It’s a new twist on an old bit of Hollywood advice: Cut to the chaste.
Although veteran moviemakers always wanted to keep the action going, today’s directors don’t seem to be interested in action at all, at least not in the bedroom sense. And some audiences are incredibly relieved.
They’re not all old fogeys, either. A small fire recently erupted on Twitter with mostly-younger Tweeters noting their discomfort with cinematic erotica. One person complained that there weren’t “trigger warnings” to alert them when characters in movies were about to take off their clothes. Another compared onscreen sex scenes to an actual assault, with filmmakers forcing them to watch something without their consent.
It’s easy to mock such oversensitive souls. (Excuse me, but that R rating is your trigger warning, and your purchase of a ticket is you giving your consent.) But it’s harder to understand what, exactly, these fans are complaining about. If anything, American movies and TV are less erotic than ever, with an increasing number of filmmakers, and performers, shying away from any kind of cinema sex.
For example, in a recent long interview with Variety, Penn Badgley of the Netflix series “You” revealed that the show’s fourth season would have far fewer “intimate scenes,” at his request.
“It’s important to me in my real life to not have them,” said the actor. Although his wife originally had encouraged him to do the series, he said he had grown uncomfortable with its sexual content. So, to honor “fidelity in my relationship,” he asked that the show cut down on the sensuality, and eliminate the nudity.
Of course, Badgley isn’t the first to have put morals or modesty before career.
Decades ago, Patrick McGoohan turned down the chance to play 007 because he didn’t want to appear in love scenes (or wave a gun around). Jim Caviezel, whose squeaky-clean past probably once helped him land “The Passion of the Christ,” talked about being similarly choosy. “I respect my wife,” he explained. “The only bare breasts I want near me belong to her.”
And although actresses face even more pressure to show skin — particularly at the start of their careers — those who can say “No” increasingly do. Julia Roberts may have shot to fame playing a hooker, but that didn’t mean she did, or ever would, shed her top. “Acting with clothes on is a performance,” she has declared. “Clothing off, it’s a documentary. I don’t do documentaries.”
And all of that is fine, of course, and their business. But in these far more prudish days, it’s no longer a decision many performers are even called upon to make.
Of course, they didn’t have to face that choice for years; Hollywood’s Production Code, instituted in 1934, banned sex, nudity or anything else that might “lower the moral standards of those who see it.” Kisses were fleeting, and if anything more heated seemed about to happen, the camera usually panned to the window. The censors’ rules often led to some silliness, and occasionally some subtle artistry, but they held for more than 30 years. Then, in 1968, the Code was lifted, replaced by the MPAA ratings system — originally G, M, R and X, And filmmakers responded with material that, just a few years before, would have been dubbed pornographic. Suddenly sex was everywhere.
Ironically, though, joy was in short supply.
There is nudity and all sorts of intercourse in that era’s acclaimed movies — “Midnight Cowboy,” “Last Tango in Paris,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “A Clockwork Orange” — but how much of it is seen as mutually pleasurable? Instead, the act of physical love is sometimes violent, occasionally commercial, rarely intimate. Even when these films’ characters couple, they’re essentially alone.
It was almost as if, finally freed to show physical pleasure, filmmakers still felt some price had to be paid, some pain endured. Subsequent decades even saw a long string of teen slashers and adult “erotic thrillers” — “Body Heat,” “Body Double,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Basic Instinct,” “Wild Things” — in which fornication was invariably fatal. The movies may have seemed liberated, but their morals would have been right at home in the Hollywood of old: The wages of sin are death.
It was not, exactly, the scenes of sexual liberation that movie buffs could have hoped for, although there were exceptions. But since then, it’s gotten worse. American films seem to have taken a cold shower, and given up on sex altogether.
Why? Well, some of it are the kinds of movies being made. (Although we’ve had some sexually active superheroes, in most of these movies the Spandex stays on.) And a lot of it comes from the viewers these movies are aiming for. Studios don’t just want the largest American audience they can get (which means, essentially, lots of teens). They also want — need — a huge international audience as well.
And in many of those overseas markets, anything sexual — let alone homosexual — is strictly forbidden.
So why shoot something that’s only going to have to be cut later (assuming they’ll let you show your movie at all). A love scene in a new “Fast and the Furious” movie isn’t just going to slow down the action; it may cost you screens in Beijing. Better not to shoot one to begin with. (“Problematic” scenes don’t even have to be graphic, either; just implying an onscreen couple is gay can bring protests, here and abroad.)
But by pretending sex doesn’t exist, you’re pretending a huge part of human motivation doesn’t exist.
No one needs another surge of exploitation movies, where at least one starlet was obligated to take a long, hot shower. Nor do we need a return to exploitative situations in which performers feel pushed into doing scenes they aren’t comfortable with. People may smirk at the new role of on-the-job “intimacy coordinators,” but the fact remains that movie sets are workplaces, and workers have rights that need to be protected.
We could, however, do with more movies that treat sex, and sexual relationships, as something healthy, normal, pleasurable and adult.
Think of the steamy eroticism of “The Year of Living Dangerously,” or the extra-innings entertainment on view in “Bull Durham.” Rewatch the remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair” and see how Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo heat up that dance floor, or how even a comedy like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” honestly deals with masturbation, virginity and, yes, unwanted pregnancy.
Or, on a more serious note, study what intelligent auteurs like David Lynch and David Cronenberg can do with the subject in “Mulholland Drive” and “A History of Violence.” Or how recent movies like “Carol” and “My Policeman” tell moving stories about same-sex romance, without coyness or discomfort, or a gifted performer such as Emma Thompson explores aging and intimacy in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.”
No, sex is a part of life. And unless Hollywood is content to go on making movies for tweens and foreign censors, it’s time they made it part of the movies again, too.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.