Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Killing of Sister Georgy Girl

WARNING: Here There Be Spoylers
If you haven't seen this movie but want your first viewing to take place in blissful ignorance of its content, read no further. Georgy Girl isn't really plot-driven, and you can probably enjoy it just fine if you know the story in advance, but if you care, I'm interested in raising questions about it that assume the reader has also seen it (and maybe read the book as well), to compare notes rather than excite the curiosity of those who haven't seen it.

A couple of weeks ago I finally decided to check out the DVD of Georgy Girl from the public library. I'd been listening to songs of the Australian easy-listening group The Seekers, who had a big hit with the highly annoying theme song for the movie, and I was curious to see just what sort of story Georgy Girl had to tell. I expected something like a Richard Lester film, an upbeat fable of an ugly duckling who becomes a bird.

The DVD case encouraged that impression: the top half of the cover has heavily retouched headshots of the four stars, with the women in flip hairstyles and Alan Bates looking like a young and goofy Leonard Cohen. The lower half shows Bates, Lynn Redgrave, and Charlotte Rampling dancing hand-in-hand in colorful outfits. It's not typical of the movie, and in context the dancing scene is ironical: the characters are hoping for a happy outcome (in this case, of Bates's marriage to Rampling) they aren't going to get. And, of course, the film itself is in black-and-white, not pink-tinged color.

The opening credits were a pleasant surprise: Lynn Redgrave saunters (almost swaggers) down a London street, her hair tied back in a loose ponytail, without makeup, wearing a baggy sweater, a leather coat, and midlength culottes over tights. Though not conventionally pretty, she looks wonderful. Some reviewers describe her as "chubby," which she's not, though she's no Twiggy either. The sequence takes a silly turn (though, as I discovered, it's straight out of the book) when she's tempted by the window dressing of an upscale hair salon. She enters, then emerges with her hair in a bouffant beehive, which immediately makes her uncomfortable, so she ducks into a ladies' loo and soaks it down in the sink. A moment later her ponytail is back and she looks happy. To my eyes she looks (and mostly acts) like a real person, not a Hollywood movie character, but then this is not a Hollywood movie -- it's English, from a period when the English film industry was playing with more realist themes and styles, exploring sexual subjects that the US wouldn't deal with for another decade or more. But even so, Redgrave projects a naturalness that almost no one else in the film (except maybe Charlotte Rampling) does: the other main characters are stagy Brit film actors, which isn't necessarily a bad thing (except maybe Alan Bates, whose overacting gets tiresome pretty quickly) but makes Redgrave stand out even more.

Georgy -- short for Georgina Caroline -- is the daughter of Ted and Doris, valet and housekeeper to the wealthy James Leamington and his hypochondriac wife Ellen. Because his own marriage is childless, James (James Mason) has always treated George as his daughter, even sending her to a posh finishing school, and encouraging her headstrong ways. Ted and Doris are embarrassed by her casual assumption of privilege and James's favor, and try to keep her in her place by reminding her that she's too big, fat and ugly for any man to want. In her mid-twenties as the film begins, she lives in a flat of her own, using James's house for the dancing class she teaches to neighborhood children. James, who's always been a womanizer, abruptly asks Georgy to become his mistress. She puts off giving an answer either way.

Georgy shares her flat with the chic, gorgeous Meredith (Charlotte Rampling), a first violinist who sleeps around a great deal. (For those of us who remember the period, all you need to know about Meredith is that the ultra-hip Mary Quant designed her costumes.) Georgy, who has no love or sex life, plays the same role with respect to Meredith that her father plays to James: adoring servant. Among Meredith's many admirers, Jos (Alan Bates), a banker and part-time musician with mod aspirations, has become a regular and befriended Georgy somewhat. When Meredith gets pregnant, presumably by Jos, she realizes she wants a rest from her wild life, so she decides to keep the baby and marry Jos. Georgy is delighted, and expects that the three of them will raise the baby together. Meredith tires of motherhood and Jos even before she gives birth, and in a series of scenes that shocked 1960s audiences and critics, refuses to take care of the baby and insists on putting it up for adoption. Meanwhile, James's wife has died suddenly and unexpectedly, so James upgrades his proposal to Georgy to marriage.

Meanwhile, Jos and Georgy have fallen into an affair, relieving her of her virginity. She wants to keep the baby herself, and manages to block the adoption. Meredith runs off, leaving the baby with Jos and Georgy, but Family Services takes a dim view of cohabitation, and takes the baby away. Jos says he loves Georgy but is too irresponsible to have a relationship with her or his daughter, so he dumps her. This relieved me. I don't see how anyone could have wanted them to stay together, with the characters as they were: Bates's manic overacting, which he would refine to apotheosis in Simon Gray's Butley a few years later, makes Jos a person no one could live with for long. Georgy then agrees to marry James if he'll adopt Meredith's baby, and the film ends with their wedding and Georgy in a white wedding gown in the back seat of James's car, looking as uncertain but determined as Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross would look in the final scene of The Graduate a year later.

So. Even by twenty-first century standards, Georgy Girl is rather strong stuff, flouting all the standards of Christian civilization. That's what makes it interesting. British cinema had explored some of these byroads already in such works as A Taste of Honey (1961), in which an illegitimate working-class girl is impregnated and abandoned by her black sailor boyfriend, then befriended by an effeminate gay boy who wants to take care of her and the baby.

Georgy Girl has aged well. Cohabitation and single parenthood aren't as scandalous now as they were then. Seen from today's perspective, Meredith doesn't seem quite as monstrous as she appeared in the Sixties, though she's still not particularly sympathetic. In a way, she's a throwforward: an independent career woman with no interest in marriage or motherhood, but she lets herself succumb to both in a brief moment of weariness. Such a character couldn't have appeared in an American film of the period, or even later. Georgy may be a great lumpy thing, but to some extent -- not nearly enough -- Second Wave feminism made it easier to appreciate the beauty of women who aren't Charlotte Rampling or Marilyn Monroe, who aren't fragile or femme, who don't wear makeup or spend hours on their hair, and who take up space. Of the contemporary reviewers I've found so far, only Eleanor Perry, writing for Life of all places, really appreciated the character. The New York Times reviewer generously allowed that Redgrave couldn't "be quite as homely as she makes herself in this film. Slimmed down, cosseted in a couture salon ... she could become a comedienne every bit as good as the late Kay Kendall." Pauline Kael, complaining that movies were "out of control," mistook Georgy Girl for a failed conventional comedy. Redgrave herself was a tall woman, "Nearly 6 feet tall, bluntly outspoken and something of a kook," according to this profile from Life.

It's partly because I'm queer myself, of course, but I thought that what Georgy needed was a girlfriend. That's not to say that the filmmakers or the novelist Margaret Forster, who wrote Georgy Girl and cowrote the screenplay, saw her as lesbian or even bisexual. But George's adoration of the beautiful and icy Meredith, her readiness to wait on her, cook for her, and clean up after her, certainly allows a queer reading of the film. (So does her name, which if only in retrospect conjures up Frank Marcus's scandalous 1964 lesbian play The Killing of Sister George, filmed in 1968, and Van Morrison's possibly transvestite "Madame George" from his 1968 album Astral Weeks. What is it with the Brits and these names?) Yes, I know, a big-boned woman shouldn't be stereotyped as a dyke; Georgy wanted to be Meredith, not have her; and so on. But gay and gay-friendly viewers will know that there's not a sharp line between wanting to be and wanting to have, and since movies especially convey a lot of information about a character through appearance, the character as written and as played by Redgrave permit, though she doesn't require, her to be read as lesbian. True, she has an affair with Jos, but many young dykes experiment with (or are pushed into) heterosexuality; I wouldn't say that Georgy was even closeted -- probably she was still too naive to think of sex with a woman as a possibility; and she ends up married to a much older man for convenience. It's not at all outrageous (though too bad if it is) to see Georgy a few years down the line, raising her daughter with a female partner, perhaps after James dies.

After watching Georgy Girl I read the novel (Secker & Warburg, 1965) on which it's based, and I was extremely startled at how faithful the film is to the book, both in spirit and text. Much of the movie dialogue comes verbatim from the book, and even scenes like the one where Georgy submits herself to a hairstylist, or the one where she puts on a gown and makeup and, looking like a drag queen, sings a bawdy torch song to James's party guests, are in the original. (In the book, though, everyone thinks Georgy's performance is amusing; in the film, they're embarrassed. That's the only place where the film really fails the book's spirit.

I was also struck by this bit of backstory in the novel (pages 8-9), describing how Georgy's father Ted had come to work for James in the first place.
James picked Ted up at a music hall. He came to see a little blonde juggler and happened to sit next to Ted, who hadn't come to see anyone in particular. He was what he called "on spec". Ted noticed James, which wasn't surprising as James was very imposing looking, and James noticed Ted, which was surprising because Ted was very ordinary. He was small, seedy and at that time thin because it was 1935 and he was out of work. James wore a beautiful fur coat and a rakish hat tilted over one eye. Ted didn't have a coat of any sort and he had momentarily removed his hat because he had a fixation about not being able to hear properly without it on. They didn't speak during the performance. Ted was too busy thinking what a wicked waste of money his seat was, and James was all keyed up waiting for the blonde juggler.

But at the end they happened to go out together and Ted sort of followed the toff he'd been sitting beside partly because he'd nothing better to do and partly to see what sort of car he had. He looked rich enough and dashing enough to be a car man.
The toff went round to the stage door and hung around a bit until he appeared to get fed up and handing a card to the doorkeeper walked briskly off. Ted followed. The car was round the side of the theatre, a big Rover with shiny red upholstery. Ted wanted the car so much that all the saliva rushed into his mouth with desire and he had to spit to get rid of it. It was a very noisy spit. The toff turned round and said "Are you spitting at me?" and Ted almost said "Yes, what you gonna do abaht it" but luckily changed his mind and said "No". Instead he said what a lovely car it was and the toff was all agreeable and offered him a ride which Ted accepted without any ill feeling whatever.
His wife Doris, James's cook and housekeeper, disapproved.
Every now and then they would have a real row and she would scream at him that he'd never dirtied his hands since she married him. Well, he hadn't. His job was a clean job. As James's valet he looked after clothes and he had to be clean. He couldn't make out why she wanted him to go and get some filthy job, as though there was some sort of virtue in dirt. He knew when he was lucky, which was more than she did. He had a soft job, free accommodation, good wages, life-long security and, above all, constant access to James [11].
Again, I think all this supports (though it doesn't require) a gay reading. Not that Ted and James are 'really gay' -- the popular concept of 'fluidity' in sexuality always gets forgotten in cases like this. But what, exactly, happened on the ride they took that night they first met? Add James's sexual frustration at not getting to the blonde juggler he was after to a few drinks and Ted's decision to be acquiescent rather than uppity to this "toff," and a brief sexual connection between the two is quite plausible. The bond was sustained by other factors once Ted married Doris and went to work for James, and I don't suppose that it was sexual after the beginning. But it's remarkable (partly because it's never stated explicitly, as far as I remember) that Ted's subservience to James is mirrored by Georgy's subservience to the glamorous Meredith.

If the idea of even a transient sexual connection between these characters bothers you, fine: put it firmly from your mind. It's not explicit, it's at most a subtext, it probably wasn't in the minds of the writer or the filmmakers, but I think it's a legitimate reading of the story that adds to and thickens the emotional interactions of the characters. It also added to the already considerable pleasure I took in watching the film and reading the novel. Numerous reviewers called Georgy Girl an "ugly duckling" story, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it wasn't. Rather than becoming a normal girly-girl, Georgy remains her ungainly, ugly-duckling self even in her wedding gown. Both the book and film are open-ended, with an unfinished protagonist who still has some growing to do, but will probably turn out all right. That suits me much better than turning her into a swan.