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Before John Schlesinger's classics Sunday, Bloody Sunday and Midnight Cowboy became known as gay films, he was celebrated for "sophistication"--a euphemism for sexual candor-plus-caution. This was at a time filmmakers were challenging industry censorship while a new generation of young, brazenly sexual English actors rode the wave of pop culture's legendary British Invasion.
Hindsight makes Schlesinger's discretion remarkable--especially inA Kind of Loving (1962) which plays this week as the finale of Film Forum's retro series "The Brit New Wave: From Angry Young Men to Swinging London"). Schlesinger translates a typical story of dissatisfaction into the queerest of all British Angry Young Man films. It is a heartfelt expression of closeted gay anxiety; passion--and not a little heterosexual revulsion--verging on rage.
Alan Bates, Schlesinger's superb male muse (Julie Christie was his female counterpart) portrayed middle-class draftsman Victor, yearning for sex and success, when he's caught in the old trap of marrying a pregnant girlfriend, Ingrid (June Ritchie). Unlike those other aggressively masculine angry young Brits, Albert Finney and Richard Harris, Bates' smiley bearing was Cary Grant-like--so amiable it seemed he just had to be bi-sexual, at least.
Courtesy Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal
Bates' perfect movie star quality conveyed a romantic longing that could be seen in Schlesinger's best films. The director's gay screen content was as discreet as his personal life. (Schlesinger told his nephew and biographer Ian Buruma that he modeled Peter Finch's middle-aged gay doctor role in Sunday, Bloody Sunday on himself).
With twinkly-eyed Bates as his icon, Schlesinger put forth his principle personal theme in the very title A Kind of Loving. Few people caught-on that this debut movie was also an underdeveloped presentation of both desire and repression as felt by mid-20th gay Brits when homosexuality was still unlawful.
During a make-out scene between Victor and Ingrid at a public bus stop, Schlesinger's camera pans right to scan crude graffiti on the stall walls--a secret allusion to restroom hook-ups. It was as telling as the brief shot of a movie marquee announcing Dirk Bogarde's landmark gay blackmail movie Victim.
A Kind of Loving portrays a particular victimization. Its ball-and-chain drama (Ritchie suggests a nagging young Judi Dench) is never a convincing love story. This distinguishes it from gay Hollywood director George Cukor's The Marrying Kind (1952) starring hunky hetero Aldo Ray. Schlesinger combines criticism of England's class system (a drunken pub crawl reveals Victor's snobbery) with the frustration of a social structure that stifles erotic instinct. Victor prefers the company of men despite taking the sexual release Ingrid offers. He's not such a nice guy (despite Bates' appeal) because he is, essentially, repressed. Millennial gay movies don't dare such ambivalent characterizations.
Victor is not self-loathing, but circumstance-loathing. Weddings are this film's symbol for social institutions that cramped gay men's sense of freedom. Times have changed yet A Kind of Loving--Schlesinger's dissatisfied record of a gay men's rage for living--somehow feels both radical and inchoate. It isn't all it should be and neither is Victor.