Mad Scenes

By Madam Bubby


Usually a “mad scene” specifically refers to a particular scene from an opera written by bel canto composers of the early 19th century, such as Donizetti and Bellini. A soprano, usually suffering from a romantic love crisis, goes insane, and expresses her insanity, paradoxically, in difficult, complicated coloratura passages that require great vocal control.

The most famous occurs in the opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Lucia, in love with the family enemy Edgardo, is forced to marry someone her brother chooses, Arturo. Lucia kills Arturo on her wedding night. I grew up hearing the gay icon Maria Callas singing this scene on record, and I was mesmerized that she was able to invest the scene with such drama and a dark, complex timbre. Here was no Snow White singing tra la la to the birds. But, interestingly enough, the opera does not end with the mad scene. Lucia dies offstage, and her lover, Edgardo, kills himself. He actually gets a kind of tenor mad scene. But it’s generally the ladies who go mad, which reflects quite blatantly the misogynistic Victorian view that women, the "weaker sex," were more prone to mental disturbance: potential hysterics.


Callas as Lucia

Callas as Lucia


The mad scene by the middle of the last century started moving to the end of movies, crystallizing to some extent in the grand dame guignol movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The end of Sunset Boulevard, the famous “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille,” scene of Norma Desmond, deconstructs the mad scenes of operas, because she thinks she is playing the necrophiliac Salome. One even hears a bit of music from the Strauss opera as she descends the staircase (that prop usually occurs in Lucia mad scenes). In fact, by the time Strauss wrote his opera Salome, one could even say the female protagonists of many operas written by that time were mad for the entire opera (or most of the time).


Noma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard

Norma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard


Thus, Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? dancing on the beach with ice cream cones and others of her ilk come out of a rich tradition. The director Robert Aldrich really seemed to build his grande dame guignol films toward a final mad scene for the female protagonist, though in his underrated Autumn Leaves shows a male, played by Cliff Robertson, going mad, and he gets several scenes, but the most terrifying one occurs at about midpoint.

But it is also a scene of horrifying domestic violence (he throws a typewriter at his wife, played by Joan Crawford, after slapping her around). Like Edgardo in Lucia, he accuses her of treachery, but she is innocent. In reality, his father slept with his now former wife (she a willing accomplice), and discovering them together precipitated his descent into what, based on the movie, is paranoid schizophrenia.


Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves


Aldrich created another mad scene in The Killing of Sister George, a groundbreaking LGBTQ movie on so many levels, not only for its filming a scene in an actual lesbian bar, but, for the fact that the protagonist, June Buckridge played by Beryl Reid (known as George because of the character she plays in a soap opera, Sister George, a jovial country nurse in an English village) is out and proud as a lesbian. Many critics today tend to place this move in the “self-hating” LGBTQ subgrenre. Yes, George is certainly not the most stable person. She yells a lot, drinks a lot, and certainly, which one could argue isn’t really a character flaw in some of the situations she encounters, shows no compunction about telling some persons off in not the most dainty language.

Her relationship with Alice does not strike one as being the healthiest by today’s standards. I remember watching the scene where George, always jealous, punishes Alice for a supposed flirting (with a man) by making her kneel before her and eat her cigar. For the mid 1960s, this scene was risqué, and I perceived that perhaps there was some element of BDSM play involved, but it also seems to be moving into the realm of emotional abuse. And it’s not Alice as the victim of the “bull dyke” George. Alice is blatantly egging her on, and by pretending to enjoy eating the cigar; yes, she does take back control of the dynamic, knowing she is hurting George by, as George both yells and cries, “ruining” it.

Thus, one can see the characters aren’t camp caricatures. The character George plays gets killed off in the series (hence the title), and the fate of her career and relationship gets wound up in the machinations of the cliched reptilian predatory lesbian, played by Coral Browne.

Spoiler alert: she loses her job and her lover; the Coral Browne character in a scene of underhanded viciousness at George’s farewell party at the television studio suggests she get a job playing the voice of a cow in an animated puppets series for children. A gut-wrenching scene occurs when Alice leaves her. Reid masterfully plays it as both horribly hurt and horribly angry together, the emotion much like that of another spurned operatic character, Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana (from the time of whole “mad operas”). Shortly thereafter, George enters the empty studio, smashes the camera equipment, and beings mooing like a cow. She is wordless. No romantic words, no ecstatic high notes like Lucia sings, no cameras for a Norma Desmond close-up.


Beryl Reid as George in The Killing of Sister George

Beryl Reid as George in The Killing of Sister George


But, is she really mad? Does she really enter another reality like Lucia and Norma Desmond and Baby Jane? She’s not fantasizing about a marriage that never took place, and she’s not retreating into memories of a forever lost stardom. It seems she’s justifiably enraged, but also, given her indomitable character, understanding that she will do that job. She knows she has lost. She knows it’s degrading.

And like many LGBTQ persons, she knows who she is, and because she knows, she can choose, or at least to try and choose, what happens in her life. What’s sad is that she feels like she can only choose her losses. I just wonder if she’s really at the same level of victimization and its sister, in those cases, madness as the Romantic heroines of opera or the characters like Baby Jane who are both torturer and victim in grande dame guignol cinema.

Similarly, the complex dynamic where the madness, or appearance of madness, exists perhaps to crystallize at the highest level of tension the torturer/victim binary appears in a classic gay porn movie, Drive, directed by Jack Deveau (which Bijou carries on DVD and Streaming). The mad lead character/anti-hero Arachne plots to kidnap a scientist and eliminate everyone’s sex drive.


Christopher Rage as Arachne in Drive

Christopher Rage as Arachne in Hand in Hand Films' Drive (1974)


Arachne (played by legendary director Christopher Rage, here billed as Mary Jim Sstunning, in a script written by Rage) certainly camps it up as she attempts to set her diabolical plot in motion. But the movie unveils at the end how the one who desires to castrate is actually ferociously repressing her own sexuality. She is last seen in a dungeon with the men she had imprisoned. Secret agent Clark liberates the prisoners, and Arachne is left alone. But this whole mad porn opera contains a moment of somber lucidity. Arachne holds a glass bottle with a severed penis. She knows she is forever trapped in a cycle of endless desire like a spider in a web, consuming its mates but never satiated:

I hunted at night until it wasn’t enough to hunt only at night, and then I hunted during the day too. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. My thoughts were only of hard bodies, rigid with the desire for me — beautiful men swollen with the need for me. They were all around me and I chose the ones who looked most eager.

“Until I saw a man who was so perfect, with a hunger in his eyes that reflected my own hunger — and I knew he was the one. I knew we could feed from each other, claw at each other with a need we didn’t care to understand.

“Drugged with desire for each other’s hot naked skin, tense muscles pushing — and then filling me with his need, white and hot. Crushing me with his strong arms, pressing down on me and into me, until I closed my eyes with the ecstasy and perfection of him, and I screamed for him — and I screamed for me. 

“And I opened my eyes and I was alone.

“And I vowed then that I would bring an end to it all. Man would have to search no more: Arachne would be the answer.”

She knows. She knows who she is, ultimately more frightening than the mad scene at the end, which usually ends in the liberation of death.

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By Josh Eliot


At the same time I started shooting Valley of the Bi-Dolls, the general manager of Catalina Video had a light bulb go off in his head. Let’s just say that light bulb was more of a fluorescent, as opposed to a tungsten lamp that we used for filming to give us fabulous lighting. The fluorescent may have been a practical option when GE developed it from the discoveries of Jacques Risler in 1934, but the execution never really materialized as top notch. I always feel like I look ten years older and twenty years more exhausted when standing in a room lit by fluorescents. The idea from my general manager ended up being just as disappointing.

When I was casting for Valley of the Bi Dolls in 1993, thanks to Chi Chi LaRue, I was able to connect with the main agent representing the very top straight adult film starlets of the time. Though it was exciting to think about working with top-notch girls for Valley, I was turned down time after time by most of them. As I mentioned in the past, there was a stigma involved when it came to bisexual movies. Even though by this point things were slightly turning around, the straight industry was slow to get on board the “acceptance wagon.”

I had already cast Sharon Kane in the lead, who in turned recommended Gloria Leonard for the non-sexual “Helen Lawson” character and luckily, through an agent, Leanna Foxxx was on board. In addition, which was shocking to hear at the time, Peter North (Matt Ramsey) also agreed to do the straight scene with Leanna Foxxx. It really was a coup for me to have all these big names, which was unheard of at the time in a bisexual movie. I was pouring everything I had mentally into this movie and I wanted the cast to be all A-List! So I kept trying, but was turned down by Diedre Holland, Melanie Moore, Debi Diamond and Teri Divers. When I shared some of the names that turned me down with Catalina’s manager, that’s when the light bulb went off in his head.


A-List stars of the 1990s Debi Diamond, Teri Divers, Diedre Holland and Melanie Moore

A-List stars of the 1990s


Catalina had long wanted to tap into the girl-girl market; not the straight girl-girl audience, but the lesbian audience. The idea of having all A-List girls in our movie, in his mind, would give us an edge, and he proposed that it would be directed by a lesbian director for a lesbian audience. The top starlets had no problem whatsoever shooting an all-girl movie, so getting them to sign on the dotted line was easy. Of course, there was the small technicality of not having a lesbian director on staff to coincide with our manager’s plans to publicize the movie in the gay press as lesbian-made. I told him I would start the search for a lesbian director to join our team, but he wanted that gal to be me (not so forward thinking after all, was he?). We bantered back and forth but he was adamant, so I to accepted the assignment. Catalina’s instant new director “Tori Sterling” was born. A pseudonym I came up with by combining Tori Spelling and Matt Sterling, and the movie would be called The Women.


The Women original one-sheet

The Women original one-sheet


I came up with the title based on the Joan Crawford / Norma Shearer / Rosalind Russell / Paulette Goddard / Joan Fontaine 1939 film from director George Cukor. Get the connection? The actresses in the 1939 film (fabulous movie, I might add) were all A-List or up-and-coming A-Listers of the time. The Women would be a classy, glossy, high end production... albeit with its slashed budget of only $10,000, because he knew we could shoot multiple sex scenes in fewer days as there were no hard-ons or cum shots needed. We shot in two days. The girls were fabulous, creative, inventive, and great with their lines, which was really quite a delight! They taught me some really good positions and actions that I could apply to all-male movies, especially with their pussy eating techniques, which I could apply to future boy-boy rim scenes. It was exciting for me to be around and work with the “it” girls of the time and I never really felt intimidated by their presence, which was a nice surprise. All in all, the movie looked beautiful, top-notch and well shot. The only problem? I’m not a lesbian director!


Ad for The Women in Nightlife Magazine, 1994

Ad for The Women in Nightlife Magazine, 1994


We ran several promotions for the movie in the press, including the one shown here in Nightlife Magazine. Really pressing home the “made in the USA” vibe of “lesbian-made.” You can walk like a duck, fuck like a fuck, suck like a duck, but you’ll never taste as delicious as Peking Duck if you aren’t a duck inside and out. There’s no way, as a 31 year old gay man at the time, that I could have channeled properly the thought process or life experiences of a gay woman. It was really stupid to even try and this is where we blew our shot, because we weren’t honest with ourselves or our audience. I’m sure the movie made some money because, let’s face it, it’s no big challenge to make money with a $10,000 investment! But I dare anyone to find this movie in print anywhere today. I don’t even have a copy anymore - I loaned out my VHS to some girlfriends and never got it back. Well, at least it might have worked for that gay couple! I should have really tried harder to convince our manager to go big or go home with his idea of a lesbian director, really make this movie in the right way. Who knows, it might have pulled in that market that no one was catering to, if it had only taken that audience into consideration.



Bio of Josh Eliot:

At the age of 25 in 1987, Josh Eliot was hired by Catalina Video by John Travis (Brentwood Video) and Scott Masters (Nova Video). Travis trained Eliot on his style of videography and mentored him on the art of directing. Josh directed his first movie, Runaways, in 1987. By 2009 when Josh parted ways with Catalina Video, he'd produced and directed hundreds of features and won numerous awards for Best Screenplay, Videography, Editing, and Directing. He was entered into the GayVN Hall of fame in 2002. 


You can read Josh Eliot's previous blogs for Bijou here:

Coming out of my WET SHORTS
That BUTTHOLE Just Winked at Me!
DREAMLAND: The Other Place
A Salty Fuck in Saugatuck
Somebody, Call a FLUFFER!
(Un)Easy Riders
7 Years with Colt Model MARK RUTTER
Super NOVA
Whatever Happened to NEELY O’HARA?
Is That AL PARKER In Your Photo?
DOWN BY LAW: My $1,000,000 Mistake
We Waited 8hrs for a Cum Shot... Is That a World Record?
Don't Wear "Short Shorts" on the #38 Geary to LANDS END
How Straight Are You Really?
CATCHING UP with Tom DeSimone
Everybody’s FREE to FEEL GOOD
SCANDAL at the Coral Sands Motel
RSVP: 2 Weeks Working on a Gay Cruise Ship
VOYAGER of the Damned

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