OPERA SOAPA

John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday hasn’t been made rot by time; it still works, thanks in part to the director’s and performers’ skillful restraint and in larger part to critic-author Penelope Gilliatt’s wonderful ear for Britspeak and her compassion for educated adults who, if masochistically, accept “half a loaf.” It’s also a movie presaging our fixation on communications: here are 1970 characters dependent upon phone answering services as lifelines, while we now have answering machines, faxes, e-mail, beepers, buzzing wrist watches and all purpose cell phones and IPads. (For those of us who once used answering services, we’re sure to be flooded with memories of operators who never picked up after a set number of rings or ever got those important messages or names quite right. Or having to suffer their bitchiness when they enjoyed relaying negatives.) But it’s the hyper-cool emotional context of SBS that is its lasting draw. Peter Finch, as a Jewish doctor, and Glenda Jackson, an about-to-be-unemployed employment counsellor, are both involved in a breakup with the same young gizmo-making artist, Murray Head. What makes Finch and Jackson atypical is that, in trying to come to terms with their lot, they don’t fall to pieces; they’re survivors coping with the modern wars of deciduous relationships. By all assumptions, SBS shouldn’t work; it’s been made by disparate talents who would seem otherwise incompatible. Schlesinger’s alternately prone to moddish, faked melodrama (Darling, Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man) and sluggish period pieces (Far From the Madding Crowd, The Day of the Locust); Gilliatt’s a rather fragile, idiosyncratic prose stylist; womanizer Finch and enameled Jackson, determined personalities with a tendency to overshadow roles they play, seem unlikely subordinates to a foppish bi. Excepting the very prominent script, the discordancy has the deliberate feel of being down-played; while bits of drama elevate the scales of sound and action—the quarrelling couple at the party the loudest and most fun, the death of a family pet—the basic triangle of Finch and Head and Jackson is supremely low-keyed: though everyone knows about Head’s predilections, even entertains his lovers, no one other than Jackson seems much bothered by his amoral flippancy. He symbolizes the generation once removed from Jackson and twice from Finch—one without guilt-ridden or cultural hangovers. Popping up stubbornly is Gilliatt’s valiant commiseration towards Finch’s and Jackson’s (even Jackson’s mother’s) heartache and it all comes close to fashionable self-pity as Gilliatt’s pale Englishwoman’s attitudes about making do with the cards dealt become testimony to the reluctant acceptances practiced by intelligent people. This genteel flogging has the effect of discounting what seemed her intent of accommodation; as Roger Ebert opines, this is not so much “a movie about the loss of love, but about its absence.” Central to our uncertainty is Murray Head as the object of Finch’s and Jackson’s desires. What is there about him that they find so attractive? It can’t be his commercial art: designed by Richard Loncraine, the contraptions have a Pier 1 flavor to them and one gadget, a rectangular Robbie the Robot with a Nixonian face, would make a great juke box. Looking as if he could be Liam Neeson’s prissy younger brother, Head in a post-Beatles mop doesn’t have an ounce of Neeson’s inguinal appeal; he’s a hole on the screen, with a snitty voice and emaciated physical features. Hard to imagine that he could cause sparks, much less “love,” in Finch, Jackson or anybody else. We end up thinking that what’s absent isn’t love but heat. (We might not feel this way had he remained as healthy-looking as he does in The Family Way.) Jackson’s role as Alex was originally conceived to be a “bright, tender young woman of thirty four, divorced a couple of years...(with) a witty face and a habit of peering at people attentively when they speak. She is startlingly intelligent; she attacks life with exuberance and tough-mindedness, there is no masochism in her. Her focus on the things she finds absorbing is tranquil and shrewd. (She has) areas of abstractedness. Neat.” This description perhaps if lightly autobiographically close to Gilliatt, who was a redhead (Jackson’s auburn in the movie) and who was a “shrewd” but “tranquil” profilist, a movie critic whose “abstractedness” was often infuriating (her famous piece on The Great Gatsby a prime example) and a story-teller who wrote “startlingly intelligent” and yet “tender” fiction—A State of Change, Splendid Lives. Her readers would agree she had a “witty face,” given full view by Dominic’s photo of her for Quotations From Other Lives, while Jackson’s suggests a morphy hardness. And the “neat” and the lack of “masochism” were removed when Jackson signed on, replaced by her customary edge and impatience. Rightly removed, because had Jackson attempted to play Alex as perceived in the text, she’d have been a misfit. (Claiming she was biographically closer to Finch’s character than the Alex she originally penned, the truth is that Gilliatt had a masochistic bent, having married playwright/misogynist John Osborne after he wrote her this proposal: “Will you marry me? It’s risky, but you’ll get fucked regularly.” A drinker who’d eventually die of alcoholism, she also had an affair with Mike Nichols and roomed with Vincent Canby.) And Jackson “tender”? One of the attractions Head may have to Jackson’s Alex is that she’s more man than he is. If I’ve never met a hip swinger who has had affairs with the kinds of iconic martyrs Gilliatt penned, I’ve met martyrs married to compulsive bisexuals and they seem to end up either bitter or like Jackson’s mother (played by Dame Peggy Ashcroft)—lamenting that “there’s no whole thing” to get from their husbands and accepting the rules of the game as maintenance. What horror must ricochet within Jackson when she hears this, as she had already been told by Head that “you’re getting all there is.” I also know women like Jackson’s Alex—the supposed self-sufficient who get involved in messy affairs with cock-sure ac/dcers with a touch of sadism and end up just as terse in speech and tense of manner, wondering how the hell it is they got involved, hating themselves for putting themselves into situations that make them feel this jealous when they think about their men with their male lovers. Most of the pent up hostility is inverted; feeling incomplete, people in these messes tend to further mess things up, manifested in not only sloppy living habits—which Jackson’s Alex has—but also in decisions which affect livelihood: she quits her job and for a while she’ll booze and fornicate away her reinforced aloneness. On the other side is Finch’s unfragmented Daniel, the Jewish doctor in such control he’s too good to be believed. Not quite: he gets riled up when those two guests are going at each other and the drunken shrew (enjoyably brayed by Caroline Blakiston somewhat like a tribute to Constance Ford) exposes “those tired old tits.” In the main, though, Daniel’s enviably settled, secure with himself, undemanding, generous, very tolerant. He pleads his own case for audience compassion but we won’t worry: this man, the screen’s most restrained homosexual, will do okay. Dignified by social status, Daniel hasn’t a need to be shamed about his perference; it’s clear sex is one of his active appetites, and he’s got an eye that appreciates: picking up his Sunday News of the World and Times, dapper in his jams and robe, exchanging forced pleasantries with his snob neighbor, Daniel sneaks a peek at a runner going by. Munching on Pepperidge Farm-like cookies and boxed jellied fruit, dressed in Zaffre blue pullover and lavender ascot or Montague Burton jackets with shirt cuffs that could use some starch or richly beige cardigan, Finch is the quietest of dashing, urbane and handsome sensations; we watch in amazement the smooth confluence of his duties as doctor and obliging son, as deferring lover, as respectful friend. We can be inspired by one of the great gentlemen of movies. SBS remains John Schlesinger’s most accomplished piece of movie making, and is the only English movie of the 70s that recalls the glory days of Britain’s movie industry when it made winners like Look Back in Anger, Room at the Top, Sons and Lovers, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Entertainer and The Innocents. Obviously, 43 years later, SBS is not for the mob; required to enjoy it is a predisposition to liberal affaires d’amour and pot-smoking kids. And a tolerance for Schlesinger’s inordinate love of Così fan tutte. Mozart, of course, composed an opera buffa; Schlesinger and Gilliatt compose an opera soapa. Winner of the 1971 British Academy Awards for best film, actor, actress, director, and best film editing; National Society of Film Critics awards for best actor and screenplay; N.Y. Film Critics Circle prize for best screenplay; winner of best original screenplay from both the WGA and WG of Britian. Oscar noninations for Finch, Jackson, Schlesinger and Gilliatt.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 1996 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 11/2012) All Rights Reserved.