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Hollywood’s First Gay Kiss

Five decades after it was made, Sunday Bloody Sunday is just as poignant and intelligent as it was back in 1971, when initially released. John Schlesinger’s mature tale was nominated for major Oscars and won the Golden Globe for Best English-Speaking Foreign Film (a category since discontinued), earning a Best Actor nomination for Peter Finch. Based on Penelope Gilliatt’s sharply observed screenplay, the movie holds an important place in film history, offering the first positive image of a homosexual character in a lead role in a mainstream movie.

Schlesinger, the late Jewish openly gay filmmaker, is better-known for his Oscar-winning picture, Midnight Cowboy (1969). That movie, starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, also had gay subtext in the relationship between its two loser-protagonists. However, Sunday Bloody Sunday should be considered as Schlesinger’s finest film, a complex, remarkably modulated, emotionally effective British movie about three Londoners and the breakup of two love affairs.


Dr. Daniel Hirsch (Peter Finch), a gay Jewish doctor in his forties, and Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), a career counselor in her thirties, are both in love with Bob Elkin (Murray Head), a boyish, successful sculptor who casually divides his time and affections between them. Handsome and selfish, Bob claims he has no sexual preference, and so he doesn’t understand what upsets the two “older” people about sharing him since he loves them both.

The film serves as a plea on behalf of human frailty, of compromise, asking the audience’s sympathy for ordinary people (not heroes or even anti-heroes in Hollywood movies), who make the best deal they can. The most effective scenes offer sharp observations about the clash of three personalities and their divergent lifestyles.

Of the three, the most nuanced character is that of Dr. Hirsch, a quiet, intelligent surgeon who seems to have accepted his homosexuality and Jewishness. Finch wears a yarmulke when he goes to his nephew’s Bar-Mitzvah (one of the film’s most sensitive scenes) and he seems to have resolved the conflict between his religiosity and sexual orientation in a satisfying way. He lives a balanced life. As a screen persona, Dr. Hirsch is something of a first: a homosexual who is not pathetic, grotesque, or pathological – a man with self-esteem and dignity.

In July 1971, when Sunday Bloody Sunday came out, viewers – especially gay men – could gain solace from the compassionate film. Here was a story that, unlike most Hollywood movies at the time, did not penalize its protagonist for being gay. Dr. Hirsch’s sensitive narration at the end of the film offered comfort and encouragement to countless moviegoers. The film represents a happy denouement for a gay character whose resignation is not a product of his sexual orientation. Finch tells the audience in a closing monologue “People say to me. He never made you happy. And I say, but I am happy. Apart from missing him. All my life I’ve been looking for someone courageous and resourceful. He’s not it. But something, we were something.” The speech has little to do with homosexuality, suggesting that gay relationships, even fleeting ones, are “something.” “People can manage on very little,” the doctor tells the relatives of an incapacitated patient, in what would become the film’s motto.

Schlesinger shows a remarkable gift for bringing together all the elements of moviemaking: The movie has been consistently cited as one of the first “positive” gay films. Unfortunately, this mature drama never found its audience and its box-office failure was used by Hollywood as “proof” that gay contents were not a money-making proposition.

The film is a character, rather than plot-driven, introspective British production that defied the conventions of American studio moviemaking, then and now. The highbrow critics respected it, though other reviewers failed to understand what it was about in spite of the glowing notices. At the time, Schlesinger insisted that Sunday Bloody Sunday was “not about the sexuality of these people.” He was right, though few people believed him then. It would take at least two more decades for Hollywood to finally recognizing the artistic – and commercial value – of positive or at least nonjudgmental gay-oriented entertainment.

Unlike most films at the time, Sunday Bloody Sunday took for granted the protagonists’ sexuality – something that gay and lesbian activists have been asking for generations. It was a film about human relationships and how they do not always match our ideas and ideals about what love ought to be. Everyone in the film settles for something less than he or she had hoped for or had been taught to expect.

At the end of the film, when Bob goes to America, leaving Dr. Hirsch and Alex to fend for themselves, it is clear that their lives will continue though they’re trapped in resignation. In the end, they must realize, one is always alone. When Alex belittles her parents’ marriage, her mother (played with magnificent delicacy by the late Dame Peggy Ashcroft) says: “The trouble with you is that you’re looking for ‘the whole thing.’ There is no ‘whole thing.’ You have to make it work.”

Jackson and Finch are more interesting characters because they are given the social values – they’re committed to romantic stability – with which the audience can identify. The movie said something even more universal and important, that ‘the whole thing’ that Jackson’s mother spoke of is an illusion. People connect randomly, hoping for their relationships not to break down before they can find a way to make them work together.

The one kiss exchanged between Dr. Hirsch and Bob caused more stir and scandal than scenes that showed them in bed together. Up until then, the stereotypical portrayal of gay sexuality was untamed, risky, and deviant. In Hollywood movies, same-sex relationships are still defined in terms of wild sex. Sunday featured the first affectionate kiss onscreen between two men, but it did not use it as a cheap device or for shock effect. Observing affectionate love between two men was out of the question. The scene drew gasps and comments from audiences wherever the movie played.

Rumors circulated at the time that “the kiss scene” was the reason why many theaters refused to book the picture. The London Press was full of stories of customers complaining that the kiss “made them sick to their stomach,” that it forced them to turn their eyes away from the screen, if not leave the theater in disgust. That kind of response revealed once more the latent homophobia that prevailed not only among mainstream audiences but also among some critics.