Today marks the anniversary of the Stonewall riots that took place in 1969. They are viewed as the catalyst for the gay liberation movement in the US and the world. Consequently, I sat to watch “Sunday Bloody Sunday” last night. Director John Schlesinger took quite a different approach from his preceding film “Midnight Cowboy” (which won Best Picture and Best Director in 1969) that portrayed the main characters as marginalized and shameful of their homosexuality. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1971) is noteworthy for it shows us a gay man who is comfortable with his sexuality. Early in the film there’s a passionate kiss between two men. It must have been quite shocking at the time of release to see this on screen. What comes across as surprising to me as I saw it again is how committed the actors are and how genuinely tender, loving and matter of fact that gesture comes across. I wonder if this is what was outrageous to audiences? Actor Ian Bannen – who was originally cast in the leading role – was fired for he was skittish of the intimacy. Peter Finch replaced him. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is quite a revolutionary and stirring drama about the complexities of relationships that feels extremely contemporary and novel – with two towering performances in Glenda Jackson and Finch who were both nominated for the Oscar.
A young artist – Bob – is having parallel affairs with two Londoners – a man and a woman – dividing his days between them. Both of them know that they’re sharing the sexual pleasures of Bob – they even use the same answering service. Finch plays a doctor – Daniel Hirsch – who has a loving Jewish family and Jackson plays Alex Greville – a divorced employment counselor. Bob is beautiful, young and their object of desire — and not particularly interesting. The movie focuses on how he affects Daniel and Alex individually and the toll of their arrangement. They both need him and want him for themselves. Friends and family are aware. Alex justifies it by telling them (and she seems to be trying to convince herself as well) “Anything is better than nothing. There are times when nothing HAS to be better than anything.”
The directing and script are terrific. A lot is conveyed visually. Schlesinger uses the telephone switchboard and its cables as a symbol of the intricacies of human interaction. The phone and its ringing becomes at times hopeful and in others intrusive and frustrating – mirroring our characters’ state of mind. There is other intrinsic visual imagery – like an accident involving a beloved pet. It also shows us a London trying to manage with modernity. The film – which can be quite funny – is non-judgmental. It acknowledges the contradictions of the human heart.
Glenda Jackson is one of the best actresses – and I’d always been a fan of Peter Finch but this is his finest performance. The last scene – which is shot as a long take – the actor looking into the camera is a hallmark scene – vulnerable and heartbreaking. When you see kids – vandalizing a car – keep an eye out for a very young Daniel Day Lewis.
Alex: “I can’t see why my having an affair with someone on and off is any worse that being ‘married’ for a course or two at mealtimes.”
Her mother: “But darling… you keep throwing in your hand because you haven’t got the whole thing. There *is* no whole thing, my poppet. You have to make it work.”
Available to rent on Amazon Prime and Vudu.
Screenplay by Penelope Gilliatt
Directed by John Schlesinger
Starring: Murray Head, Glenda Jackson, Peter Finch and Peggy Ashcroft.
Writing “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt discusses the process of writing and making the film. “The making of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” demanded 3 and one half years of preparation. “After mooching around for months, lost really for a place to work,” Gilliatt completed the screenplay in about ten days in 1967. She recalls the pressure of writing it as enough to make her feel “about ready to flip.” She describes her writing, whether of stories or scripts, as being drawn underwater on a steel hawzer, directed not by particular words, but by the force of the whole narrative line. In the black notebooks she constantly carries, which are filled with pages of reworked text, and dialogue overheard in buses. Gilliatt fashions her narrative into formal structure. John Schlesinger, the film’s director, worked closely with Miss Gilliatt on choosing the shooting locations, casting, directing and in adapting the rough draft of the script to the actors. She marvels at his attentiveness to her script: “He served it beautifully. He submerged himself to its character and contributed a lot of himself.” As with any writer, however, the befleshing of her characters prompted some changes. From the page to the screen, she found “the inflection of the way one character bears on another alters,” and she changed odd lines which were either not idiomatic enough or which modulated the relation of weak to strong characters. As radical as she and Schlesinger were about discarding awkward footage (deleting entirely one twelve minute sequence), the shooting nevertheless required careful planning; because reshooting was a sizeable expense, mistakes were corrected from the footage which already existed. Making a film, Gilliatt remarks, “works out to be like a piece of geometry in the end.” The film’s actors pleased and impressed its author as complementary to her characters. She imagined Daniel, the middle-aged Jewish doctor, exactly as Peter Finch plays him. Of Glenda Jackson, in the part of Alex, the woman divorcee, Gilliatt says: “Glenda is a brilliant actress with much in common with Alex intellectually, but not much temperamentally. She’s got that great horsepower as an actress.” Murray Head, who plays the young sculptor whom both Daniel and Alex love, manages to catch, in the sweet vacancy of his expression on screen, the “ariel quality of some free agent.” Bob is “a cool boy, for whom cool is an ethic. He’s damned if he’s going to say he misses anyone or is hurt by his girl sleeping with someone else.” (www.thecrimson.com)
The Story Behind “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
In an essay for The Criterion Collection, screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt discusses the story behind the name of the film. “The title. It had always been Bloody Sunday, Sunday nearly always being bloody in the minds of English children: the day of stasis; of grown-ups going to sleep after too heavy a lunch; of mothers in hats straight from church cooking roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes and brussels sprouts; of desperate people come for the weekend afflicted with the same childish fidgety legs as even grown-ups have in other people’s houses on Sundays, escaping with the household Labradors to “walk off” the lunch; of rows about the quality of the washing-up, done by the children at high speed (no soap; too little soap; too much soap; not enough rinsing, so that great-uncle’s glass of port produces bubbly champagne and a soap taste that, to children, is no more disgusting than alcohol).
But Bloody Sunday suddenly presented problems. Some eager young beaver working as a researcher at ten dollars an hour went to the New York Public Library and said didn’t I know there was a famous Irish Bloody Sunday? Yes, I said, it is famous. In England, sped by a Eumenides of innocent knowledgeability, an English researcher paid at five pounds an hour had been to the British Museum and telephoned me in America, where I then was two days later, to say didn’t I know about the Russian Bloody Sunday? Yes, I said. But it still wasn’t the English bloody Sunday. She agreed, with sweetness, having got the point in the first place herself, but glad of a job. The total bloodiness of Sundays from childhood to death is due, I think, to the enslaving legend we have made for ourselves, with the help of the enslaving Old Testament, that time off is fun and work is at the behest of others. On the contrary, diligence is native to the species, as one only has to watch a three-year-old to know, when it is pottering about on its self-invented projects of collecting stones, or making the sounds it likes on a broken plumbing pipe in the order it likes, or getting the blotting paper out of school inkwells, or numbering books. It is to break no holy rule to pursue things seven days a week. If there is any communal god, apart from the jealous deities that dictators have invented for their own warlike purposes, and if he takes one day in seven off, he or she or it should use it to repair the bungles of inadequate imaginings on the other six. A mischievous and motley lot, these idols that mankind has dreamt up for itself. As the research girls in their different ways agreed, Sundays are bloody indeed. Wars break out on Sundays.
But the word bloody continued to worry the American front-office people. To them, bloody was still as much of a swear word as it was in Shaw’s day. Anyway, they said to England on the transatlantic telephone, the English word was bleeding. England waited. The telephone went every now and again from many other parts of the world where cross-collateralized films were being shot. Apex was suggested forcefully. So was Triangle. So was Every Day of the Week. After a fortnight or so, the telephone went again and a well-known voice with a glottal stop of wealth said, “I’ve got it. Sunday Bloody Sunday.” But no comma.” (https://www.criterion.com/)
About Director John Schlesinger
“London-born director John Schlesinger worked steadily in both Hollywood and Britain in films, television, and on the stage. By exploring the complexities of human relationships, some of his films made it possible for later filmmakers to bring controversial subjects into the mainstream. He started making short films as a boy before attending the Uppingham School with the intent to study architecture. In 1943 he was drafted into the British army and ended up in a magic act entertaining the troops abroad. By 1947, he was back in school studying English literature at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was president of the Experimental Theatre Club. Following graduation, he worked as an actor with the Colchester Repertory Company and the Ngaio Marsh Touring Company. He continued making short films and started directing documentaries for the BBC programs “Tonight” and “Monitor.” He won a BAFTA award for his debut film “Terminus,” a chronicle of the Waterloo railway station. His first two feature films, “A Kind of Loving” and “Billy Liar,” both received critical praise from the British Academy. They also introduced Schlesinger to his longtime filmmaking allies: producer Joseph Janni, actor Alan Bates, and actress Julie Christie.
In 1965 he received international attention and his first Oscar nomination for the drama “Darling” about the London fashion scene during the mod ’60s. After adapting the Thomas Hardy novel “Far From the Maddening Crowd,” Schlesinger made his first American film, “Midnight Cowboy,” starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. A compassionate story about friendship, it was also the first X-rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It also earned Schlesinger his first Oscar for Best Director. The next year, he was honored with the appointment of Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. Back in England, he earned his third Oscar nomination for the psychological drama “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.” Starring Glenda Jackson, Peter Finch, and Murray Head, it was one of the first mainstream films to deal with homosexual themes with sensitivity and perception. During the ’70s he continued directing stage productions in between his film work, eventually becoming the associate director of the National Theatre in London. After a few meager successes with the psychological thriller “Marathon Man” and the war drama “Yanks,” he moved over to television to make the well-received “Separate Tables” and “An Englishman Abroad.” During the late ’80s he made the spy film “The Falcon and the Snowman” and cast Shirley MacLaine in the choice lead role of Madame Sousatzka before making a minor comeback with the comedy “Cold Comfort Farm,” based on the novel by Stella Gibbons. After bringing the play The “Tale of Sweeney Todd” to the small screen, he made his last film, “The Next Best Thing,” starring Madonna and Rupert Everett. Schlesinger died at age 77 in Palm Springs due to complications following a severe stroke. He is survived by photographer Michael Childers, his companion of 36 years.” (https://www.rottentomatoes.com)