As heartbreaking an experience as I think I'll ever have in cinema,
is a perfect reminder
of lesbian film in its infancy.
One of the first in a long tradition of "Lesbian Martyr"
films, this classic practically defines lesbian angst. Not once
is the word lesbian mentioned, but as modern filmmakers are now
re-discovering, there can be a great deal of power in not naming
things. The word lesbian sits in the atmosphere like a cold chill,
and no one, especially not the woman who actuallys believes she
is one, dares say the word aloud.
The story takes place in a small, girls boarding school run by
two old friends, Martha (Shirley Maclaine) and Karen (Audrey Hepburn).
Trouble starts when a mischievous student, trying to escape from
just punishment, invents a story that the two schoolteachers are
having an "unnatural relationship" and blackmails a
fellow student into corroborating the lie. When the story is told
to the child's rich grandmother, she rallies the entire town against
the two unsuspecting teachers who are forced to go to court in
an attempt to clear their names and their reputations.
Karen is engaged to marry the nephew of the old lady who is making
the accusations, but her reluctance to set a date, ostensibly
because she needs to devote all her attention to the fledgling
school, adds fuel to the fire when the rumours emerge, until even
her fiancé Joe (James Garner) begins to believe that there
might be some truth to the accusations.
The real tragedy lies in the fact that Martha realises, through
the course of the struggle to clear their names, that she does
indeed love Karen in more than a platonic way, that she is all
the things that people say she is. Ashamed and fearful of her
own urges, she confesses her feelings to Karen, and begins an
emotional spiral into despair.
Shirley Maclaine stated much later on (in The
Celluloid Closet) that she doesn't believe that Martha
would have really given up so easily. After spending her whole
life fighting for everything she had, Martha's instinct would
have been to fight for Karen, to defy disapproval and stand up
for herself. Unfortunately that wasn't the way film worked in
Even though I knew it was hopeless, I hung on to the very end
with an insane belief that Karen would just turn around and kiss
Martha, admitting she didn't love Joe, that they had always belonged
together after all. Even as I heard the music swelling that indicated
tragedy in the works, I could feel my mind rebelling, fighting
against the Hollywood inevitability.
I watched The Children's Hour in a cinema full of lesbians
at a film festival retrospective screening, and it was like being
at a late night, audience participation Rocky Horror Picture
Show. People hissed at the screen when the troublemaking brat
appeared. We all held our collective breaths as Martha confessed
her lonely, dark secret. We yelled at Karen to hurry as she climbed
those stairs to see Martha at the end, as if our cries could somehow
stop the inevitable from happening. And as Audrey Hepburn walked
through the gates of the school for the last time we cried with
the hopelessness of it all. If people had thought to bring toast
we would have thrown it at the screen.
How far we have come in lesbian film? How grateful I am that
films like this existed to help pave the way, even though they
leave a deep, dark pit of dissatisfaction in our hearts to watch
them? I have nothing but praise for both these actresses for taking
on such unglamourous roles and to Lillian Hellman for her magnificent
play. The actresses had fantastic chemistry, we wanted
them to live happily ever after. As Shirley Maclaine basically
said herself, I think they would have liked that too.
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