ByKen Anderson, writer at
Ken Anderson

Fifty-four years ago, Shirley MacLaine portrayed the screen's first lesbian character in a major motion picture. The year was 1961, and MacLaine made movie history (and cautiously broke down a few barriers) in The Children's Hour, director William Wyler's then-groundbreaking adaptation of Lillian Hellman's 1934 play.

Dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes, Toys in the Attic) had her first major theatrical success in 1934 with the banned-in-Boston stage hit, The Children’s Hour. A shocking-for-its-time play in which the two headmistresses of a girls’ boarding school have their careers and lives ruined by the spread of a malicious rumor of their being illicit lovers in a lesbian relationship.

When William Wyler first adapted Hellman's play for the screen in 1936, the play’s scandalous reputation was such that not only was a title change mandated (The Children’s Hour became These Three), but the "lie with the ounce of truth" was changed from the whisper of lesbianism to the more socially palatable rumor of heteronormative adultery. Instead of an accusation of being in love with each other, the two women were now accused of (yawn) being in love with the same man. Curiously enough, the screenplay for this film, compromises and all, was written by Hellman herself.

Hepburn & MacLaine in The Children's Hour
Hepburn & MacLaine in The Children's Hour

In 1960, in an effort to rectify the compromises he felt imposed upon him by MGM and the Hays Code in 1936, prohibiting either the mention or depiction of homosexuality in any form, William Wyler (Roman Holiday, Funny Girl) returned to The Children's Hour, vowing to make a more faithful version of the play. Even going so far as to say he’d be willing to release his film without the MPAA seal of approval if need be. (Many newspapers at the time refused to carry ads for films lacking the Production Code seal. Similarly, many theaters wouldn’t exhibit non-approved films.)

Securing the talents of Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as the would-be lovers, Wyler announced that his remake was to be “A clean film with a highly moral story!” As indeed it proved to be, since the word “lesbian” was never be uttered, and the film ended with the oh-so-moral suicide of the only gay character in the film.

But as coy and quaint as The Children's Hour seems today, the sympathetic depiction of a lesbian character was a big deal in 1961. Shirley Maclaine has expressed disappointment that the film wasn't ultimately as daring as Wyler had promised, but she's proud that her sensitive performance at least in some small way, nudged open the door toward a more authentic depiction of gays in motion pictures.

Rooney Mara & Cate Blanchett in Carol
Rooney Mara & Cate Blanchett in Carol

Whatever frankness and emotional authenticity director Todd Haynes is able to bring to the relationship at the center of the lesbian love story, Carol ( star Rooney Mira frequently dresses as if to intentionally evoke the image of Audrey Hepburn), is at least in part due to the hesitant but well-intentioned efforts of Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn, and William Wyler back in 1961.

Read the rest of this article and find out more about The Children's Hour HERE

Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For...


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