Just over four decades ago, cinematic history was made. Two men kissed in the 1971 movie “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” directed by John Schlesinger. This groundbreaking film, the first to portray bisexuality and queer characters kissing and loving, without judgment, is just out on DVD and Blu-ray.
Intimacy in TV and movies from “Glee” to “The New Normal” to “The Kids Are All Right” is now so common that we forget it wasn’t always so. In “Hope Springs,” the recent Meryl Streep/Tommy Lee Jones rom-com, Streep’s character even turns to a LGBT sex guide to recharge her love life.
Yet, entertainment media only recently became besotted with gay smooching. We had to wait for Mitchell and Cameron to pucker up in “Modern Family” and queer kissing in movies wasn’t that mainstream before “Brokeback Mountain.” While my 84-year-old stepmom said the other day, “Why shouldn’t gay people kiss in movies? They’re getting married now,” I bet some folks still don’t want queer lip lock at their cineplex.
When “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was first released, audiences were stunned to see two male characters, Daniel (Peter Finch), a gay doctor, and Bob (Murray Head), a bisexual artist, kiss. Especially, because Daniel and Bob’s exchange of affection is presented as a normal part of life – as being no more unnatural than when Bob kisses Alex (Glenda Jackson) an employment consultant. (The movie, which takes place in Great Britain, is the story of a love triangle. Alex and Daniel are both Bob’s lovers.)
Critics loved “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and the film, which appeared on many 1971 best movie lists, received four Academy Award nominations and won several BAFTA awards (the British Oscars). More important than any Oscar nods, “Sunday” has been a life-line for many of us who grew up queer. Gay writer Michael Cunningham has said that the film “saved my life.”
I’ll never forget when I, a young lesbian, first saw “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in the mid-1970s in Boston. Then, not that long after Stonewall, I’d seen few people like me, in real or reel life. Decriminalization of homosexuality had only begun in Great Britain in 1967. The American Psychiatric Association had only recently said you were mentally ill if you were gay, and most of us were far from being out and proud.
It’s hard to imagine the impact of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” now that LGBT celebs host awards shows, same-sex couples marry in some states and gays and lesbians serve their country openly in uniform.
But back in the day, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was as life changing and exhilarating as the advent of penicillin or seeing an astronaut on the moon. Watching its queer characters (who weren’t sinners, sad, confused or crazy) kiss, love and live their lives just as the straight characters lived and loved, brought many of us out of our guilt-ridden closet. Schlesinger’s moving movie moved us into the light of day. Engrossed in the film, I for the first time, saw that I, too, could be gay and live my life without shame.
Schlesinger told honest stories about real people and real emotions, said William J. Mann, author of “Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger,” in an interview featured on the “Sunday Bloody Sunday” DVD. Schlesinger, who was gay and died in 2003, “was reflecting his own search for love,” Mann said.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday” was groundbreaking not only because it presents same-sex attraction, but bisexuality as a normal part of life. “What John was saying … was that this was just one aspect of who these people are,” Mann said, “We shouldn’t centralize it in such a way that makes it bigger or somehow more removed from the way it really is in their life.”
“Sunday Bloody Sunday” is as engaging today as when it first came out. Check out this film that made LGBT screen history.