Movie Sex in the 60’s
Melina Mercouri as the sympathetic whore who’s willing to take her time with a shy client (Dimitri Papamikail) in Jules Dassin’s Never On Sunday (1960).
Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty as the frustrated young lovers in Splendour in the Grass (Elia Kazan, 1961).
Natalie Wood movie, this time with Steve McQueen, Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), but a promising theme (casual pregnancy) sold out to a romantic ending.
John Huston, meanwhile, bridged the old and new Hollywoods with The Misfits (1961) by teaming two golden stars (Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe) in a love story, then hardening the plot by making them soiled divorcees at odds with each other. Huston it was, too, who chose to put Freud (1963) on the screen, a worthy but rather dull dramatized portrait of the great psychoanalyst (played by Montgomery Clift), focusing on Freud’s own hangups and a couple of sensational case histories which led to the development of his basic theories and methods.
The most significant inroads into the old order of taboos, however, were made by a newer generation of directors, most notably Stanley Kubrick and Joseph Strick. Kubrick’s achievement was to enter the sexual minefield of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1962) and emerge unscathed. His screen version of the celebrated
story of Humbert Humbert’s obsession with a sexually precocious minor (played in the film by the then fourteen-year-old Sue Lyon) was daring in that he chose to tackle the theme at all. But his skill, good humour and unsensa- tional approach protected the film from a major outcry, and even the Legion of Decency (reassured, no doubt, by the element of retribution in the story) refrained from condemning it. However, Kubrick regretted that, because of the mood of the times, ‘it was not possible to portray Humbert Humbert’s obsession on the screen with all the eroticism suggested in Nabokov’s novel’.54
Joseph Strick first made his name with a sardonic short, Muscle Beach (1948), which gently mocked exhibitionists and fitness fetishists. He followed this much later with The Savage Eye (1959), an abrasive study of the ugly side of life in Los Angeles, as viewed by a disenchanted divorcee, and a hard-working adaptation of Jean Genet’s play, The Balcony (1964), set in a brothel. Then, with independent backing, he fulfilled an ambition to put James Joyce’s Ulysses (1967) on the screen, complete with Molly Bloom monologue, four-letter words and all.
This was the first overt attempt to put the language of real life into a film, and the movie ran into immediate trouble, especially in Britain – though not, curiously, in the United States, where its exhibition was carefully and cleverly controlled so as not to offend the Catholic element. The Legion of Decency (now calling itself the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures) saw and passed it because, as its new executive head, the Rev. Patrick J. Sullivan, told Alexander Walker, ‘we felt it would appeal principally to students of James Joyce.’55 He further pointed out that ‘Joyce is mandatory reading in many Catholic schools and colleges. It was not unusual for nuns to escort their English classes to the film.’
The Catholic Office were of the opinion that the film’s controversial climactic speech, in which Molly Bloom (Barbara Jefford) sits in bed and gives rein to her erotic fantasies, frustrations and yearnings, was not so much ‘dirty talk’ as a ‘soliloquy of a quasi-classical nature’!56 In Britain, film censor John Trevelyan had other thoughts. A recent celebrated case in Which the book ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’ had been found to be obscene concerned Trevelyan, who thought that the language in Molly’s monologue might constitute grounds for a prosecution. ‘The film,’ he pointed out in his book ‘What the Censor Saw’, ‘contained dialogue that at this time we believed would generally be regarded as outrageous, offensive and possibly obscene, so we decided to ask for a number of cuts.’ Joseph Strick was angry at these deletions and fought a vigorous campaign in the press against them.