Wednesday, November 05, 2014

John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday: "A Genuinely Radical Film"

A few months back I watched with my friends Rick and Brian the 1971 British film Sunday Bloody Sunday. Written by Penelope Gilliatt and directed by John Schlesinger, the film stars Peter Finch, Glenda Jackson and Murray Head.

Sunday Bloody Sunday tells the story of a young bisexual artist (Head) and his simultaneous relationships with a female recruitment consultant (Jackson) and a male Jewish doctor (Finch). It should be noted that the film was released before the 1972 shooting by the British Army of unarmed protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland, an event dubbed "Bloody Sunday."

Above: John Schlesinger directs Glenda Jackson and Murray Head in a scene from Sunday Bloody Sunday.

Although I'd seen snippets of the film before, I'd never actually had the opportunity to sit down and watch it in its entirety. I appreciated, therefore, my friend's Rick invitation to view the blu-ray of the film. Aspects of Sunday Bloody Sunday definitely resonate with me. These aspects include its slightly hippy vibe and, believe it or not, the clothing and hairstyles. This is no doubt due to the fact that my earliest memories are from the time of the late '60s/early '70s. Glenda Jackson epitomizes, in my view, "the look," or at least one memorable look, for western women of that era. Indeed, her style of eye make-up and eye-brow shaping brings back early memories of my mother and my Aunt Ruth!

Apart from these personal appeals, Sunday Bloody Sunday also appeals to me because of the important role it played in breaking down stereotypes in the movies of non-heterosexual people and relationships. For more about this I share the following excerpt from the essay "Something Better," contained in the booklet of Criterion's 2012 blu-ray release of the film. This essay is written by writer and academic Ian Buruma, a nephew of the film's director, John Schlesinger. (Buruma appears as extra in the film's bar mitzvah party scene, shot on location at the Cafe Royal.) As you'll see, Buruma considers his uncle's film to be "genuinely radical" – not because of its nonchalant exploration of a "love triangle" or of bisexuality, but because of its depiction of normality around its gay male character, Daniel Hirsh. As portrayed by Peter Finch, Hirsh is "an ordinary, professional adult, unburdened by morbid discretion or neurotic campiness." This is significant, Buruma notes, because "gay characters in the movies had to that point almost always been depicted as deviants . . . or limp-wristed, lisping creatures. . . . An upper-middle-class doctor and his boyfriend kissing on the lips, casually, affectionately, no different from any straight couple, was a much greater challenge."

There is . . . a great deal of John [Schlesinger] in Daniel Hirsh, the gay doctor in the film, played beautifully by Peter Finch. As though by osmosis Finch even managed to sound a bit like him, the same deep voice speaking in perfectly articulated sentences.

Like Hirsh, John's father, Bernard Schlesinger, was a medical doctor. After hearing John describe the film he wanted to make, on a country walk near my grandfather's house in rural Berkshire, he exclaimed: "But John, do you really have to make him Jewish as well?" Yes, John insisted, he did.

The tension between Jewish family life, not traditionally friendly to homosexuality, and Hirsh's gay private life is an essential part of the story – and of John's own, although his sexual preferences were entirely accepted by his parents. Hirsh wants to feel at home in both worlds, and he shrugs with resigned good humor at the hints from various relatives that he should meet this or that nice Jewish woman and "settle down." For Hirsh, attending his nephew's bar mitzvah is as much a part of his life, as "normal," as spending a weekend in and out of bed with his lover, the charming, egotistical artist Bob Elkin (Murray Head).

This sense of normality is the most radical aspect of the film. Gay characters in the movies had to that point almost always been depicted as deviants – criminals, tormented drunks, or limp-wristed, lisping creatures – allowing straight audiences to feel superior or comfortably amused. An upper-middle-class doctor and his boyfriend kissing on the lips, casually, affectionately, no different from any straight couple, was a much greater challenge.

I remember my uncle talking about the famous kiss scene between Peter Finch and Murray Head (both straight men, as it happens). He didn't want it to be coy, and certainly not sleazy; the camera should be neither prurient nor primly looking away. The kiss was just a kiss between two loving people, And yet to film this natural act naturalistically was still so unusual that the camera operator could not bear to look at it, and asked John whether it was really necessary. Again, John had to insist that it was.

The depiction of a homosexual as an ordinary, professional adult, unburdened by morbid discretion or neurotic campiness, was a departure for John as well. Perhaps this had something to do with his own life; he had recently "settled down" himself, with an American photographer. There were gay characters, or homoerotic themes, in earlier films: the photographer (played by Roland Curram) in Darling (1965), for example, or the two main characters in Midnight Cowboy (1969). But the former does conform to a certain stereotype: fun, a little swish, basically lonely. Midnight Cowboy can be seen as a celebration of male love, but there is no hint of sex between the aspiring hustler, Joe Buck (Jon Voight), and the Italian American vagrant, Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). What sex there is in the film, gay or straight, is rather brutal. One gay boy (played by the young Bob Balaban) is almost assaulted by the hustler in the toilet of a cinema on Forty-second Street, and a gay man is mugged in his hotel room.

The change in John's personal life coincided, of course, with changes around him. The Stonewall riots happened a year after Midnight Cowboy was made. In fact, that film's bleak view of gay life in New York was criticized by activists for not being sufficiently progressive. but those critics did not necessarily warm to a genuinely radical film about a nice Jewish doctor, either. John was never an activist, but Sunday Bloody Sunday was certainly linked to the social changes of the late 1960s. His film, he often said, was his way of coming out, something that he always suspected did not do him any favors in Hollywood.

Although Sunday Bloody Sunday is his most personal film, many of his movies show his particular sensibility. Never drawn to heroes, John was fascinated instead by marginal characters whom some people might describe as failures.

. . . Sunday Bloody Sunday [like Schlesinger's earlier films] explores the choice between acceptance of what is and the quest for something better. Bob is a child of the sixties, detached, promiscuous, unwilling to commit to anyone. Alex, the woman in the triangle, played by Glenda Jackson, demands a commitment from him. She refuses to settle for a shared arrangement. Not a dreamer, she nonetheless wants something more perfect than what she has got. Sometimes, she says, nothing is better than something.

In the extraordinary final scene of the film, Daniel Hirsh lays down his philosophy, which is very close to John's. In a sudden departure from the naturalistic style of the rest of the movie, Finch turns off the recorded Italian lesson he is working on, faces the camera, and explains why he is prepared to settle for the imperfect relationship with his restless, undependable young lover. Sometimes, he says, half a loaf is better than nothing.

John often told me that he didn't count himself among the great cinematic innovators: Fellini, Mizoguchi, Buñuel. Nor was he political in the way that Godard was, or Oshima, or Lindsay Anderson. The directors he most admired were humanists: Truffaut, Ozu, Satyajit Ray. Like them, he viewed human behavior with a wry sense of humor rather than with outrage. But there was a dark streak running through his humanism, a fascination with human cruelty and violence.

This fascination is less evident in Sunday Bloody Sunday than in some other films of his. but there is nothing mawkish about the film, either. The style of his storytelling here, as in all his movies, owes a great deal to his background as a documentary filmmaker. What he sometimes called "the acid eye" reveals itself in details: the strung-out young hustler who recognizes Hirsh as a former pickup, the drunken woman humiliating her husband at a party, the half-innocent but cutting knowingness of a young girl, the constant news of economic crisis on the radio.

Some of the details reflect the time, place, and milieu of the story – upper-middle-class London in the early 1970s. And times have changed, including attitudes toward homosexuality. But the film has not dated, as so many more political movies have. For the emotions explored with such mastery by John Schlesinger are timeless. He shows us a glimpse of the human condition. Which is why we can be moved by this extraordinary film, over and over and over again.

– Ian Buruma

Recommended Off-site Links:
Sunday Bloody Sunday Review – Roger Ebert (, January 1, 1971).
Sunday Bloody Sunday: A Review – Vincent Canby (The New York Times, September 22, 1971).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Chris Mason Johnson's Test: A Film that "Illuminates Why Queer Cinema Still Matters"
On Brokeback Mountain: Remembering Queer Lives and Loves Never Fully Realized
"This Light Breeze That Loves Me"
George Maharis: Man of Courage
A Third Oscar for Glenda!


Michael O'Sullivan said...

Peter Finch should have won every award for this, particularly his last monologue to the camera. Yes, the film has dated in a way, and there was an audible gasp at that male kiss in the suburban cinema, when I saw the film a second time, out of town. But it captures that London milieu just right. I like their well-meaning liberal friends too, with lonely people and that token black man coming for Sunday lunch. It is one of Jackson's best roles with lots of nice touches - rubbing the cigarette ash into the carpet, grimacing as she drinks instant coffee with water from the hot tap - and Finch watching the addicts waiting for their fixes at the all-night chemist. I used to know that shop.
Schlesinger started it with (closeted) British actor Ian Bannen and Hiram Keller (hot from Fellini's Satyricon) but that did not work out, Bannen couldn't get into the role. Finch was perfect, as he was as Oscar Wilde in 1960, a fearless actor.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi, Michael!

Thanks so much for sharing your informed and entertaining recollections of 'Sunday Bloody Sunday.' It's greatly appreciated.



James said...

Thanks Michael, I really enjoyed everything about this film, having met John Schlesinger and his partner in California. He was a brilliant and hilarious companion. Several of us drove to Tijuana (in my '69 Buick) to see Cordobes fight. It took hours to cross the border back into California, with the border patrol searching for drugs. John kept us entertained (howlingly) with his wit and wisdom. Thanks for reminding me of this wonderful time in my past.

David said...

My overriding impression now is of a setting which is largely one of middle class cosiness than any real "gay" content. Penelope Gilliat's screenplay (it is available as a Penguin paperback: "this is a film about three vice people" runs the blurb, "it will break your heart")is fairly lean and the finished product's success is a marvel of great screen acting, camera work (take the scene in the West End pharmacy) editing and direction.

I view it as a great time capsule of the expanding (free is not to strong a word) society of the time - I was Murray Head's age at the time - and believe me a lot of it rings true. It was great! And being gay was not really a problem - that side of it has been exaggerated by various pressure groups - yawn - of today!

On the whole what the film shows that life in 1960s 1970s London was much more relaxed fun than today.

I had disco - the first time round!