Movie Sex in the 60’s
The rapidity with which the legitimate cinema in America, in a decade and a half, shrugged off the shackles of censorship and tested public inhibition to the hilt was, to say the least, spectacular. At the beginning of the ’sixties, in spite of a growing audacity epitomized by the sexual cynicism of (remarkably enough) a British film, Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1958), nudity (except in the censor-snubbing nudist-camp films) was virtually non-existent and normally excised from more liberated foreign imports; themes like homosexuality could only be tackled seriously, obliquely and off-screen (as in Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer); and the biggest scandals were more likely to be caused by language than bare flesh (such as the sexual terminology used freely in Otto Preminger’s controversial rape-case courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Murder).
Yet in the early ’seventies, exhibitors in New York felt bold enough to show, overtly and to the standard picture-going public, hard-core pornography of the intensity of Deep Throat (1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), and – for a while at least – were able to get away with it.
At the same time, full-frontal nudity and explicit sexual activity became so commonplace in the commercial cinema as to make the dirty-mac skin-flick circuit not only redundant but tame by comparison. The entertainment film had finally attained adulthood (and, on occasion, adultery) in the ’fifties after a long, fantasy-ridden adolescence, and these further developments into sexual freedom were the result of a thaw in the moral climate of society which gathered momentum throughout the ’sixties.
The bastions of censorship began to crumble on all fronts. The escalating economics of film- making and the slackening in the dictatorial power of the studios caused the industry to start questioning – and flouting – the limitations of its own Production Code; local censorship bodies were, from time to time, snuffed out in certain areas of the United States on grounds of being unconstitutional; the serious erotic themes of foreign film-makers like Bergman, Fellini and Antonioni were sanctified and shown uncut in art-houses, to be followed by American imitators; and even the Catholic Legion of Decency, it was increasingly realized, could be disregarded without necessarily incurring the loss of one’s cinematic soul (i.e. profits).
Censorship bodies, for their part, made some attempt to match the swing in public attitudes. In 1961 the Code was amended to allow ‘sex aberrations’ to be shown, provided they were handled with ‘care, discretion and restraint’. And in 1965 the Legion inaugurated an award system. The latter also introduced a more complex coding system during this period.
Progress was, nevertheless, halting at times. Baths, for instance, made a come-back (if, indeed, they’d ever been away), particularly in such spectaculars as the absurdly over-budgeted Cleopatra (1963), but they were still subject to the prurient eye. In Genghis Khan (1965), the bath-time cavortings of warrior Telly Savalas with a bunch of Oriental handmaidens were (mercifully, some might feel) severely slashed; while, more oddly, in the publicity stills for A Fine Madness (1966), depicting Sean Connery and Jean Seberg enjoying an ablutionary romp, a pair of ‘shorts’ was carefully painted onto Connery’s thighs to promote belief that he and Jean weren’t actually bathing in the buff. Later, of course, in such films as Performance (1970), Quiet Days in Clichy (1969) and, most explicitly, Superfly (1972), domestic mixed bathing became a much-used sexual motif.
One welcome step forward in the early ’sixties was the injection of satire and more adult attitudes into the sex comedy, although it had to compete with a phenomenally successful but ‘vaguely salacious and completely vacuous’53 series of anti-sex comedies such as That Touch of Mink (1962) and Send Me No Flowers (1964), in which Doris Day continued to fight to save her ageing honour from the likes of Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, James Garner and Rod Taylor. The grown-up sex comedy had been pioneered by Otto Preminger with The Moon is Blue, but the sharpest exponent was Billy Wilder, whose Marilyn Monroe vehicles, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, had demonstrated his healthy lack of reverence for the subject.
In 1960, he made The Apartment, a biting send-up of the extra-marital sex-life of the average American business executive, in which Jack Lemmon, as a humble insurance agent, climbs his way up to the executive washroom by lending his apartment to his bosses for their frequent illicit liaisons. Shirley MacLaine is one of the girls involved, driven to near-suicide by the callousness of Fred MacMurray, but eventually loved by Lemmon.
The Apartment was a great success, but Wilder stretched permissiveness a fraction too far in his underrated (and little-seen) Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), which mated Dean Martin with Felicia Farr, Ray Walston with Kim Novak, but fell foul of both the Legion of Decency and the box-office. The Legion attacked it as a thoroughly sordid piece of realism which is aesthetically as well as morally repulsive. Crude and suggestive dialogue, a leering treatment of marital and extra-marital sex, a prurient preoccupation with lechery compound the film’s bald condonation of immorality.’ Although a bit nudging (it’s set in a town called Climax), Kiss Me, Stupid was a funny and genuinely erotic farce which deserved hotter than it got. Wilder engaged Jack Lemmon again much later for his overlong but very pleasant Avanti! (1972), which both delighted and surprised those who saw it by exposing the entire charms of the plump and primly English Juliet Mills.
More serious sexual themes continued to be chiefly the preserve of Tennessee Williams, whose explorations of rape, frustration, homosexuality and cannibalism had already been seen in ’fifties screen adaptations. Now it was
Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960).