and deep blue eyes and dark eyebrows that said beneath her wimple lay jet-black hair. I’d had an immense crush on Sister James for years–she’d taught two of my classes. I still recall telling one of my friends just prior to our eighth grade graduation that I wanted to kiss her. Audrey Hepburn’s Sister Luke and my own Sister James melded together in my adolescent fantasies where lesbianism had yet to have an actual name.
As I entered high school Maedchen in Uniform, Therese et Isabelle, and The Fox–all declaratively lesbian films–would begin to clarify everything for me.
One film nearly set me on the wrong path, however, yet at the same time it was the defining film of my young, soon-to-be-lesbian life. Late one summer night–the summer between seventh and eighth grade–I was watching one of those late-night movies on TV. The film starred my secret crush, Audrey Hepburn, and so of course I had to see it.
Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour was considered extraordinarily risque in 1934 when Hellman wrote it. The play was banned in Boston, Chicago and London, but ran for two years in New York, despite the fact that there was a law on the books at the time against any mention of homosexuality on the stage. But Hellman’s play was popular and no charges were ever filed against her or the producers.
At 12, I knew Lillian Hellman from The Little Foxes and Watch on the Rhine–I’d seen both films at the Bandbox. But I had never heard of The Children’s Hour. No film before or since has so profoundly affected me. I had watched the movie for Hepburn–and she gives a magnificent, nuanced performance as Karen Wright, a young schoolteacher–but it would be the role of Martha Dobie, played by Shirley MacLaine, that would become my own role. Or so I thought.
The spoiler alert here for anyone who hasn’t seen the film or read the play (it was revived last year in London starring Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss), is that Karen and Martha, former classmates, start a small private girl’s school together. But one of the girls in the school tells a lie that Karen and Martha are lovers and when the lie is broadcast and students are taken out of the school, the women file a lawsuit for slander.
They lose everything but each other and then one afternoon Martha breaks down and tells Karen that it’s true, that Mary picked the “lie with the ounce of truth.” And then she tells Karen that she loves her. “I do love you, the way that they said.” But Karen isn’t a lesbian–she’s in love with Joe, the young doctor she’s engaged to. So Martha must make amends for revealing her love and she tells Karen, as she sobs, that Karen mustn’t look at her and when Karen tries to comfort her, she tells her not to touch her. “I feel so sick and dirty, I can’t stand it,” she cries.
Martha goes upstairs to take a bath and Karen goes out for a walk. But soon Karen turns and looks back toward the house, alarm writ across her beautiful, luminous face. She begins to walk quickly, then she’s running, then she’s tearing up the stairs and banging on Martha’s door, screaming her name. She breaks the door in, but it’s too late. Martha has hanged herself.
It’s a shattering ending and we know as well as we know anything that Karen will never recover from that moment, never recover from turning away from Martha, even though she could not fulfill her desire, could not love her “that way, the way they said.”
It was this film that made me see it: that I was Martha. That I was Martha Dobie/Shirley MacLaine waiting to take Karen/Audrey in my arms, but that it would never, ever happen and the only answer then was suicide.
My love affair with film didn’t end that late summer night as I sobbed through the final minutes of The Children’s Hour. Nor did I decide then and there that I could never be a lesbian. But that final scene was filed away, much as the final scene of The Nun’s Story had been and there would come a time not long after when I would recite those lines of Martha’s as an apology to a girl in my freshman class in high school after kissing her.
The Children’s Hour remains a declaratively important film for me, even though I have deconstructed it while teaching as part of a panoply of films where the lesbian does not get the girl but instead, must die.
That was the case in another film I fell for–The Fox. Like all adolescents with a taste for over-wrought literature, I was addicted to D.H. Lawrence for a time. And Lawrence loved women and desire and implication, all of which was rife in the 1967 film version of his 1923 novella.
The Fox starred Sandy Dennis and Anne Heywood (Heywood would be cast as a man who wants to be a woman in another film a few years later and Dennis would be revealed as a lesbian in real life) as lesbian lovers on a remote farm whose life is invaded by a marauding fox and an errant soldier.
The film opens with Heywood, who plays the butch Ellen March, masturbating in the steamy bathroom as Dennis (Jill Banford) goes over bills.
Sexual tension pervades the entirety of the film which is both evocative and provocative. But Jill–the true lesbian–meets the same end as Martha.
Despite the title, George (Beryl Reid) doesn’t die in The Killing of Sister George (1964), but as the true lesbian, she loses her girlfriend, Childie (Susannah York) to another woman, Mercy (Coral Browne), who is more soignée and sophisticated. As Mercy tells George mercilessly “Do you think you are any young girl’s dream?” after she has masturbated Childie when George isn’t there.
No one dies in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), but by the end of the film, Bibi Andersson’s character, Alma, is driven nearly mad by Liv Ullmann’s character, Elisabet.
After the run of “lesbians aren’t fit to live” films, the brilliance of Bergman’s Persona overrides the complication of the ill-defined yet decidedly homoerotic relationship between the two women in the film.
Just as The Children’s Hour told me I was a lesbian–even as it also told me I could never find happiness being one–Persona told me that the complicated nature of female/female relationships was inherently dangerous, even as it was mythic. Since Elizabet, an actress, refuses to–or can’t–speak (Ullmann only says a dozen words in the entire film), Alma is left to fill in the blanks of their relationship. Elizabet uses Alma for her own ends, which leads to violence, but Persona is resonant with how deep relationships between women run. Elizabet and Alma become each other–their identities and emotions merging.
Radley Metzger’s 1968 film, Therese and Isabelle, based on the Violette Leduc novella, has the lesbian character, Isabelle, disappear rather than die. And as the adult Therese wanders the ground of her old boarding school 20 years after her affair with Isabelle, the flashbacks return in vivid and emotional detail–including a slow and sensual love scene between the two schoolgirls. (The element missing from the much earlier film, Maedchen in Uniform, which also takes place at a girl’s boarding school.)
The search for the perfect lesbian film–the one where no one dies, where the characters are adults already out of the closet and where the real lesbian gets another real lesbian in the end rather than a man, as in The Fox or Silkwood or Personal Best, has been like the quest for the Holy Grail for me since those first glimpses of lesbianism on film. Yet there are many films that I have loved despite them not quite fitting the bill, like the fabulous made-for-TV murder mystery, In the Glitter Palace (1977), with Barbara Hershey and Diana Scarwid as lesbian lovers. There have been others that I have hated, like the vastly over-hyped Desert Hearts (1985). And did I really stand in line in New York like a Woody Allen character behind Fran Lebowitz to see Personal Best when it opened? That’s how starved we’ve been for lesbian screen images over the years.
Some things remain the same. The Kids Are All Right played directly to that theme of the real lesbian being left by the fake lesbian who goes off to have sex with a man–on screen and repeatedly and unsexily–for 90 percent of the film. Even as I was crying in the movie theater, I felt manipulated and cheated. Especially since Annette Bening made such a terrific lesbian. In Mulholland Drive the lesbian is back to having to die and Naomi Watts is left to masturbate on the sofa while she sobs. And the classic lesbian vampire film, The Hunger (1983) has Catherine Deneuve as the most exquisite of all vampires, but the sex scene with Susan Sarandon does not end well for Deneuve. High Art (1998) is immensely compelling in the way that drugs were before you got sober, but the lesbians are vicious, drugged-out, underhanded, undermining and you need a Silkwood shower after the film ends.
There have been some lovely small gems of lesbian love on screen, though. Fire (1996), Deepa Mehta’s lush tale of illicit lesbian love in India, has the lesbians nearly destroyed by tradition, homophobia and the fire of the title–but they survive. The British film, Imagine Me and You (2005) is an immensely satisfying romance, if not wholly believable. Another British film, Cracks (2009) is seductively lovely–but seriously disturbing as is the Canadian film Lost and Delirious (2001). The Iranian film Circumstance (2011) is an intensely beautiful coming of age film situated in a country that executed three queers the same year this film was made.
And so my love affair with film continues. Netflix be damned, I believe in the big screen and the front row to this day. The Bandbox has long-since closed, but I spoke at the memorial service for the owner, Art Carduner, a few years ago–he taught me so much about film and without what I learned from him, I might never have taught film myself. Or fallen in love with so many women who then vanished into that celluloid closet.
In the reel in my head, they all still play, the many women I met over the years in those darkened theaters. Anna Magnani in her slip, her hair mussed, in The Rose Tattoo. Simone Signoret in the lesbian-ish thriller, Diabolique, looking disturbingly sexy with a black eye. Dominique Sanda and Stephania Sandrelli dancing the tango together and kissing in The Conformist. Kim Novak barefoot in capri pants in Bell, Book and Candle. Jeanne Moreau driving off the bridge in Jules et Jim. Catherine Deneuve entering the nightclub with David Bowie in The Hunger and teasing Ann Magnuson. And of course, Audrey Hepburn, walking out the door of the convent, back to the real world and….me.