John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday hasn’t been made rot by time; it still works, thanks in part to the director 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, beepers, e-mail, 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 barely concealed bitchiness when they enjoyed relaying negatives.) It’s the British demeanour guiding the emotional context of SBS that is the 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. In trying to come to terms with the terms set by him, they don’t fall to pieces; they’re survivors coping with the wars in modern disposable 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 mod, faked melodramas (Darling, Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man) and sluggish period pieces (Far From the Madding Crowd, The Day of the Locust); Gilliatt’s an idiosyncratic prose stylist; womanizer Finch and enameled Jackson determined personalities with strong tendencies to overshadow roles they play. Showcasing the very prominent script, their differences have 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 bitchiest and most fun, the death of a family pet swelled by paniced vocals and urban traffic—the basic constituent of Finch and Head and Jackson is civility: though everyone knows about Head’s predilections, even entertains his lovers, no one other than Jackson seems much concerned by his flippancy.
Head 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) mild frustrations 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 reluctant acceptances practiced by intelligent people. This genteel flogging has the effect of exposing what seemed an intent of accommodation never quite uttered; as Roger Ebert opines, this is not so much “a movie about the loss of love, but about its absence.” Central to our unease is Head as the object of Finch’s and Jackson’s desires. What is there about him they find so attractive? It could hardly be his junky commercial art: designed by Richard Loncraine, the thingamajigs have a Pier 1 flavor to them, though the 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 he could cause sparks in Finch and Jackson; we end up thinking 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 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 andshrewd. Areas of abstractedness. Neat.” This description only slightly autobiographically close to Gilliatt, who was a redhead (Jackson’s chestnut 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 an example) and a story-teller who wrote “startlingly intelligent” and yet “tender” fiction—One By One, 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 hardness morphed into a rarely seen softness by cinematographer Billy Williams. But the “neat” and the lack of “masochism” were removed when she signed on, replaced by botheration and impatience. (Claiming a closer kinship to Finch’s character than Alex, the truth seems to be Gilliatt had a masochistic bent, having married playwright and 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 at 61, 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 she’s more man than he is. If I’ve never met a hip swinger who has 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 “there’s no whole thing” to get from their husbands and accepting the rules of maintenance. What horror must ricochet within Jackson when she hears this, having already been told “you’re getting all there is” by Head. 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 in manner, wondering how the hell it is they got involved, hating themselves for getting into situations making them feel this jealous when thinking about their men with their male lovers and resort to overeating from a batch of fudge. (And driving by in the night checking to see if Head is at home.) Most of the pent-up hostility is inverted; feeling insecure, people in these messes tend to further mess things up, manifested in not just sloppy living habits but in decisions which affect livelihood: she quits her job and for a while she’ll booze and fornicate away her reinforced aloneness.
On the third 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) is about to flash “those tired old tits,” and will himself sneakily drive by Head’s place. In the main, 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 of his perference; it’s clear sex is one of his active appetites, and he’s got an appreciative eye: picking up his Sunday News of the World and Times, dapper in jams and robe, exchanging forced pleasantries with his snob neighbor, he sneaks a peek at a runner going by. Munching on Pepperidge Farm-like cookies and boxed jellied fruit, dressed in Zaffre lavender pullover and ascot or Montague Burton jackets with shirt cuffs needing some starch or in richly beige cardigan, Finch is the quietest of dashing, urbane 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 rare gentlemen of movies.
With Williams capturing and Richard Marden editing London’s undercurrent of transition, SBS remains John Schlesinger’s most accomplished piece of movie making and is the only English movie of the 70s recalling 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. SBS is not for the mob; obviously required to enjoy it is a predisposition to liberal affaires d’amour and pot-smoking kids. And a tolerance for Gilliatt and/or 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, 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 nominations for Finch, Jackson, Schlesinger and Gilliatt.
Text COPYRIGHT © 1996 RALPH BENNER (Revised 7/2023) All Rights Reserved.