News and Commentary – Another Semester of 70s Films: Sunday Bloody Sunday

This week’s movie was actually John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, but we’ve already written about that one here, and we’re sticking to our stories: (1) if forced to choose, we’ll take the dirty old Times Square over the modern tourist-trap eyesore; (2) except for, you know, the movie ending with Dustin Hoffman dead on a bus, Cowboy has the classic structure of a Hollywood romantic comedy; (3) despite that, however, we do not think that Rasto Rizzo and Joe Buck are meant to be implicitly understood as lovers—an issue of light controversy among some viewers who suggested that perhaps Schlesinger lacked the courage of his convictions on the matter.

Again, we don’t see it that way, but Schlesinger was certainly not pulling any punches with his next effort, Sunday Bloody Sunday. An absorbing, thoughtful and entertaining slice of British social realism, it was also a deeply personal film. As the director explained to his nephew, the distinguished writer and historian Ian Buruma, “the doctor in Sunday Bloody Sunday was based on myself” and a relationship he had with an actor in the 1960s, when Schlesinger was directing a play for the Royal Shakespeare Theater company. As in the film, the man with whom Schlesinger was involved was also seeing a woman (an actress who had appeared in his 1965 film Darling). 

What is exceptional about Sunday Bloody Sunday, which features excellent performances from Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson as rivals for the affection of Murray Head, is that it is first and foremost a character-driven film, one in which the lead character happens to be gay.  Thus the film lectures, in a fine script by the writer and film critic Penelope Gilliatt, by not lecturing—this is no ABC afterschool special about the need for tolerance and understanding.  But it was nevertheless groundbreaking (keep in mind that homosexual behavior between consenting adults was a criminal act in England until 1967).  And it did include one radical gesture, the decision to film a kiss between two men without comment—or by resorting to techniques like silhouetting to protect the tender eyes of would-be-offended moviegoers.  (This was no small concern—indeed many in the crew were offended by the way the scene was shot.)  “I didn’t think that it should be portrayed with any kind of apology,” Schlesinger recalled.  And in the wake of the unexpected commercial success of Cowboy, “there was nothing to stop me doing anything I wanted.” (As he wrote in his diary at the time, “I can get away with anything now.”)

But it is a disservice to the film to reduce it to the status of iconic trailblazer; the movie plays fluidly in the present tense almost fifty years after the fact, and it is a rich, layered, multifaceted affair.  Able to look past the sex, the only complaint from Schlesinger’s father was, “On top of everything else, John, does the doctor have to be Jewish, too?”  But as Schlesinger’s official biographer notes, “of course he did”—as Sunday was also able to engage the question of the director’s complex relationship with his religion (and vice-versa—permission to film in one synagogue was revoked when the rabbi got wind of the movie’s subject matter), as well as nicely illustrate the parallel experiences of both Jews and Homosexuals, who could, if they wished, quietly assimilate within a less-than-tolerant British society.

More than anything, However, Sunday Bloody Sunday is a film about the compromises that people were willing (or unwilling) to make in their lives, in the pursuit of personal happiness and possibility—or as Schlesinger repeatedly put it, whether half a loaf is better than no bread at all.  This grand theme, present throughout, is most explicit in two key scenes.  One is the crucial, understated (and not narratively essential) conversation that Glenda Jackson’s character has with her mother (Peggy Ashcroft), and the power with which the latter defends her traditional marriage (“you think it’s nothing, but it’s not”); second, of course, is the great fourth-wall-shattering monologue that ends the film (Gilliatt’s inspiration), which Finch pulls off in a single shot without missing a spellbinding beat.    

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Finch Closes with a Monologue Directly to the Camera