A lesbian by any other name

Out on Film revisits The Children's Hour

As the recent House of Cheney hullabaloo over the "L" word demonstrated, we are not as progressive and advanced in 2004 as we might imagine.

The Sapphic sensation in which some claimed John Kerry had exploited Mary Cheney's sexuality in the third presidential debate seemed to have everything to do with Kerry's choice of words in describing Mary Cheney's homosexuality.

"Gay" is one thing. It has a certain neutral — and for some, still lighthearted — ring to it. But "lesbian"? The very word conjures up vivid, fluid-filled images of girl-on-girl action that may have been too much for the Cheneys or their Republican brethren to bear.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The love that dare not speak its name pretty much doesn't in the retrospective feature The Children's Hour, screening at the 17th annual Out on Film gay and lesbian film festival, produced by IMAGE Film & Video Center. What is hard to say in 2004 was just as hard to say in 1961, when United Artists released the social drama about two girls school headmistresses accused of carrying on a lesbian affair.

We may be in the big-hug phase of homo-acceptance where pop culture is concerned, embracing entertainment like Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O'Donnell and "Will & Grace" the same way "accepting" Americans once championed token blacks like Sammy Davis Jr. and Sidney Poitier. But as the popular rejection of gay marriage proves, we ain't come a long way, baby.

Adapted from Lillian Hellman's Broadway play, The Children's Hour centers on Karen (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha (Shirley MacLaine). After years of struggle, Karen and Martha are just beginning to achieve success at the boarding school where they single-handedly teach, administrate, cook meals, wash dishes and serve as disciplinarians for a group of girls so motley their parents sent them away to be rid of them.

The more fundamental question than "Are they or aren't they?" is "Who would have the time or inclination for sex with such a workhorse schedule?"

William Wyler was drawn enough to Hellman's Broadway hit to direct it not once, but twice. He was so dissatisfied with the cagey, 1936 version, These Three, that he tried the story again in '61. But there is the slightest hint of disgust in his portrait of Martha as a lonely, gloomy sad sack who seethes with fury when Karen's dullard glamour-boy fiance (James Garner) comes around.

Contemporary viewers may giggle at the campier aspects of the film, like the photograph of the two serious, ramrod young teachers at graduation — standing side by side like creepy Diane Arbus twins — or Karen's inability to deduce, even after a decades-long friendship, that maybe Martha's love for her was more than platonic.

Though the film purports to deal in an adult manner with one taboo — homosexuality — in truth it deals with two. The other theme is the precocious sexuality of children. It is the inflamed libido of one Über-brat schoolgirl, Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin), after all, that touches off a powder keg of scandal. With her two narrow eyes poking out from a head like a pierogi, Balkin's half-pint villain has real demonic gusto.

Putting herself and her bunkmates to bed each night by reading from a racy paperback, Mary is whipped into a lather of sexual hypersensitivity. The little hellion stitches together a lurid tale of girl love from separate events — an overheard argument between Martha and her Aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins) here, a late-night chat between Martha and Karen there. Maybe it is all hysteria. But maybe Mary just has the homophobe's natural gaydar: able to detect in others what dominates her own thoughts. Screens Sun., Nov. 14, 3:30 p.m. Image Image Image Image Image