Sunday Bloody Sunday: First Gay (Jewish) Kiss Onscreen

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Revisiting Sunday, Bloody Sunday
 
Nearly four decades after it was made, "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" is just as poignant and intelligent as it was back in 1971. Based on Penelope Gilliatt's pungent screenplay, the movie holds an important place in film history, offering the first positive image of a homosexual character in a lead role in a mainstream movie. That the homosexual is a Jewish doctor makes it all the more significant.
 
John 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. 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 a bit selfish, Bob 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 serves as a plea on behalf of human frailty, of compromise, asking our 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 most sensitive scenes in the film) and he seems to have resolved the conflict between his religiosity and sexual orientation in the most satisfying way. 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.
 
In 1971, when "Sunday Bloody Sunday" came out, viewers–especially gay men–could receive 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 encouragement to countless moviegoers.   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 suggests that gay relationships, even fleeting ones, are "something." "People can manage on very little," the doctor says to relatives of an incapacitated patient," in what would become the film's motto.
 
Schlesinger shows a remarkable gift for pacing and an admirable energy in bringing together seamlessly 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 content was not a money-making proposition.
 
A small, character rather than plot-driven, introspective British production that defied the conventions of American studio moviemaking, then and now. The highbrow critics respected it. Most, however, failed to understand what it was about in spite of the glowing notices
           
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 to Hollywood finally recognizing the artistic–and commercial value–of positive or at least nonjudgmental gay-oriented entertainment.
 
Unlike most films at the time, 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 he or she had hoped for or 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 realize, one is always alone.
 
When Alex belittles her parents' marriage, her mother (played with magnificent delicacy by the late Dame Peggy Ashcroft), "The trouble with you is that you're looking for 'the whole thing.' There is no 'whole thing.' You have to make it work."
 
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 that their relationships will not break down before they can find a way to make it work together.
 
The one kiss exchanged between Dr. Hirsch and Bob caused more stir and scandal than scenes that showed them in bed together. Up until then, the stereotypical portrayal of gay sexuality was as untamed, risky, and deviant. In Hollywood same-sex relationships are still defined in terms of wild sex. "Sunday" featured the first affectionate kiss onscreen between two men, but not using it as a cheap device or shock effect. Observing affectionate love between two 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 many 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 homophobia that prevailed not only among mainstream audiences but also among some highbrow critics.