Rearranged chronologically, the thirty films selected for Sapph-O-Rama—the series opening today at New York’s Film Forum and running through February 13—tell a story that zigs and zags from pre-Code comedy through heartbreaking drama and Lez-sploitation to visitations from outer space. As programmers Andrea Torres and Emily Greenberg put it, the history of the lesbian image in cinema is “eccentric, enduring, and genre-encompassing.”
The journey begins with three films made between the two world wars. Salomé (1922) is George Bryant and Alla Nazimova’s “scintillating take on Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and the Old Testament,” writes Pamela Hutchinson. The “transgressive strength of the desire expressed, not just by Salomé but all members of Herod’s court . . . positively crackles with meaningful glances. Kenneth Anger’s assertion that the entire cast and crew were queer may not stand up to rigorous fact-checking, but it is surely easy to believe.”
In London, the BFI is currently presenting A League of Her Own: The Cinema of Dorothy Arzner, a season running throughout the month, and Caroline Cassin suggests that if you’re going to delve into the oeuvre of the woman who was for a time “the only female director working within the Hollywood studio system,” you’d best begin with The Wild Party (1929), starring Clara Bow in her first talkie. Cassin credits critic Helen O’Hara with the observation that The Wild Party is “probably the first American film to deal with the subject of female bonding in a positive, affirming way.”
In Mädchen in Uniform (1931), which is set at an all-girls school in Weimar Germany, director Leontine Sagan “combined stylistic elements from expressionism with then-uncommon naturalistic performances to evoke the tender subjectivity of the young female psyche as it had never been seen,” writes Amanda Lee Koe. “Ripening bodies and psychosexual awakening are hallmarks of many coming-of-age films, but Mädchen in Uniform yokes these thematic attributes with sociopolitical arousal, told through the lens of lesbian eroticism.”
Leaping ahead two decades brings us to Caged (1950), a women-in-prison movie directed by John Cromwell and starring Eleanor Parker. In a 2010 issue of the Noir City Sentinel,Alan K. Rode argued the case for Caged as “classic film noir—not camp cinema.” Doris Day and Joan Crawford revise—and electrify, in searing color—standard myths of the wild, wild West in David Butler’s Calamity Jane (1953) and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), respectively. “Deliriously stylized and subversively gender-bending, Johnny Guitar tramples the genre boundaries of the western like cattle stampeding over a fallen fence,” writes Imogen Sara Smith.
In Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (1968), Beryl Reid plays an alcoholic actress who portrays George, a kindhearted nurse on a BBC soap opera, and loses her girlfriend (Susannah York) to a network executive (Coral Browne). “Aldrich’s film endures not because it’s an example of bad, pre-Stonewall homo images,” wrote Melissa Anderson for Film Comment in 2009, “but because of its sly way of celebrating dykes. Though she has lost both her girlfriend and her job, George is the only character who has not compromised herself or exploited others. Sister George may be the first movie in which an alcoholic, unrepentant butch who molests nuns is redeemed by her unwavering commitment to her sexuality.”
The films in the series from the 1970s offer the titillation of Delphine Seyrig as a vampiric seductress in Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971); Caged Heat (1974), another women-in-prison movie, but starring Barbara Steele, shot by Tak Fujimoto, scored by John Cale, and directed with a warm touch by Jonathan Demme; John Waters’s camp romp Desperate Living (1977) with Mink Stole; and Nouchka van Brakel’s 1979 drama A Woman Like Eve, starring Monique van de Ven as a Dutch housewife who takes a lover played by Maria Schneider.
The ’70s also saw the first narrative feature from Chantal Akerman. In Je tu il elle (1975), she plays Julie, who slowly emerges from the isolation of her apartment, has a quick and impersonal encounter with a truck driver, and then whiles away an afternoon in bed with a former lover (Claire Wauthion). “My God, talk about ahead of her time,” commented Susie Bright in 2012. “A proto-punk dyke protagonist, a butch, a whore, an outlaw, the unrepentant seize-fiend of all she sees . . . We still fight for glimpses of such antiheroines in the movies. Julie/Chantal is, regretfully, still a woman on the edge of antipatriarchal time.”
Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1978) stars Tabea Blumenschein as a leather-clad pirate setting sail, and “unlike many other feminist filmmakers of the 1970s who, following Laura Mulvey’s analysis, were suspicious of visual pleasure in film, [Ulrike] Ottinger has always embraced, even prioritized, its seductions,” writes Patricia White. “The lesbian auteur is a rare figure, perhaps especially now that both terms risk being superseded—lesbian by queer; auteur by brand. But Ottinger’s unique and important place in the New German Cinema and in film history more broadly is found at just that intersection.”
Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983) yanks the series into the ’80s—and beyond. “Imagining a future New York after a social-democratic cultural revolution, the film—shot on Super 16 mm, with scenes captured by multiple camera operators working in short bursts over a period of years—captures the defiant energy of radical downtown New York in the form of the Women’s Liberation Army,” writes So Mayer.Born in Flames “thrums with Borden’s own fluid movement among the art world—she partially funded it by working as a sound editor on a film by sculptor Richard Serra—the cinematic and visual avant-garde, and feminist activism.”
The decade is also represented by Pedro Almodóvar’s Dark Habits (1983), which Cannes rejected, and when it premiered in Venice, some on the organizing committee denounced it for what they perceived as a blasphemous attack on the Catholic Church. Sheila McLaughlin’s She Must Be Seeing Things (1987) “deserves its rightful place among the finer erotic thrillers of this era,” writes Caroline Golum at Screen Slate. “It does more than tick every box—the noir lighting, the cat-and-mouse chase between snoop and femme fatale.”
Then there’s one of the most beloved lesbian love stories of all time. In 2017, B. Ruby Rich wrote that Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts (1985) “plays with tropes established by midcentury lesbian pulp novels (but rejects their requisite endings): one gal is blonde, the other brunette; one is out, the other not. The film’s forward motion is driven by the age-old suspense of the narrative of first love, as conjugated in the language of lesbian romance: will they or won’t they, will she or won’t she, and when? The deliciously languorous pacing and the relative exoticism of the locale conspire to undo the professor and propel her toward her heart’s (and the audience’s) desire.”
Talking to Hillary Weston with Natasha Lyonne, her costar in Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), Clea DuVall says she was “obsessed with” Maria Maggenti’s The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995), an opposites-attract sort of love story set in an all-American high school. Lyonne notes that Cheerleader “speaks to the idea that you can’t buy chemistry. The chemistry between Clea and me was so organic and just imbues the film with so much heart, and that trumps the camp in a way.”
Not long after Doris (Joanna Merlin), a housewife in her early sixties, falls in love with a woman for the first time—Mildred (Kathleen Chalfant), a lifelong lesbian—she’s diagnosed with breast cancer. Berlin’s Arsenal calls Yvonne Rainer’s MURDER and murder (1996) “a soap opera, black comedy, love story, and political meditation at once.” When documentarian Kim Longinotto put Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål (1998) on her list of the ten greatest films of all time for Sight and Sound, she noted that it’s “such a generous, loving film but also very funny.”
Cheryl Dunye stars in her debut feature, The Watermelon Woman (1996), as Cheryl, a clerk in a video store researching a mysterious Black actress known for playing mammy roles in movies during the 1930s. She’s also fending off her coworker’s accusations that what she really wants is to be white. Cassie da Costa notes that “the kind of dexterity and imagination that Dunye had to display in making The Watermelon Woman also happens to be the film’s driving narrative force.”
Da Costa has also written for us about Dee Rees’s first feature, Pariah (2011), which “quickly became a benchmark for where queer coming-of-age cinema could go with a film public that was slowly paying more attention to Black independent storytelling, particularly about Black female sexuality.” Leilah Weinraub’s “seductively illicit and frequently joyous” Shakedown (2018) “lets us voyeuristically enter an underground Black lesbian strip club in the Mid-City neighborhood of Los Angeles and revel in the frenzied atmosphere of exuberant nudity, physical prowess, and, above all, Black queer desire,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook.
In the New York Times,Jeannette Catsoulis found Madeleine Olnek’s “witty ode to urban love and shoestring sci-fi,” Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011), to be an “enormously likable movie keeps sexual politics on the back burner and the universal search for connection front and center.” Alice Wu’s feature debut, Saving Face (2004), was the first movie out of Hollywood to focus on Chinese Americans since The Joy Luck Club (1993).
In the Los Angeles Times,Carina Chocano found Wu’s story of the love between a surgeon (Michelle Krusiec) and a dancer (Lynne Chen) “so deft, natural and exquisitely specific, it feels fresh.” And So Mayer notes that for “its original, moving portrayal of a child fashioning their own gender expression,” Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy (2011) won the queer-themed Teddy Award in Berlin “and was adopted into the French school curriculum, a tribute to Sciamma’s clear, compassionate, and child-centered filmmaking.”
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