Hollywood First Gay Kiss: Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, Starring Peter Finch, Glenda Jackson, and Murray Head as the Guy they Both Love

Gay Pride Month

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971): First Gay Kiss in Hollywood Movie

Five decades after it was made, Sunday, Bloody Sunday is just as poignant and intelligent as it was back in 1971, when it was initially released.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Sunday Bloody Sunday

Theatrical release poster

Schlesinger’s mature tale was nominated for major Oscars and BAFTA Awards, Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Best Actor for Peter Finch and Best Actress for Glenda Jackson).

Based on Penelope Gilliatt’s sharply observed screenplay, the movie holds an important place in film history, offering the first positive image of a homosexual character (and a Jewish one at that) in a lead role in a mainstream movie.

Schlesinger, the late Jewish, openly gay filmmaker, is better-known for his Oscar-winning picture, Midnight Cowboy (1969). That movie, starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, also had gay subtext in the relationship between its two loser-protagonists.

midnight cowboy | Emanuel Levy

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However, Sunday Bloody Sunday should be considered as Schlesinger’s finest film, a complex, remarkably modulated, emotionally effective British movie about three Londoners and the breakup of two love-affairs.

Dr. Daniel Hirsch (Peter Finch), a gay Jewish doctor in his forties, and Alex Gerville (Glenda Jackson), a career counselor in her thirties, are both in love with Bob Elkin (Murray Head), a boyish, successful sculptor who casually divides his time and affections between them. Handsome and selfish, Bob claims he has no sexual preference, and so he doesn’t understand what upsets the two “older” people about sharing him since he loves them both.

The film serves as a plea on behalf of human frailty, of compromise, asking the audience’s sympathy for ordinary people (non or even anti-heroes in Hollywood movie), who make the best deal they can. The most effective scenes offer sharp observations about the clash of three personalities and their divergent lifestyle.

Of the three, the most nuanced character is that of Dr. Hirsch, a quiet, intelligent surgeon who seems to have accepted his homosexuality and Jewishness. Finch wears a yarmulke when he goes to his nephew’s Bar-Mitzva (one of the film’s most sensitive scenes) and he seems to have resolved the conflict between his religiosity and sexual orientation in the a satisfying way. He lives a balanced life. As a screen persona, Dr. Hirsch is something of a first–a homosexual who is not pathetic, grotesque, or pathological–a man with self-esteem and dignity.

In July 1971, when Sunday Bloody Sunday came out, viewers–especially gay men–could gain solace from the compassionate film. Here was a story that. unlike most Hollywood movies at the time, did not penalize its protagonist for being gay. Dr. Hirsch’s sensitive narration at the end of the film offered comfort encouragement to countless moviegoers.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

The film represents a happy denouement for a gay character whose resignation is not a product of his sexual orientation. Finch tells the audience in a closing monologue “People say to me. He never made you happy. And I say, but I am happy. Apart from missing him. All my life I’ve been looking for someone courageous and resourceful. He’s not it.  But something. We were something.” The speech has little to do with homosexuality, suggesting that gay relationships, even fleeting ones, are “something.” “People can manage on very little,” the doctor tells the relatives of an incapacitated patient, in what would become the film’s motto.

Schlesinger shows a remarkable gift for bringing together all the elements of moviemaking: The movie has been consistently cited as one of the first “positive” gay films. Unfortunately, this mature drama never found its audience and its box-office failure was used by Hollywood as “proof” that gay contents was not a money-making proposition.

A character-motivated rather than plot-driven, it was an introspective British production that defied the conventions of American studio moviemaking, then and now. The highbrow critics respected it, though other reviewers failed to understand what it was about that movie–in spite some glowing notices from major media outlets.

At the time, Schlesinger insisted that Sunday Bloody Sunday was “not about the sexuality of these people.” He was right, though few people believed him then. It would take at least two more decades for Hollywood to finally recognizing the artistic–and commercial value–of positive or at least nonjudgmental gay-oriented entertainment.

Unlike most films at the time, Sunday Bloody Sunday took for granted the protagonists’ sexuality–something that gay and lesbian activists have been asking for generations. It was a film about human relationships and how they do not always match our ideas and ideals about what love ought to be. Everyone in the film settles for something less than he or she had hoped for or had been taught to expect.

At the end of the film, when he goes to America, leaving Dr. Hirsch and Alex to fend for themselves, it is clear that their lives will continue though they’re trapped in resignation. In the end, they must realize, one is always alone.

When Alex belittles her parents’ marriage, her mother (played with magnificent delicacy by the late Dame Peggy Ashcroft) says: “The trouble with you is that you’re looking for ‘the whole thing.’ There is no ‘whole thing.’ You have to make it work.”

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

Jackson and Finch are more interesting characters because they are given the social values–they’re committed to romantic stability–with which the audience can identify. The movie said something even more universal and important, that ‘the whole thing’ that Jackson’s mother spoke of is an illusion. People connect randomly, hoping for their relationships not to break down before they can find a way to make it work together.

First Kiss between Two Men

The one kiss exchanged between Dr. Hirsch and Bob had caused more stir and a bigger scandal than scenes that showed them in bed together!

In this respect, Sunday Bloody Sunday went way beyond Stanley Kramer’s mediocre 1967 interracial drama, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. That Oscar-winning film seemed to be afraid to show an explicit kiss between the white girl and the black man (Sidney Poitier), who were engaged to be married!

Up until then, the stereotypical portrayal of gay sexuality was as untamed, risky, and deviant. In Hollywood movies, same-sex relationships are still defined in terms of wild sex.

Sunday Bloody Sunday featured the first affectionate kiss onscreen between two men, but it did not use it as a cheap salacious device or for a shocking sensationalistic effect. Observing affectionate love between two men on the big and small screen was out of the question at the time. Which may explained why that particular scene drew uncomfortable gasps and loud comments from audiences wherever the movie played.

Rumors circulated at the time that “the kiss scene” was the reason why many theaters refused to book the picture. The London Press was full of stories of customers complaining that the kiss “made them sick to their stomach,” that it forced them to turn their eyes away from the screen, if not leave the theater in disgust. That kind of response revealed once more the latent homophobia that prevailed not only among mainstream audiences but also among some critics.

Peter Finch as Dr. Daniel Hirsh
Glenda Jackson as Alex Greville
Murray Head as Bob Elkin
Peggy Ashcroft as Mrs. Greville
Tony Britton as George Harding
Maurice Denham as Mr. Greville
Bessie Love as Answering service lady
Vivian Pickles as Alva Hodson
Frank Windsor as Bill Hodson
Thomas Baptiste as Professor Johns
Richard Pearson as Patient
June Brown as Woman patient
Hannah Norbert as Daniel’s mother
Harold Goldblatt as Daniel’s father
Russell Lewis as Timothy Hodson
Marie Burke as Aunt Astrid
Caroline Blakiston as Rowing wife
Peter Halliday as Rowing husband
Jon Finch as Scotsman
Robert Rietti as Daniel’s brother
Douglas Lambert as Man at party
Nike Arrighi as Party guest
Edward Evans as Husband at hospital
Gabrielle Daye as Wife at hospital
Esta Charkham as Barmitzvah guest
Petra Markham (uncredited) as Designer’s girlfriend
Daniel Day-Lewis (uncredited) as Child vandal
John Warner (uncredited) as Party guest
Martin Lawrence as the Rabbi


Directed by John Schlesinger
Produced by Joseph Janni
Written by Penelope Gilliatt
Cinematography Billy Williams
Edited by Richard Marden

Production company: Vectia

Distributed by United Artists

Release date: July 1, 1971

Running time: 110 minutes
Budget £1.5 million




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