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Dyke Jones? Pussy Galore!

"If you stay here too long, you don't think of guys at all. You get out of the habit." Film Forum might as well post this warning from the bleak 1950 noir Caged during its touching, sexy, sad, and often hilarious "Sapph-o-Rama" series. Books like Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet and Andrea Weiss's Vampires and Violets have chronicled the negative portrayals of lesbians in film, but the passage of time allows us to empathize with these drunken bulldaggers in doomed relationships and other larger-than-life characters. "Sapph-o-Rama" demonstrates that our definition of a "lesbian cult classic" is now wide enough to include the coming-out favorite Desert Hearts and the trashiest lesboploitation. Here's a handy guide to the spectacular array of lesbian film formulas, in all their tawdry glory.

Shut up and strip Boarding schools, bordellos, high-level athletics, prisons: These single-sex institutions inevitably lead to communal showering, catfights, and sexual experimentation. Figures of authority like teachers and madames can be brutally repressive and fiercely sexy, a dichotomy graphically embodied by Agnes Moorehead's reformist superintendent and Hope Emerson's sadistic warden in Caged.

Make that a double For years, the portrayal of lesbians as butches with chemical dependencies was deemed homophobic, but it's easier now to appreciate the humanity behind the clichés. From alcoholic writer Djuna Barnes (in the documentary Paris Was a Woman) to fictional junkies like Patricia Clarkson in High Art, "Sapph-o-Rama" is full of hard-living, hard-partying gals. Even the wholesome Canadians in Forbidden Love indulge in crème de menthe.

Caged heat: Agnes Moorehead reforms Eleanor Parker.
photo: Film Forum/Photofest
Caged heat: Agnes Moorehead reforms Eleanor Parker.

I'll love you until I die—or kill someone Shirley MacLaine hanged herself in The Children's Hour, Ally Sheedy OD'd in High Art, Carmilla got a stake through the heart in The Vampire Lovers: For decades, lesbians have either met a violent death or been abandoned for a man. In The Fox, Sandy Dennis got crushed by a tree and girlfriend Anne Heywood shacked up with Keir Dullea—a fate worse than death!

So, like, do you have a girlfriend? Ah, lesbian teens, so adorable in their confusion and school uniforms. In Show Me Love, one of the lesser-known and most appealing entries in the series, two girls fall in love in a backwater Swedish town. Back in New York, Alison Folland gives a searing performance as a teen lusting after her best friend in All Over Me. But the world of teendom is at its most white-hot crazed in the brilliant Heavenly Creatures, in which Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey obsess over Mario Lanza and kill Lynskey's mom.

Angst in my pants Greta Garbo wore velvet pants in Queen Christina, while Doris Day opted for leather in Calamity Jane, and Beryl Reid and Susannah York dressed up as Laurel and Hardy in Sister George. Once they might have been mocked for mannishness; now we daydream about what exactly Doris was packing.

Hot for teacher The oldest trick in the book of sapphic love is the seduction of a young girl by an older woman. In Mädchen in Uniform, teacher Dorothea Wieck entranced student Hertha Thiele; in Walk on the Wild Side, bordello madame Barbara Stanwyck kept Frenchy sculptress Capucine; in Daughters of Darkness, centuries-old Delphine Seyrig was accompanied by spring chick Andrea Rau. And let's not forget Catherine Deneuve, the sexiest 2000-year-old to ever suck, er, blood.

Crashing waves and ripening fruit To circumvent restrictive film codes, directors often resorted to metaphors and allegories. In The Vampire Lovers, for instance, young Emma recounts a "strange and lifelike" dream to sapphic blood-guzzler Carmilla: "A cat comes, sits at the foot of my bed, and it reaches towards me, and I try to scream but my throat is strangled. And it lies across me, warm and heavy, and I feel its fur in my mouth, and I retch with fear, and then . . . it turns into you, Carmilla!" If this is too hard to decipher, try women drinking each other's blood (Daughters of Darkness, The Vampire Lovers), energetically riding horses (Queen Christina), and obsessively training in track and field (Personal Best).

 
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