Sex and the Cinema: Why Bother?

In the next episode of The Story of Film: An Odyssey, the chapter title is “1953-1957: The Swollen Story: World Cinema Bursting at the Seams.”  It covers, in part, the sexual tension building in cinema in the 1950′s, from Rebel Without a Cause, near the beginning of the episode, to Lawrence of Arabia at the end.  In Lawrence of Arabia, narrator and series creator Mark Cousins says, we have a hero who views the desert romantically and the world of Arabia held a vaguely hinted at sexual attraction for Lawrence as well.  Cousins is intending for the famous match/sunrise scene to work as a moment of sexual climax and it sure plays like one as the music swells and the sun rises under Cousins’ narration.  By the end of the fifties and early sixties, Cousins says, cinema was bursting at the seams and something had to give.  And so it did.  By the late sixties and into the seventies, sexual freedom and exploration on film was accepted practice but did it change anything?  Did it make the cinema better?

Sex Cinema 01

That’s an unanswerable question.  Nothing really makes the cinema better or worse.  What works for one filmmaker may not work for another.  The question should perhaps be, “Does sex, when robbed of its nuance, add or detract from storytelling?”  The same could apply to violence or political ideals.   Implying violence has a different effect than showing it graphically.  Implying a philosophy through story has a different effect than boldly trumpeting a political message.  The question is one of degree but also one of necessity.  That is, is it necessary to let those seams burst at all?  Does it work better if everything stays loosely sewn up?

In one of his many conversations with Peter Bogdanovich, Orson Welles once remarked that he hated seeing prayer depicted on the screen.  He knew the actor was just sitting there, pretending, and not actually praying and it annoyed him.  I feel that way about the mechanics of a lot of things on the screen.   When an actor is doing something for real on the screen, like Stanley Tucci making the breakfast eggs in Big Night in one long unbroken take, it’s has a sense of awe to it, as simple as it is because, hey, he’s really doing that right there in front of the camera.  When an actor is pretending to perform an action, it’s more distracting.  For instance, there are times in movies when watching an actor “drive” a car can damn near drive me to distraction.  Just a couple of weeks ago, watching Giant on TCM, I couldn’t focus on the scene with James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor in the car, moving in front of a rear projection screen, because Dean kept bobbing that steering wheel from one side to the other.  It was so pronounced that had they really been driving a car, it would’ve zigzagged to the point of Taylor throwing up her catered lunch.

Other distracting fakes include playing a musical instrument or performing an athletic feat.  If you’re going to make a movie where a character plays the piano, either hire an actor who plays the piano or just don’t show the actor playing the piano at all.  Use a double if you have to but please don’t subject me to an actor with no knowledge of the chord and melody structure of a piano lurching their hands and arms all over the place in complete contrast to the music being heard.  And if you’re movie is about an athlete, again, use a double.  Robert Redford, despite having an athletic youth, throws a God-awful pitch in The Natural.  When he strikes out the Slugger (Joe Don Baker), I think, “How?  That last pitch was bush league, all the way.”  Or Katherine Hepburn in Pat and Mike.  I remember watching it years ago on tv with my old post-college roommate Andy (who comments here sometimes), a golf enthusiast, who was distracted by how bad her slice was.

The point is, when actors are performing a physical function that they’re not really performing, it’s distracting and the same goes for sex.  Sex on the silver screen has always been better served, for me, with nuance, tension and desire.  Definitely desire.   It’s the desire that’s appealing, not the actions.  After all, it’s happening in a film in the service of a story.  A mechanical action feels unnecessary in getting the point across.   A good example would be A Place in the Sun.  The result of George (Montgomery Clift) and Alice’s (Shelley Winters) night of passion is what is important to the story.  How that baby was made is easily shown by the sun setting and rising as George enters and leaves Alice’s residence.

Kissing, of course, is kissing and really happens.  No faking there.  But real sexual passion, well, it doesn’t happen (outside of adult films which have historically been so incompetently made that using the word “passion” is inappropriate anyway).  Even when people claim it does happen, because it looks so real, like between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in the 1973 masterpiece Don’t Look Now, I still find it barely necessary to the film.  Don’t Look Now is an exception in my view only because it represents a physical connection between the characters that’s desperately trying to make up for an emotional void left by the death of their daughter.  Titillating passion is not the goal of the scene at all.

Sex Cinema 02

Of course, movies have plots that revolve around relationships a lot more than plots that revolve around playing the piano, pitching a baseball or driving a car as a matter of market demands.  When passion is integral to the plot, it may be tempting to push the envelope of sexual freedom a little further open to make the point.  But when those seams burst open in the sixties, it didn’t do much for great relationship stories on the screen.  Many of the greatest relationships movies made after sexual exploration opened up on the screen, like Alvy and Annie in Annie Hall, have not a single explicit scene in them (yes, they’re shown in bed together but then Annie’s true self gets up, distracted, and ruins the moment).  What it did was remove ridiculous measures like twin beds for married couples and lovers always keeping one leg on the floor if kissing on the edge of a bed.  It opened up the appearance of sex in the cinema but it did nothing to address its necessity.  What it did was make the topic itself more available for storylines and that, indeed, was important.

Even Last Tango in Paris, so famed for its sexual explicitness, could have easily been made in the fifties with only a few changes in shots and, of course, language.   There really aren’t that many scenes or even shots of sexual explicitness and it ends exactly how the old Hollywood Production Code would want it to, with the man, who’s having an affair with an engaged woman, getting killed.  Where it couldn’t have been made was in the frankness of the main characters’ discussions and that’s the “bursting at the seams” that Cousins is referring to.   It’s the subject matter itself that needed to be addressed and that’s understandable.  But I don’t lament that we don’t have more sex scenes in movies, as Roger Ebert sometimes did, because, to me, it’s like lamenting that there aren’t as many driving in front of rear projection scenes anymore either.  Who cares?  When those seams burst open back in the sixties, filmmakers were allowed to explore sexual relationships with more honesty in dialogue and circumstance and that’s what really mattered.  The mechanical act didn’t, and doesn’t.  It’s all a fake anyway.  And like a bad actor sitting behind the steering wheel of a fake car, all it will do is drive you, and the movie, to distraction.

17 Responses Sex and the Cinema: Why Bother?
Posted By DevlinCarnate : October 2, 2013 7:14 pm

speaking of rear projection ( i was going to comment on the ridiculous twin beds for married couples,but you beat me to it)i watched Gun Crazy last night,and of course there’s that famous bank robbery and escape sequence,only to have a rear projection montage later of the honeymooning couple that sticks out like a sore thumb,considering the fact that most of it was filmed on location or reasonably realistic sets,i wonder why they bothered

Posted By Doug : October 2, 2013 8:45 pm

“When an actor is pretending to perform an action, it’s more distracting.” yeah, except…
we willingly believe that any hero firing a gun is a crack shot. We want them to win, so we go with the hollywood of it.
I think that if an actor does his job properly, he will make you
believe that he can play the piano, and it won’t be distracting.
He will drive as if he is really out in traffic.
I recently watched “Full Moon In Blue Water” where Gene Hackman
plays the fiddle. There was no distraction, because he made it
look real.
That’s a movie where Hackman and Teri Garr show how acting should be done.

Posted By gregferrara : October 3, 2013 2:34 am

Devlin, that also happens in Touch of Evil where Welles filmed a car sequence with Leigh that’s in a real car on a road and the producers later added a scene in a car with rear projection. The difference stands out.

Posted By gregferrara : October 3, 2013 2:35 am

Doug, agreed. In Amadeus, Tom Hulce learned basic piano and did a great job of looking like he was correctly playing the pieces. If an actor does it right, there’s usually no problem.

Posted By Richard Brandt : October 3, 2013 2:54 am

Well, of course, an actor is pretending just about everything, whether it’s being in a relationship, being a ballplayer, being a stockbroker or being President of the United States. And we may not have rear projection, but we have the green screen, and is that necessarily any more convincing to our trained eyes these days?

But aside from that, there is a place for movies that explicitly show their characters in the throes of passion, whether to let us experience the intensity of their connection, or to let us see how they feel about what just happened. Just as there is a place for movies, old or new, where the rude mechanics are implied and the allure of seduction or the power of desire are as sexy as it gets, or has to.

Posted By tdraicer : October 3, 2013 5:07 am

I understand everything Greg says, and I can’t disagree. Except, I’m immature and shallow, and I often enjoy a nude or sex scene in a film because hey, attractive nude people.

Of course, partly it is a matter of intent: in a major studio film a nude/sex scene may well be a distraction. In an exploitation film, it is often the point. I can certainly do without nudity in a Woody Allen film but I rather want it in a 70s Euro lesbian vampire film.

Posted By Emgee : October 3, 2013 9:06 am

To me, explicit sex or even references to it are mostly embarrassing. Especially Seventies films are overloaded with single entrendre remarks that make me cringe. Sure, i can fully understand they want it, just please leave me out of it. Go get a room and close the door!
I’m probably not much of a voyeur.

Posted By Andrew : October 3, 2013 12:29 pm

I think problem with many of the sex scenes is that they bring the narrative to halt. I realize this is an odd or stupid example but the sex scenes in Friday the 13th work better than most because they are actually part of the story. The ‘kids’ don’t notice Jason because they are understandably distracted. As an audience we get that tension of ‘ooh! attractive, naked people’ and ‘something bad is imminent’.

In so many ‘quality’ movies, the characters start to tumble together or the women(usually) takes off clothing and after five seconds we get that either the couple is taking it to the sex level or confirmation that they are still in love with each other. The remaining five minutes of strategic camera angles, based on the actors’ contracts or a need for a specific rating, add no new information. It is just an ‘ooh! attractive, naked people’ intermission.

I agree the the other posters that depictions of athletic/musical prowess are a question of craftsmanship. Much like special effects.

Posted By tdraicer : October 3, 2013 4:28 pm

>I realize this is an odd or stupid example but the sex scenes in Friday the 13th work better than most because they are actually part of the story.

I think that makes perfect sense, and fits in with my generic 70s lesbian vampire film. On the one hand, “ooh! attractive nude vampire” but on the other, “watch out! attractive nude vampire!”

Posted By Neil : October 3, 2013 4:58 pm

I think there is an issue that sex scenes lose track of the movie’s goal.

In a plot driven movie, they fail to drive the plot forward. Generally “then they have sex” is the dramatic close of the scene, something moviemakers had been successfully letting us know long before showing the sex act in more detail was possible.

Here’s where the Friday the 13th example comes in. The point is that they are creating suspense through dramatic irony. It’s the same situation as Hitchcock’s famous example of the bomb under the table. We know the killer is coming, but they’re oblivious – whether through ignorance or because they’ve allowed themselves to be distracted by their passions. The execution can certainly vary, especially with that kind of movie, but the principle is solid. Sex is a very distracting activity.

On the other side, I think the sex scenes in Body Heat are well designed to keep the plot moving forward as well.

In a character driven movie, they fail to illuminate a lot about the characters that can’t be given by again establishing that they do, in fact, have sex. This is where I think the Don’t Look Now example comes in…

(I almost typed Don’t Look Back, which, it turns out, lacks a similar sex scene, for some reason.)

… and I’m definitely on the side of it working quite perfectly to that end, although perhaps one might argue that the movie itself is more plot driven than I’m acknowledging.

To follow, “Except, I’m immature and shallow, and I often enjoy a nude or sex scene in a film because hey, attractive nude people.”

I’m right there with you most of the time. Man, do I love nudity in movies. I love sexy nudity. I love grungy nudity where people fight naked. It’s all just great. I think we need way more than we get these days.

Oddly, though, I usually hate shower scenes, though, for all of the reasons Greg disfavors sex scenes. I’m always distracted by how obvious it is that nothing they do resembles a person actually showering. It’s a failing I have.

Posted By DBenson : October 3, 2013 9:05 pm

The upside to the sexual revolution is that even when a movie doesn’t show it, it doesn’t have to do backflips pretending sex doesn’t exist outside of marriage (and barely exists within it).

A character can be illegitimate. We don’t need five minutes explaining there was a marriage, but all the records were destroyed in the Chicago Fire, or that the evil Viscount unjustly denied the kid’s birthright.

It’s admitted the Other Woman got worse that a few fibs over dinner.

There is, as an old magazine cartoon puts it, “fascinating biological motive involved.”

Of course, I will continue to believe Bluto only wants to kiss Olive on the lips a few times.

Posted By swac44 : October 4, 2013 3:50 pm

I was thinking about this yesterday while watching Hitchcock’s Marnie for the first time in what seems like decades, and the scene where Connery and Hedren finally consummates their marriage (or he consummates it for the both of them) seems like it would have been pretty strong stuff for audiences in 1964, and yet everything is implied (she goes catatonic, he looms into the camera, Hitch pans to a porthole looking out over the moonlit ocean). Nothing more explicit is needed.

Posted By george : October 5, 2013 8:03 pm

Ebert used to say that when actors take off their clothes, the movie stops being a work of fiction and becomes a documentary.

The nudity may be “necessary,” but it takes you out of the story for at least a few minutes. You’re aware that you’re looking at (fill in name of actress) in her birthday suit, rather than the character she’s playing.

Posted By robbushblog : October 7, 2013 6:42 pm

I think, as in real life, sex is often a distraction which takes us away from “more important” things. Something important may be coming up in the film, but we may not see it coming because we’ve just seen Jenny Agutter naked (again) or Angelina Jolie naked (again). I think it’s used to throw the viewer off. It’s effective for me, boy. I can tell you that much. If I see a beautiful actress naked in the movie I always feel the scene is too short and continue thinking about the beautiful, naked actress until something surprising or exciting or important comes up to finally take my thoughts away from the beautiful, naked actress.

Posted By gregferrara : October 9, 2013 8:42 pm

Neil, you know what I hate with shower scenes? When the character leans against the wall in reflection as the water runs down their twisting neck. It’s become a cliche and not one that ever had any power to begin with.

Posted By Doug : October 10, 2013 12:28 am

I’ll tell of a nude/sex scene which did not stop the film or turn it into a documentary-Miranda Richardson in “Dance With A Stranger” played Ruth Ellis. In the film Ellis used sex to win/control a man. She desperately wanted to raise her status in society, to rise above poverty, and used her body to trap an ignoble ‘nobleman’.
When that went awry…well, that’s why it is a great movie, and Richardson’s best performance (outside of the Blackadder series).

Posted By Mr Barraclough : October 10, 2013 7:25 am

Sex is not a spectator sport!

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