The first Hollywood movie to feature a lesbian bar was The murder of Sister George (1968). The film was shot on location in a real lesbian bar, Gateways, another Hollywood premiere. For this part of the film, at least, director Robert Aldrich demanded authenticity.
Exploring the history of the film’s production, film studies specialist Kelly Hankin asserts that Aldrich’s desire for authenticity reflects a common curiosity among heterosexuals about the underground lesbian space. Bars, nightclubs and lounges, according to Hankin, have historically functioned not only as a subcultural institution, but also as a site for heterosexual lesbian surveillance and control.
The murder of Sister George was originally a dark, comedic British play written by Frank Marcus, taking place entirely in a living room. The film, on the other hand, would be shot primarily on Aldrich’s own Hollywood property, with the exception of exterior shots and scenes from crowded lesbian nightclubs. Aldrich clarified that the lesbian bar couldn’t be duplicated anywhere. This location, Hankin shows, was added to the original filming schedule.
With her lesbian seduction scene, The murder of Sister George got an X rating, the NC-17 of its day. Aldrich acknowledged that the film’s sexually explicit scene was what brought people into the theater. Even with the media refusing to publicize X-rated films, Aldrich found Hollywood’s new cinematic freedom of the late 1960s essential to its commercialization. Hankin suggests that the lesbian bar [scene] was motivated by the same lustful interests.
A male scout described Gateways as having a pretty seedy vibe and genuine lesbian types. A host of real lesbian extras, many regulars at Gateways, are said to be at the forefront of the films’ press strategy.
But Aldrich’s quest for authenticity had limits. Hankin notes that people who consent to be filmed have no say in how they are ultimately portrayed. Extra Eileen Page, for her part, felt cheated when she was not credited for a speaking role in the bar scene.
The sex scene and the centrality of the real lesbian bar in advertising did not, in this case, make The murder of Sister George a box office success. Nonetheless, the film set a precedent for the need to both film and portray an authentic lesbian space, writes Hankin. She also lists numerous examples since, where real lesbian spaces and real lesbian celebrities, in media aimed at the heterosexual mainstream, are touting their bona fide status as the real thing.
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By: Kelly Hankin
Journal du cinema, vol. 41, n ° 1 (autumn 2001), pp. 3-27
University of Texas Press on behalf of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies
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