Friday, February 3

Good 70s Films: Sunday Bloody Sunday

1971 Drama
From MGM-United Artists
Directed by John Schlesinger

Peter Finch
Glenda Jackson
Murray Head
Vivian Pickles
Peggy Ashcroft
Bessie Love

I have always thought Britain would not have made this movie had it not been for the release of the U.S. movie The Boys in the Band the year before.  And it had only been a year or so before that England had come to terms with its dark ages' stance on homosexuality. Better late than never because this is a very fine film.

It's long been said that this is a story about a ménage à trois, a threesome, but it isn't.  It is about two parallel relationships.  A young man has a sexual relationship with an older, closeted, well-to-do, Jewish doctor and also a frustrated, divorced woman who has job problems.  Not only is it not a threesome, but the woman and the doctor only have one scene together, albeit a brief one.

It had also been only two years earlier that I first discovered Glenda Jackson in Women in Love, which captivated me in much the same way this film did, and I was delighted to see her again.  (The only film she had made in between the two is The Music Lovers, which I still have never seen.)

So many events in my long life could be linked in some manner to a movie.  I had not come out when either Boys or Sunday were released but both were so instrumental in forming thoughts that ultimately led to my doing so.  No film shaped my gay thoughts more than Boys which I might call uncivilized whereas Sunday was so civilized that it surprised me.  The woman did not have a problem that her lover was sleeping with another man, per se, just that she didn't have him 100%.  And the doctor more or less felt the same.

The time frame begins on a Friday and ends on Sunday, 10 days later.  We see from the beginning that Alex (Jackson) and Daniel (Finch) lead very busy lives, full of constant interruptions, with both wondering where Bob (Head) is.  Alex is spending the weekend (I love how Brits put the accent on end) watching her sister's five kids and she wants Bob to be with her.  Daniel, too, is expecting Bob to be with him and when the hectic, domestic scene gets to be too much for Bob, he does what he always does... hightails it over to Daniel's.  Later during a party scene at Daniel's that gets a bit out of control, Bob leaves for time with Alex.

One cannot help but wonder what either Alex or Daniel truly see in Bob. He's not a bad chap but he's a rather self-centered one.  He says to Alex at one point I know you're not getting enough of me but you're getting all there is.  He could very well have said the same to Daniel.  It gets worse for Daniel and Alex because Bob, an industrial artist with an entrepreneurial bent, advises them both that shortly (on that bloody Sunday, doncha know?) he is going to New York to see what's there for him job-wise.  He says he doesn't know how long he will be gone but advises he will be back. Neither Alex nor Daniel nor I are so sure.

Daniel is a very kind man which we glean from scenes with his patients.  His home is also his office and while he is there we hear an awfully lot of opera which is just so perfect.  It seems somewhat apparent that his gay life has not quite worked out as he'd liked because he would be in a relationship that provided more value and comfort than Bob could ever supply.  Additionally, Daniel has never come out to his family who constantly asks him when he will settle down and get married.

Alex is terribly frustrated with her life.  She wants to quit her job as an employment counselor and she remains bitter about a divorce. She lives for her fleeting moments with Bob and gives him a little more resistance to seeing Daniel than Daniel gives Bob about Alex. In a scene where she visits her stuffy parents, we see that her motivation in being in a relationship with Bob is because it is so unlike the dreary permanence of her parents' marriage or probably her own marriage.  Her mother tells her, however, that her complaints about how her father is probably better directed to the relationship she's involved in.

Bob is very self-involved and no doubt a young man very in line with the times... swinging London was his backyard.  Daniel and Alex were both helpers by nature and vocation and Bob is a taker. He likely is financially helped by Daniel.  Even in his professional journey he doesn't seem to pursue it with any purpose beyond whether or not the American market will help him out. One might wonder what either of these intelligent people see in Bob but I have always concluded maybe it's something we can't immediately see and should be able to guess.  Regardless of all that is said, I didn't dislike the character of Bob. 

The very heart of the film comes about as Alex and Bob spend their last moments together.  You ask too much, Bob says to her, as he watches her frustration mount. Caring a lot about someone, she cries out, is that too much?  People who have time for one another, is that too much?  And then she nails it... the point of all we've observed... I've had this business that something is better than nothing.  There are times when nothing has to be better than anything.

I found Sunday Bloody Sunday utterly thought-provoking.  I found myself then and now asking myself several questions.  Why were these two bright, caring people seemingly so desperate?  Both Alex and Daniel are willing to settle for crumbs rather than risk losing their young lover.  Why is that?  And while we're at it, why is any straight woman ass over heels in love with a gay man?  What's in it for her?  And overall, why would anyone be willing to share a lover with any other person?  I don't get it but I like that this film always brings me back to these questions.

The gay Schlesinger was not only a perfect director for this film but says that the original idea was based on a time in his life.  He is the man behind some pretty audacious films, worthy of your time.  You may recall reading about them and him in an earlier post.  He apparently took his ideas to Penelope Gilliatt, who was a well-known short story writer and film critic, and she wrote her only screenplay.

I felt as though I could see into the souls of Alex and Daniel, both of whom are so unsettled and melancholy.  We feel much more for both of them than we do Bob but that's how it should be.  Bob will likely be fleeting in their lives and that's how we need to see him as well. Some have complained that he was not as well-written as the other two but I maintain that's exactly as it should be.  We shouldn't be able to get any better of a hold on him than Alex and Daniel do.

The acting of the two leads particularly was absolutely flawless.  It simply didn't get any better than Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch.

We mustn't close without saying a thing or two about the scene in the following picture...

It caused a bloody sensation, to say the least.  Everyone was talking about it whether they had seen the movie or not.  It was called that scene by the faint of heart.  I remember hearing that some folks passed out.  It's true that I don't recall seeing two men kiss this passionately on screen before this but I sailed through it and avoided losing consciousness.  I always figured that if Peter Finch, a card-carrying heterosexual and serial womanizer in real life, could get through it, viewers should be able to manage.  I'll bet they didn't freak out in Europe.

The final scene was different because Finch, all alone on screen, speaks directly to the camera.  He says he has always been looking for someone courageous and resourceful and that wasn't Bob.  He adds, however, that he loves him and wants his company.  It's a gimmick that more often than not doesn't work and I'm not sure it does here, but I wonder if this was the good doctor speaking or if it was Schlesinger signing off in a more personal manner.

Jackson, Finch, Schlesinger and Gilliatt were all nominated for Oscars.  Britain's BAFTA awards did go to both actors and the film itself.

This oh-so-British film was ahead of its time but has caught up today.  What has always been there and remains today is how thought-provoking it still is.

Wanna peek?

Next posting:
The lady on the phone


  1. And the ever popular Vivian Pickles gets little coverage. Sad

  2. What about the ever popular Vivian Pickles?
    Keith C