Forget the Buzzfeed style "X" Best Lesbian Movies to Watch" - they are doing it for clickbait to drive traffic to their site (I am an SEO). Why is my "Best Lesbian Movies to Watch" noteworthy?
Pish! I didn't go to an all-girls day school! Pish! None of my uni friends were lezzas. Pish! I didn't have a milk bottle serendipity meeting of eyes... Only in Milano, while working there, I met and created a pose of lovely gay boyfriends and with their sweet encouragement took my huge leap to enter, by myself, a lezza club (didn't help much as the stunning lesbians never approached me, as I was the straniero scozzese). So in the meantime, I looked to lesbian films to discover who I was. Some lesbian movies made me want to run in front of a double-decker bus, but, a few eventually tipped me over the edge.
Forgive my art house cinema snobbery (I worked at a slick cinema while studying), at first, I included only my fav slick lesbian movies. Then I became aware of the Hays Code (set of film industry guidelines for the self-censorship between 1934 to 1968 which claused "Any inference of sex perversion") and was then intrigued ......of the merits of some of these movies, I am still incredibly grateful for the filmmakers who made them and the to see over cinematic history how lesbians have been portrayed in film. Though this is not a definitive list of lesbian movies, I have included the good, the bad and the ugly (e.g. Chasing Amy - grrrrr and, yep, I omitted The Kids Are All Right!). Regardless, actresses who starred in them - some actresses declined roles because of religion and their husbands.
What pricked up my ears:
The Hays Code
In America, The Motion Picture Production Code (a.k.a The Hays Code, named after its creator Will H. Hays), first published in March 1930, introduced film censorship in the US through stating a series of guidelines to film producers. The Hays Code directly influenced the content of almost every American film made between 1930 and 1966, when the Motion Picture Association of America introduced a ratings system.
The Hays Code was based on three general principles: - No movie shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin. - Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented. - Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
These were developed into a series of rules: Crimes Against The Law, Sex, Vulgarity, Obscenity, Profanity, Costume, Dances (i.e. suggestive movements), Religion, Locations (i.e. the bedroom), National Feelings, Titles and "Repellent Subjects" (extremely graphic violence).
Consequently the only way to circumvent the code was by painting homosexuals as villains and that they always paid for their crimes. In addition, original theatre plays and novels which were more out, were modified accordingly for movie versions.
The Sapphic Movie Early Stereotypes
Due to the Hays Code many of the movies featured obsessive older mannish woman who lechered over young femme woman and "Bull daggers" who were consequently doomed to punishment (Rebecca's housekeeper, All About Eve's fan, Walk on the Wild Side possessive Madame). Then there were the boarding school/ uni romances (The Wild Party, Mädchen in Uniform, Olivia...) perhaps reflecting at the time that male homosexuality was a crime and for many countries sapphic love was not a crime. Even international directors who did not need to adhere to the code... The Killing of Sister George seriously freaked me out, and I couldn't watch it all. And seriously lesbian vampire movies?
The Sapphic Movie Titillations
Again, I cringe at the thought of the lesbian vampire movie genre. Forgive me if I can your knickers in a twist but I do question some male directors as to why they made sapphic movies even if they were art house cimena heroes such as Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Ingmar Bergman's Persona, and other male directors like Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy.. and now I hear screams from you for Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is The Warmest Color. And why some male directors had to include an unnecessary lezza kiss, take 1: e.g. Basic Instincts, Cruel Intentions, Spring Breakers...
The Sapphic Movie Trailblazers
I salute the early lesbian directors like Alice Guy-Blaché for dressing up as husband in her 1902 - Sage Femme De Première Classe and Dorothy Arzner for her 1929 - The Wild Party. Then Katharine Hepburn for her gender-bending role in 1935 - Sylvia Scarlett when the Hays code was five years in place and the 1961 - The Children's Hour even though it had to be cut. For me the Hunger, Desert Hearts, The Colour Purple kicked it off, on mainstream. Bravo and thank you to the heroic woman directors who really felt what they were directing and to some of the boys who so warmly directed their movies. Without some of these movies and no lucky strike, chance meeting, for sure I would have been deliberating longer to step into my first lezza club!
Young couple go shopping for a baby, where babies are born in a cabbage patch...
Translated as Midwife to the Upper Class. The female director (Alice Guy) plays the husband - trailblazing for movies at the time.
Dir: Alice Guy-Blaché | Alice Guy-Blaché & Yvonne Serand
Sortie girl discovers a magic seed that can make women act like men and vice versa. She takes one, then slips one to her maid and her philandering fiancé...
Believed to be the first documented appearance of bisexual characters in an American movie.
Dir: Sidney Drew | Edith Storey
A femme fatale's charms and unrepressed nature brings ruin to her numerous admirers including the Countess "Tuxedo" and eventually, to herself.
Pandora's Box: French censors thought it indecent for a father and son pursue the same woman so they changed the silent movie titles from son to male secretary and the lezza Countess became her childhood friend.
Dir: G. W. Pabst | Louise Brooks & Alice Roberts
Party girl falls in love with her Prof but is berated by him for her plagiarisation. Studious girl friend dissuades her from leaving so party girl takes it upon herself to educate studious girl about men...
Eyes wide open for Sapphic hints via ambiguous looks, embraces, party girl's role of protector...
Dir: Dorothy Arzner | Clara Bow & Marceline Day
Cabaret singer and Legionnaire fall in love in Morocco while being pursued by others. Punished for a previous clandestine relationship, Legionnaire is ordered on a new mission...
Legendary for Dietrich performing in tophat and tails and, erotically kissing a woman on screen
Dir: Josef von Sternberg | Marlene Dietrich
Lonely girl at an German all-girls boarding school, develops a crush on a teacher. Following a school play's after party, go-girl, she declares her love in front of guests and students...
One of the earliest movies to explicitly portray homosexuality & sapphic love
Dir: Leontine Sagan | Hertha Thiele & Dorothea Wieck
Cross dressing Queen Christina of Sweden falls in love with the Roman Catholic Spanish ambassador and must choose between the throne or him, while kissing her maid of honor!
The ambassador romance is fiction. In real life, Christina was devoted to her maid of honor.
Dir: Rouben Mamoulian | Greta Garbo & Elizabeth Young
Young girl must become young boy to avoid detection when her father and her flee to England from a French embezzlement charge. In England she continues her disguise and is admired by both sexes.
Though a box office disaster it is now considered as ahead of its time for it's themes of sexual politics.
Dir: George Cukor | Katharine Hepburn & Natalie Paley
Schoolteacher starts dating the local doctor unware her best friend and colleague is in love with HIM too. Nasty student kicks-off a malicious lie that the doctor is having a clandestine affair with schoolteacher's friend...
First film version of The Children's Hour using a hetty triangle rather than the play's original lesbian theme.
Dir: William Wyler | Miriam Hopkins & Merle Oberon
Gauche girl adjusts to her new role as an aristocrat's wife and living in the shadow of his first wife, Rebecca. The housekeeper, obsessed by Rebecca, tries to drive new wife into madness. Spooky.
The Hays Code prohibited any outright hint of a lesbian infatuation or relationship between the housekeeper and Rebecca.
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock | Joan Fontaine & Judith Anderson
Besotted Fan, Eve, waits backstage to meet her idol, an aging Broadway Star. Charmed, The Star takes her under their wing. Eve is caught taking a bow to an empty theatre while pretending to wear The Star's costume...
Eyes Wide Open: Eve's obsession, walking arm-in-arm up the stairs with another girl in their robes, Star: "You'd tuck me into bed if I asked..", Eve: "If you like...? "
Dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz | Bette Davis & Anne Baxter
English teenager is sent to a French finishing school, where she develops a crush on headmistress, Mlle. Julie, much to the dismay of jealous mathematics teacher and co-founder Mlle. Cara... jealous over who? And is Mlle. Julie a predator?
Only three men speak in the film and they remain faceless and nameless figures of authority.
Dir: Jacqueline Audry | Edwige Feuillère & Simone Simon
Torn Girl is attends a masked ball in celebration of her cousin's upcoming marriage. Fireworks disturb an ancestral catacomb. The spirit of a vengeful female vampire is awakened and possesses Torn Girl, who then preys on women in her village...
Based on the novella Carmilla (1872) by Sheridan Le Fanu which is more out than the movie. The movie spawned the lesbian vampire genre!
Dir: Roger Vadim | Mel Ferrer & Elsa Martinelli
Bordello Girl, a French artist wearing Pierre Cardin, is the main attraction for clients and her Madame at seedy The Doll House, New Orleans. Her life is disrupted by the arrival of her former boyfriend, her true love but her possessive Madame wont let Bordello Girl leave easily...
Though the relationship between the Madam and Bordello Girl is coded to adhere to the Hays Code, Stanwyck is clearly recognised as Lezza.
Dir: Edward Dmytryk | Capucine & Barbara Stanwyck
Clairvoyant Girl, dressed in Mary Quant, and Psychic Girl are invited with others to prove whether or not creepy old Hill House, whose inhabitants have always met with violent death and insanity, is haunted... Scary
In the original novel Clairvoyant Girl's lesbianism is subtly mentioned but in the the film it is explicit and, ignored the censors demand that she never be shown to touch Psychic Girl.
Dir: Robert Wise | Julie Harris & Claire Bloom
Famed stage actress drys during a performance and the next day lapses into total silence. Advised by her doctor to take time off to recover she goes to a beach house on the Baltic Sea with a nurse...
Though not a lezzer film there are Sapphic undertones through the intimate cinematographic compositions. Iconic art house movie.
Dir: Ingmar Bergman | Liv Ullmann & Bibi Andersson
Female couple struggle to support themselves by raising chickens on an isolated farm in rural Canada. A merchant seaman arrives in search of his grandfather, the former owner of the farm...
Based on the 1923 novella (a work of fiction between 20,000 and 49,999 words) of the same title by D. H. Lawrence. The movie won a Golden Globe for Best English-Language Foreign Film.
Dir: Mark Rydell | Sandy Dennis & Anne Heywood
Aging lezzer actress lives with her young lover. She plays a cheerful scooter-riding district nurse, Sister George, in a long-running BBC soap opera. Recently, several of the characters have been killed off, causing her to worry if her's might be next...
Though this is a cult film, it freaked me out so much I abandoned it (completely rare for me!)
Dir: Robert Aldrich | Beryl Reid & Susannah York
Reminiscing woman, after a 20 year, visits the swiss boarding school of her youth. While strolling the deserted grounds she flashbacks to rebellious girl...
Based on the erotica novel Thérèse et Isabelle (1966) by Violette Leduc.
Dir: Radley Metzger | Essy Persson & Anna Gaël
Vixen vampiress seduces and kills women to appease her insatiable thirst for female blood! Faster pussy cat, kill, kill, kill!
The soundtrack to Vampyros Lesbos was released as Vampyros Lesbos: Sexadelic Dance Party.
Dir: Jesús Franco | Soledad Miranda & Ewa Strömberg
German successful fashion designer is in a sado-masochistic relationship with her female assistant. Enter an attractive young woman...
Respect to Fassbinder, yet too sado and claustrophic for me.
Dir: Fassbinder | Margit Carstensen & Hanna Schygulla
Young female army recruit has a secret relationship with her female army superior. Forced to leave her position in the forces, she later meets up with the army superior...
Girl is actually the UK's first television lezzer kiss - 20 years before The Brookside Kiss! Before Girl was transmitted the controller of BBC2 gave a special warning announcement. Trumpet accolade & pull the party poppers!
Dir: Peter Gill | Myra Frances & Alison Steadman
Three posh schoolgirls and their teacher, from an all-girls boarding school, vanish without a trace during a picnic at Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia, on Valentine's Day in 1900. Their disappearance haunts the people left behind...
Such teases... opening ethereal scene, pan-pipe score: a Boticelli beauty tells a cute girl that she will soon leave and so she should find someone else to love.
Dir: Peter Weir | Anne-Louise Lambert...
Ambitious girl athlete competes for the USA Olympic trials while bouncing between the beds of her male coach and her female friend, competitor, and role model.
One of the 80s breakthrough movies to feature gay/bisexual partnerships and drag characters.
Dir: Robert Towne | Stars: Mariel Hemingway & Patrice Donnelly
Jewish refugee from Belgium living in occupied France in 1942 marries a discharged military officer to avoid being deported to a concentration camp. By chance she meets an artist...
Based on Diane Kurys' parents and the woman that came between them.
Dir: Diane Kurys | Miou‑Miou & Isabelle Huppert
Sophisticated vampiress's male lover is dying so he seeks the help of a doctor, who specialises in aging. The Dr comes looking for her patient at his home but is greeted by the vampiress...
Edinburgh Odeon, I overheard many girls hyperventilating during white t-shirt, wine-spill. Exquisite cinematography and soundtrack.
Dir: Tony Scott | Catherine Deneuve & Susan Sarandon
Posh Bostonian suffragette and her Mississippi lawyer cousin have eyes for a faith healer's gregarious daughter...
Based on Henry James' 1886 novel The Bostonians which was inspired by his sister Alice, who lived with another woman in Boston. The book is likely to have spurned the term a "Boston marriage" which was historically used to describe the cohabitation of two wealthy women who were independent of the financial support of a man.
Dir: James Ivory | Vanessa Redgrave & Jessica Tandy
Jewish woman in Eastern Europe, 1904, wants to study the Talmud but this is a right reserved solely for men. When her father dies, she disguises herself as a man in order to gain admission to a Jewish religious school...
Streisand's film directorial debut - she became the first woman to win the Golden Globe for Best Director. Not gay yet worthy of a mention.
Dir: Barbra Streisand | Barbra Streisand & Amy Irving
Uptight woman Professor, in the 1950s, goes to a Nevada ranch to establish six weeks of residency in order to obtain a quickie divorce. She becomes drawn (aye :) to the ranch owner's daughter.
Slick: "Hungarian Gambler" saying: If you don't play, you can't win = Director Donna Deitch (Cameo). LOVED IT - one of the 1st relatable lesbian movies at the time, for me.
Dir: Donna Deitch | Patricia Charbonn & Helen Shaver
A black Southern American woman struggles to find her identity after suffering abuse from her father and others over four decades.
The book is explicit about the sexual encounters between Celie and Shug and that they are in love. Movie Cop out! Worse still, for circa 5 years, award-winning author Alice Walker got such an awful backlash from the Afro-American male community - watch the doc Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth.
Dir: Steven Spielberg | Whoopi Goldberg & Margaret Avery