Take the sex out of cinema's history and you'd lose a few stars, but little of real quality. Perhaps filmmakers should consider a vow of chastityby Mark Cousins / October 27, 2007 / Leave a comment
What with Ang Lee’s sexually explicit Lust, Caution winning this year’s top prize at the Venice film festival and the cautionary sexual tale Atonement doing rather well in the cinema, questions of eros are in the air. Lee’s previous film, Brokeback Mountain, was praised for its discretion with cowboy-on-cowboy action (though rumours persisted that a more explicit version of the sex scene in the tent was shot), yet here he is, one of cinema’s masters of the visual equivalent of the mot juste, deciding that uncoy sex scenes would not disrupt the aesthetic decorum of his period film. Meanwhile, Atonement’s scriptwriter Christopher Hampton and director Joe Wright insisted that Ian McEwan’s use of the word “cunt” was exactly what was needed to disrupt the decorum of their film, which ended up with a 15 certificate.
Rather than rehash those lads’ mag and television lists of best sex scenes in the movies (Betty Blue, Don’t Look Now, Body Heat, Out of Sight and My Beautiful Laundrette usually figure), or reopen the debate about censorship, let’s imagine for a moment what cinema would be like without sex, if the erotic had not been central to its gaze and sales pitch.
From the earliest days, American epics directed by Cecil B DeMille were strewn with babes lolling in the buff. Such scenes, and the early French porn films recently released as the compilation The Good Old Naughty Days (which featured equal opportunity combinations of nuns, priests and dogs), show that, right from the start, movie-makers had one foot in the sex business. If movie depictions of sexual activity or longing had not been allowed, then Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Weissmuller, Brigitte Bardot, Jane Russell, Kim Novak, Sharon Stone and Brad Pitt, for example, would not be household names. Stars like Mae West, who wrote as well as performed, might well have made it, and Marlon Brando, who got his leg up because he looked gorgeous in a ripped T-shirt, would probably have changed the acting world nonetheless. The real losses would have been the likes of Monroe—a brilliant, erratic comedienne.
On the directing side, would a de-sexualised cinema have Alfred Hitchcock, Bernardo Bertolucci, Nic Roeg, Nagisa Oshima, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini, David Lynch, Federico Fellini, Shohei Imamura, Paul Verhoeven, Lars von Trier or Derek Jarman in its pantheon? Hitchcock…