Oscar Movies: Fox (1968)–Lesbian Drama Starring Sandy Dennis and Keir Dullea

Based on the 1923 short novella by D.H. Lawrence, this lesbian-themed drama concerns Jill (Sandy Dennis) and Ellen (Anne Heywood), who bond together intimately while overcoming social class and others differences.

They live in a remote, snowbound cabin in an isolated, self-contained region.  For the movie, the setting is changed from Lawrence’s English village to the Canadian wilderness, where the women run a chicken farm.

Like other lesbian films made by Hollywood (“The Killing of Sister George”), the relationship is threatened and then broken, when the younger, more appealing woman finds a new partner; in this case, it’s a male.

The film’s characters are more explicit than they are in the book, in which the bisexual tendencies are implicit. In the movie, the roles are stereotypical: Sandy Dennis, right after winning a Supporting Actress Oscar for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” plays Jill, the blond and dependent femme.  British Anne Heywood is Ellen, the dark haired, self-reliant butch femme, sporting boots and flannel shirts.

A handsome male stranger, Paul (Keir Dullea), who had worked on the farm before, returns to help the distressed women. It’s noteworthy that in the book, Paul is a 20 year old hunter; in the movie, he is a farmer (more domestic?) and similar in age to the women.

While Ellen dominates the relationship, she has also grown dissatisfied. She is no longer sure she wants to stay with Jill.  Paul is the symbolic fox, a romantic predator, who comes between the women when he unexpectedly proposes to Ellen. The newly formed hetero couple move in together, but the proposal arouses the women’s suppressed lesbianism. Ellen, belting out a bawdy song, “Roll Me Over,” masturbates in front of the mirror, and her self-pleasure is depicted as a “perversion.”

The movie’s plot eliminates Jill’s parents, who in the book witness their daughter’s death, when Paul chops a tree that lands between her legs.

This is the film debut of Mark Rydell, a former actor, whose future career would include genre pictures, such as “The Cowboys,” with John Wayne, or the Oscar-winning “On Golden Pond.”

In the book, he feels repressed by village life and wants to move to Canada.  In the movie, Paul wants to take Ellen to Vermont. Paul chooses the more independent and aggressive Ellen—by conqueirng the stronger woman, he proves that he’s a confident macho man. Moreover, in the book, Paul is dismayed that Ellen is still aggressive after marriage; he wishes he’d left the women “to kill one another.”

After Jill’s death, which is gruesome, Paul believes that Ellen will be happy with him. “Will I?” she asks amd the movie ends on her uncertain expression.

Many reviewers complained about the tampering with Lawrence’s book in the name of updating the characters, as well as the more explicit sexuality of the text (to make the movie more commercial) Thus, replete with blatant phallic imagery, “The Fox” shows in close-up a shotgun, an axe, a carving knife, a tree, and a pitchfork.

The vulgarization of Lawrence, plus nudity, made “The Fox” more attractive commercially.  Produced for a small budget of $1 million, it was a hit with audiences, earning some $25 million at the box-office.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Original Score: Lalo Schifrin

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

John Barry won the Original Score Oscar for The Lion in Winter