the crime of loving
by Douglas Messerli
John Michael Hayes (screenplay, based on the play by Lillian Hellman), William Wyler (director) The Children’s Hour / 1961
Unfortunately, the major cinematic representation of lesbianism of my parent’s and my own generation is likely to have been William Wyler’s 1961 film version of Lillian Hellman’s 1934 stage play, The Children’s Hour—a rather odd phenomenon since the central characters of that work, Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) not only claim not to be lesbians but have been accused of being lovers by children who have utterly no comprehension of what that might entail.
If originally Hellman might be perceived as having been sympathetic to lesbians, it appears when one looks closer at this film that she is far more interested in women who have suffered false accusations by a society that readily buys into lies and fabricated realities than in female individuals who truly love one another. And indeed, in Hellman’s outdated vision of homosexuality, it is to be expected that once labeled a member of the LGBTQ community they should be prepared to be stared at as if they were freaks, mocked, and ostracized by the community, ultimately shamed into committing suicide.
Certainly, in a time when large segments of our society have bought into the rumors and absolute lies of community leaders which has completely altered our political landscape and threatened our democracy, we cannot exactly dismiss Hellman’s concerns. What happened to these two unfortunate figures and the original Scottish schoolteachers Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods upon whose story this play and film is based is indeed an important lesson about how other seemingly credible and intelligent human beings begin to believe in lies when they are repeated time and again, adding their own outrageously twisted visions of reality. It might be interesting, given the current state of mind of the supporters of Trump who months after a fair election still claim that he actually won the presidency and those who have bought into the absurd views of QAnon, to see a new revival of Hellman’s warhorse. And it is thoroughly understandable why the 1951 revival of her play led many to believe that her work was intentionally meant as a criticism of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In that sense, we have admit that the Hellman play is still a powerful work that hammers home its themes of the malleability of those in power such as figures like Mrs. Amelia Tilford (Fay Bainter) when faced with half-truths and outright mendacity.
We might also congratulate Wyler’s 1961 production for a least reinserting the lesbian relationship which in his 1936 film version of the Hellman work, These Three, he had been forced to convert the trio’s loves into a heterosexual triangle by the Hays Code. Yet even his ability to accomplish that, which I discuss in my essay on that film, demonstrates that the film does not truly concern homosexuality. And indeed, as the actors correctly pointed out, the film never actually uses the words homosexual or lesbian, while Wyler and Hayes cut parts of the dialogue which spoke more specifically about the love between the two women.
Hellman’s lack of interest in just how true lesbians survived is evidenced by scene in the film when Karen cries out “Other people haven’t been destroyed by it,” to which Martha replies, “They’re the people who believe it, who want it, who’ve chosen it for themselves.” Apparently you might survive the horrors this picture portrays only if you call down those terrors upon yourself. And lesbianism, moreover, is not represented as something to be enjoyed or treasured, but simply “survived.”
All of this fear and loathing, moreover, was concocted in the same years in which figures such as Ron Rice was identifying new possibilities for gay representation in The Flower Thief (1960), in which the Brothers Kuchar and numerous others were mocking Hollywood views of sexuality, filmmakers such as Pasolini and Bolognini were showing us how homoeroticism naturally existed in society in the male bonding patterns of macho street figures, and in which Truffaut was exploring a bisexual love triangle in Jules and Jim (1962)—which might have transformed even the stodgy These Three into something far more interesting. Two years earlier Hollywood itself had taken cross-dressing to new heights, questioning even whether or not it might actually transform a gay man into a woman in Some Like It Hot. In this context, Wyler’s film seems like a prehistoric monster standing at the brink of the LGBTQ pit, like Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962), tremulously refusing to jump in and enjoy the fun.
In that sense in describing both Wyler’s The Children’s Hour and Advise and Consent I simultaneously feel both pity and contempt. And even the brilliant duo of Hepburn and MacLaine don’t quite escape the sour aftertaste of unintentional homophobia.
Los Angeles, June 2, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (June 2021).