That Mad Secret Code: Terry Castle on the Covert Enticements of Old Screen Lesbianism


The incomparable Terry Castle is our foremost scholar of lesbian culture, both high and low. Reached by phone at her home in San Francisco, Castle, 62, professor of humanities at Stanford and author of the essay collection The Professor (2010) and many other books, spoke with typical acumen, passion, and humor about some of the sapphic-centered titles in the FSLC’s “Queer Cinema Before Stonewall” series.

You’ve called Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (1968) “a revolution in awareness still waiting to happen.” What exactly did you mean?

I meant that I’m starting to look increasingly like Beryl Reid in her dotage [laughs]. What I find amazing about that movie is that it really tackles what were, at the time, extraordinarily taboo topics. And the picturing of lesbianism is — or lesbian domesticity, at least — frankly, quite bizarre.

To put it mildly, yes.

It could be seen as not an advertisement for a lesbian lifestyle [laughs]. It’s comical, but the relationship between Sister George and Childie is almost Grand Guignol. But also — maybe this is just my own eccentricity — I think it’s an incredibly hot film in a way that wasn’t duplicated for a long time. Especially when Coral Browne enters the mise-en-scène.

I know you have a soft spot for Coral Browne. What about her do you find so alluring?

It’s been a while since I watched the film, but what I’m remembering is the Susannah York character lying in bed, and Coral Browne standing, or sitting, on the edge of her bed and then making these ambiguous moves that are also very enticing. I mean, she looks so fascinatingly uptight.

Dorothy Arzner, whose wonderful proto-lesbo romp The Wild Party (1929) is also being shown in the series, had a very successful career in Hollywood despite her flamboyantly masculine appearance and sartorial style. Do you, as I do, marvel that Arzner flourished in the studio system despite her dapper-dyke looks?

I know absolutely what you’re talking about. There’s a kind of uncanniness for a lot of very prominent or accomplished lesbians pre-Stonewall. To my mind, the person who does it first is Gertrude Stein. You look at film clips of her and her salon and you think, All these people who came to see her — did they not understand the nature of the ménage that they were visiting? But it’s like nothing needs to be said. There isn’t anything to say; it just is. I feel with the austere butch [style] of Dorothy Arzner that it’s just a fact of how things are rather than a statement. We tend to think of everything these days as performative, as self-consciously ironic, or even histrionic. But with both Stein and Arzner, I have a sense of an unmediated “I am; this is me.”

The Wild Party and other titles in the FSLC retro, such as Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform (1931) and Radley Metzger’s Therese and Isabelle (1968), are set in all-girls schools and center on love either between students or between a student and a female teacher. What makes the classroom such a catalyst for lavender desire?

The obvious answer is simply a kind of sex segregation that boys and young men had always had. When you look at something like Mädchen in Uniform, in the 1930s the all-woman university is still a fairly recent phenomenon. Whenever you group together people who are all the same sex, I think there is a reactive, homoerotic quality that gets triggered. It’s the concentration on the proximity, on the fact that there’s no other place to put your gaze. Teachers are the first adults that you get to look at freely. You can stare at them and take note of everything. You’re sitting there — especially if you’re a good student, sensitive, wanting approval — for hours every week staring at this person. I think there is something about the pedagogic relationship that makes it particularly fertile for lesbian looking and lesbian loving.

I’m moved by this line you have from the title essay in The Professor about Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 masterpiece: “That we shared the same favorite film, Persona, was simply more dextrose to mainline…. From such giddy chitchat — a sort of mad secret code by which we made our desires both known and not known.” Do you think that shared love of a film can today serve as a “mad secret code”? If not, is there something lost by this?

Today we have this proliferation of “lesbiana” in the form of websites, films, and everything else. I suspect that there are still some benighted places where this sort of discovery is possible, like in the great American heartland, especially in pockets of religious communities, people raised as Mormons or Fundamentalist Christians. Where, yes, if you were enterprising, you could find these things quicker than I did. But in a way I have a kind of nostalgia for that period when nobody talked about anything [laughs]. Because it was a wonderful world when nobody talked about anything; it made everything so exciting. You felt as if you almost were inventing it yourself. And there’s something exhilarating and thrilling about that. At the same time, it was horrendously lonely for people and especially young women. So I’m of mixed minds about that phenomenon. It would be interesting to watch Persona again because I don’t think I’ve seen it since college. But then locked into my mind [is] the enigmatic moment, the most famous moment in the film, when the faces of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson merge in this strange overlay effect. For me, that was all it took — that was it! I realize there must have been more story around it; one of them was the nurse and the other one was having a nervous breakdown. But the emotional core of it is simply that stunning image. You’re making me want to go rent videos [laughs].