Sunday, Bloody Sunday

Three decades after it was made, Sunday, Bloody Sunday is just as fresh, poignant, and intelligent as it was in 1971. Based on Penelope Gilliatt's delicate and pungent screenplay, the movie holds an important place in film history, offering what's arguably the first positive image of a homosexual character in a lead role. That the homosexual is a Jewish doctor makes it all the more significant.

John Schlesinger, a Jewish, openly gay filmmaker who died of cancer several months ago, is better-known for his 1969 Oscar-winning picture, Midnight Cowboy. That X-rated movie, starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, also had gay subtext in the relationship between its loser-protagonists.

However, Sunday, Bloody Sunday should be considered Schlesinger's finest work, a complex, remarkably modulated, and emotionally effective drama about three Londoners and the breakup of two love-affairs.

The premise is rather simple. Dr. Daniel Hirsch (Peter Finch), a gay Jewish doctor in his forties, and Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), a career counsellor 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. Bob claims he has no special sexual preference, and he doesn't understand what upsets the two older people about sharing him since he loves them both.

The film offers sharp observations about the clash of three personalities and their divergent lifestyles. Of the three, the most nuanced character is that of Hirsch, a quiet, intelligent doctor who seems to have accepted his homosexuality and Jewishness. Finch wears a yarmulke when he goes to his nephew's Bar-Mitzva, and he seems to have resolved the tension between his religious and sexual orientation. He lives a balanced life. As a screen personae, Dr. Hirsch is something of a first–a homosexual character who is not pathetic, grotesque, or pathological–a man with self-esteem and dignity.

However, the one scene that caused more stir and scandal than any other scene was the natural kiss exchanged between Dr. Hirsch and Bob. In Hollywood, same-sex relationships have been defined in terms of wild, dangerous sex. Up until then, the stereotypical portrayal of gay sexuality was as risky and deviant, often carried out in public places. Sunday, Bloody Sunday featured the first affectionate kiss onscreen between two men that was not used as a cheap plot device or sensationalistic shock.

This is precisely what made the scene "problematic." Observing affectionate love between men was out of the question. The scene drew gasps and comments from audiences wherever the movie played. Rumors circulated at the time that "the kiss scene" was the reason why some theaters refused to book the picture. The London Press was full of stories of customers complaining that the kiss "made them sick to her stomach," that it forced them to turn their eyes away from the screen if not leave the theater in disgust. The response revealed once more the latent (and sometimes manifest) homophobia that prevailed among mainstream audiences in the 1970s.

A character-driven introspective British production, Sunday, Bloody Sunday defies the conventions of American studio moviemaking, then and now. The two adults are more interesting characters because they are given the social values–they're committed to romantic stability–with which the audience can identify. At the end of the film, when Bob goes to America, leaving Hirsch and Alex to fend for themselves, it is clear that their lives will continue though they're trapped in resignation.

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

The film serves as a plea on behalf of human frailty and compromise. It asks for the audience's sympathy for ordinary non-heroic individuals, who make the best deal they can. "People can manage on very little," the doctor says to relatives of an incapacitated patient," in what will become the film's motto. And when Alex belittles her parents' marriage, her mother (played with magnificent delicacy by the late Peggy Ashcroft) retorts: "The trouble with you is that you're looking for 'the whole thing.' There is no 'whole thing.' You have to make it work." Indeed, the movie said something even more universal than accepting one's sexuality, that 'the whole thing' that Alex's mother spoke of is an illusion, an opium for the masses (to borrow Marxist expression).

In 1971, when Sunday Bloody Sunday came out, viewers–especially gay men–could receive solace from this compassionate film. Here was a narrative that, unlike most Hollywood movies at the time, was not about the drama of coming out that did not penalize its protagonist for being gay.

Moreover, 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, but it does say that gay relationships are not anything, a message that offered immense encouragement to moviegoers.

The movie has been consistently cited as one of the first "positive" gay films. Unfortunately, this mature drama never found an audience and its box-office failure was used by Hollywood as "evidence" that gay content was not a moneymaking proposition. It would take two more decades for Hollywood to finally recognize the artistic and commercial value of positive (or at least nonjudgmental) gay-oriented entertainment.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Director: John Schlesinger

Story and Screenplay (Original): Penelope Giliatt

Actress: Glenda Jackson

Actor: Peter Finch

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1971, William Friedkin won the Best Director Oscar for "The French Connection," which also won Best Picture and Best Actor for Gene Hackman.  Paddy Chayefsky won the Screenplay Oscar for "The Hospital."  Jane Fonda was the Best Actress for "Klute."