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Phwoar, Missus! Sexytime for Hollywood

  The phrase "Sex Sells" was one that could have been invented for the movie industry, as part of the reason audiences go to watch films is to see attractive people going about their adventures, though it has to be said not everyone uses this as a cue to have sexual fantasies about the performers. However, every so often there happens along a project that is expressly designed to provoke that reaction, and since Hollywood censorship relaxed around the late nineteen-sixties, some films become celebrated - or perhaps "infamous" would be a better description - for aiming to inspire lust in the viewer. Whatever goes on behind the scenes of these efforts can only be guessed at, but since sexual misconduct is an issue, you have to wonder at the compromising positions of the past.

One director who was always upfront about his obsessions with the unclad female form was Russ Meyer, and while he had been including nudity in his lucrative exploitation flicks before his major studio movie Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Hollywood seemed to have caught up with him and the Hugh Hefner ideal of placing women on a pedestal to be admired for their looks alone. Oh, sure, Hefner claimed to have high-falutin' notions of social progress, but when it came down to it he was simply Meyer with a mansion, and Russ appeared to be parodying the Playboy lifestyle with what had started out as a sequel to the hit Jacqueline Susann adaptation from 1967, Valley of the Dolls. When Susann's concepts were rejected, critic Roger Ebert was hired and concocted what he always claimed to be a parody.

It was certainly a ridiculous film, though not really that much more ridiculous than Susann's plot and how it had been channelled into the campy sixties movie, but with Meyer you had the sexual angle ramped up to his delirious degrees, as was his custom. When you were a kid, you would envisage what films for grown-ups would be like since you were not allowed to watch them: basically they would include nudity, violence and "adult themes" that would go over your head, and overall come across as deeply forbidden and therefore a point of curiosity. When you actually grow up and find most grown-up films are stuff like Absence of Malice or The King's Speech then you may ponder if there ever were movies as you envisaged way back then: well, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was one of those that perfectly encapsulated all those hopes.

It starred Playboy models and other decorative ladies who were not averse to doffing their togs for the camera, though Meyer said he would have put more sex and nudity into the film if he had been aware it was heading for an X rating (he was aiming for an R), and characters would get up to all sorts of sexual shenanigans before the end credits rolled. Dolly Read, the British model, led the all-girl group The Carrie Nations (named with heavy irony after the anti-booze campaigner), and they would find all sorts of woes such as cheating, drugs, attempted suicide, abortion and finally murder, all depicted in this heady, cartoonish, over the top fashion with acting that demonstrated the cast had not been hired for their thespian abilities. Despite the controversy about its decadence, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was a huge hit and things were changing in Hollywood.

Soon, for the seventies anyway, a film for adults wasn't the same without a sex scene or at least nudity in it, and while in Britain that meant the spate of sex comedies like Confessions of a Window Cleaner, on the Continent Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris in 1972 set new standards in what was allowed on the big screen, short of actual pornography. It had a major star in Marlon Brando to give it wider appeal, and though it's now notorious as a film that wholly embarrassed its starlet Maria Schneider (no, she wasn't raped), it set Europe off on a path of erotica encompassed by Sylvia Kristel in the title role of Emmanuelle in 1974 that became popular with couples, not simply the raincoat brigade. Hollywood were finding it difficult to keep up, and with Deep Throat legitimising pornography in 1972, or so they said, porno chic was the in thing.

Blake Edwards cashed in on this in 1979 with 10, a comedy that made a superstar of Dudley Moore, for a few years at any rate, where he played a sex-starved man suffering his midlife crisis who sets his goal to seduce the younger, nubile Bo Derek. She was the husband of actor turned director turned serial husband of blonde bombshells John Derek, and when 10 made her a household name, he was keen to cash in. Which was why, come the eighties, she starred as Jane in a remake of Tarzan the Ape Man (1981 to be exact), alongside a slab of beefcake in the title role, by the name of Miles O'Keefe. But nobody was interested in him, they wanted to see Bo in a state of undress, which is what they got, in between scenes of Richard Harris (as her father) yelling at the top of his voice while adventuring in the jungle. Despite being not very good, it was a hit.

Bo could not have been more famous, and John was surely thinking at last, he was onto a winner with this directing lark. Then Cannon, the trashiest purveyors of entertainment trying for respectability around, agreed to finance a work that would go even further than Tarzan the Ape Man, and that film was Bolero (which sort of had the leading lady's name in the title). This turned out to be a period-set romp where she played a young lady just out of an exclusive finishing school on a mission to lose her virginity - but the circumstances had to be just right, no quickie for her. Her first port of call, after stripping off at her alma mater for her last act of rebellion, was a sheik who was intended to evoke thoughts of Rudolph Valentino, the great lover of the silent screen, but he ends up falling asleep on her after licking honey off her naked body. It was as if Derek was trying to sabotage his own epic of sensuality - was he really attempting humour?

Bo got a lot of publicity for Bolero, but none of it good as the movie was laughed off the screen by those brave souls who elected to go and see it; it would do better on home video, where it was not so embarrassing to watch in private. Not helping was that her main beau was a bullfighter, which even in the eighties was a profession targeted for criticism by animal rights campaigners, so after she loses the aforementioned virginity to him, it may be more satisfying in a way unintended that he gets gored in the genitals during a performance, leaving him trying to recuperate for the rest of the story. Could the power of Bo's feminine charms resurrect his manhood? Or would the thought of George Kennedy (as the chauffeur) getting it on put paid to that ambition? How about underage nudity courtesy of Olivia D'Abo, very much the Scrappy-Doo of the production? Or the manner in which everyone is struggling with their lines, even the English-speakers?

Besides, in the mid-eighties Bo was becoming old hat, as a new set of American sex symbols for the decade emerged: Madonna, Phoebe Cates, Vanity, Kim Basinger - the latter starring in 9½ Weeks, which caused a sensation despite being so artfully lit by director Adrian Lyne that it was difficult to make out anything very much in the raunchy scenes. In the nineties, however, there was one film that seemed to take sex in the mainstream about as far as it was possible to go without showing actual hardcore pornography. Step forward the dream (or nightmare) combination of director Paul Verhoeven, writer Joe Eszterhas and star Sharon Stone for Basic Instinct. This followed the pattern of many a sexually-themed movie that catches the imagination of the public in that it was an international talking point thanks to how controversial it was, and the more controversial it became, the more the audiences wanted to watch it. It was a huge hit.

Nowadays to be a huge hit it helps to appeal to family audiences (why do you think so many animated efforts become franchises?), but back then, in the early nineties, you could still appeal to an adult audience exclusively and rake in the cash, a phenomenon which has waned over the years, especially when the fact that people like to enjoy pornography in the privacy of their own homes rather than among strangers has dominated the culture. Basic Instinct and its tale of detective Michael Douglas investigating the death of a rock star and wondering if bestselling author Sharon Stone has been behind it cleaned up at the cinema, and that was all because of the hype, including a shot of Stone's uncrossed legs, sans underwear, that apparently it was unthinkable not to see twenty feet high on the big screen. It seems ridiculous now, but the promise of such hanky-panky was a real draw, and Verhoeven went as far as he could with the sex scenes.

Of course, if there was any fucking going on, it was the director fucking with the audience's heads, as ever on a Verhoeven work, reminiscent of his previous, Dutch femme fatale effort The Fourth Man, but perhaps Basic Instinct represented the cresting of a wave, for while it did spawn many imitators, most of them went straight to VHS and starred Shannon Tweed and her blonde bombshell ilk; Stone had been a cult star with a varied career before her big break, but she would never get bigger than she was in 1992. Meanwhile, neo-noirs plonked Madonna as a femme fatale in Body of Evidence, and as owner of the most famous breasts on the planet in 1993, you would have thought she would clean up at the box office with the tale of her body being the murder weapon that killed a millionaire, but post-her SEX book, where anyone interested had seen everything, coupled with the laughably bad quality of the film, meant blockbusting mainstream sex movies' days were numbered.

Or were they? In 2015, where anyone interested in seeing sex on a screen was watching it on their phone in a toilet cubicle at the office or spending their free time surfing porn streaming sites in their bedrooms, all of a sudden there was another movie sensation where sex was the major attraction. E.L. James had made a huge bundle of money by publishing her Twilight fan fiction with changed names in book form, selling it to seemingly exclusively frustrated mothers who would leaf through it over their coffee when the kids were safely in school, but what the unconverted had trouble weighing up was the storyline concentrated on sadomasochism. What had happened to female empowerment? Fair enough, in the sexually-themed movies of the past, it was still the women who mostly disrobed for the camera, Michael Douglas's bottom notwithstanding, but Fifty Shades of Grey still felt like a retrograde step, no matter that it was aimed at women who lapped it up.

Let's be clear: not every woman lapped up this phenomenon, there were plenty who decried it and there was a reason used paperbacks of it and its sequels were cluttering up charity shops, but there was no denying there was a massive audience for it. So when the film arrived, it was a big enough hit to ensure every entry in the series was filmed too, with Dakota Johnson as the heroine, and Jamie Dornan as the billionaire lover whose tastes tend towards inflicting violence on women and telling them they should be enjoying it, which Johnson's Anastasia meekly goes along with. To refute the sexism charges, the studio hired a female director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, who notoriously argued with James about being allowed to alter things about the source to make them more cinematic, yet the writer refused to let anything be changed and it all had to be just as she demanded it. This may have been a problem in crafting a quality product.

Comedienne Sarah Millican, for instance, read the book and found it so violent she thought it should have been called Seven Shades of Shit. Nevertheless, some were surprised that it was not completely awful, and that might have been thanks to the director's endeavours to class it up and give its leading lady more agency. But it's really not enough, falling between two stools of salaciousness and supposed empowerment, when the real empowering was the fact that women were gathering their friends to attend a soft porn movie at the cinema, regardless of what the material was like. When Taylor-Johnson seeks the romance in what was basically a tawdry bit of successful filth written to be read one-handed, the results were less than convincing, and by toning down Anastasia's sexual humiliation and emphasising the relationship element, she did not eliminate the admission that sexual fantasies are not realistic.

And if you try and make them so, they simply look horrible, as they do here, no matter the expensive trappings of personal helicopter flights, priceless jewellery and modern artworks adorning the walls, since there was the creep at the heart of it dominating and stalking the girl he has around the place. While here he doesn't get to indulge himself in the violence he has been lusting after till more or less the end of the movie, that he has had it on his mind for the entire two-hour running time certainly doesn't excuse it, and all the wide-eyed "I can change him!" emoting from drippy Anastasia is indicative not of a naughty fantasy, but the excuses for domestic beatings the world over. Apparently this Christian Grey can get away with abusing women because he is rich. Not much of a message, and not much to get off on. As the world has grown simultaneously obsessed with and aghast at sex in all its forms, the sex cinema of the past does not look quaint, and what is supposed to be fun arrives with all sorts of baggage: that word "problematic" looms in almost everything that seeks to tackle the subject for entertainment now. It's getting so a guy (or girl) can’t appreciate a Russ Meyer flick anymore, not even ironically, no matter that what people secretly watch online in the twenty-first century is a hundred times more extreme in order to satisfy jaded libidos. Maybe Russ does look quaint after all.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018