The lie she's telling her granny is a real whopper.
What is it?
A 1961 film adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play.
What’s it about?
The action takes place at a girls’ school, where Mary Tilford, an unhappy, nasty student, spreads a rumour that the two women who run the school are in a lesbian relationship. The parents all remove their children and the school shuts down.
Kids can be pretty rough, huh?
Yep. Mary reminds me of the central character in Bad Seed—an incarnation of evil in child form. It’s melodramatic, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
And the gay theme, how’s that handled?
Well, in keeping with the grand ol’ tradition, the gay character ends up dead.
Lots of angst, then?
There is, but the film isn’t really about the challenges of being gay. Most of the film focuses on the nefarious effects of mindless chatter. Frankly, the rumour about the two women could just as easily be that they’re Commies, or atheists, or druggies, or in some other way vaguely immoral. So although it was certainly brave of Lillian Hellman to talk about lesbianism in a 1930s play, and for director William Wyler to take it on in a 1960s film, the whole gay thing is what Alfred Hitchcock would have called a MacGuffin—something to hang a plot on. It’s not what the film is about, really.
Is it worth seeing, then?
From a queer viewpoint, it’s not all that mind-blowing, although it’s a perfectly good melodrama. The most interesting thing about the film’s take on homosexuality is that it’s just about the worst thing you can accuse someone of. It’s the “sin that cannot be named.” At the point where Mary tells her grandmother about it, the nature of the sin is whispered in the granny’s ear, so we don’t even have to hear it, it’s that bad. This all says something about historical views of homosexuality—which, sadly, are not always historical.