Movie Sex in the 70’s
The star-system was pronounced dead by almost everyone, but as of the moment of writing everyone is talking about Liza Minnelli in Cabaret and she made the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously. Contrast the unfortunate Julie Ege, a British starlet. The Sunday Times reported in February 1971 that in less than two years 1,657 column inches had been devoted to her of which only 34 inches consisted of “critical appraisal of her film roles”. The movie world may have endured a series of convulsions which now and then seemed fatal: but some things don’t change.’
Thus spake David Shipman in the introduction to the second volume of his massive work, ‘The Great Movie Stars’, in 1972. The old Hollywood star-system, it is commonly held, finally died in the ’sixties, along with studio contracts (and studios), gossip columns and the mass audience. Or did it? Shipman suggests that, despite the revolution in film production methods, little has changed in the ’seventies with respect to the way film personalities are handled; superstars continue to be feted; starlets still strive for maximum exposure (in every sense).
As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The system is certainly dead – no longer are stars ‘made’ (or broken), nor do they have their ‘images’ maintained by a vast studio publicity machine. Stars there certainly are, however – less thick on the ground, perhaps, and diminished somewhat in stature, but there, nevertheless, to add lustre to a film and sometimes a dash of sex appeal.
Curiously, Shipman’s examples are not the most typical of enduring modern stardom, though they serve to illustrate how the star set-up has changed: Liza Minnelli’s reputation and popularity rested on one well-received film and cooled rapidly with the lack of a successful follow-up; Julie Ege, on the other hand, is a rare contemporary throwback (like Raquel Welch) to the days of the sex symbol, able to function as a ‘star’ almost without making movies as long as the custodians of her image keep the media well fed with publicity material and l-evealing photographs.
The star shakedown began in the ’fifties when the major stars, led by James Stewart, broke away from the studios which held them in thrall and started to control their own financial destinies, signing contracts which were as much to their own advantage as to those who employed them. At the same time, they began to bother less about their ofT-screen image, some insisting that their
false moral conventions by declaring a candid interest in free love or simply living together – and all with little protest from the press. The sex symbol thus became largely redundant, since all stars were sex stars in the sense that they happily and naturally engaged in the act of love both off the screen and on. Only the Burtons, mainly because of a continuously stormy domestic life coupled with a show of old-fashioned financial extravagance, retained any measure of gossip-value.
On the debit side, stars lost the security of the studio system. Whereas in the so-called Golden Age, a studio would be obliged to underpin a fading or off-form star with clever publicity and regular employment in decently made A- features (just as, conversely, a couple of charismatic stars – say James Cagney and Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy, 1931 – could lift a film out of mediocrity by their presence), from the ’sixties actors were generally only as good or as popular as their last film.
It was perfectly possible, therefore, for Ryan O’Neal to soar to stardom in the phenomenal, freakishly successful Love Story, only to flop dismally in his next movie, The Wild Rovers. With a few exceptions (Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood. Robert Redford and Charles Bronson maintained pulling power at the box-office, but few others do – not, for example, Elizabeth Taylor, surprisingly enough), the films became more important than the stars, and in many cases the directors, too, came to exceed their actors in importance and attraction. Thus, where one used to speak in terms of a Clark Gable movie or a Greta Garbo film, one would talk today of a sex movie or a Peckinpah film.
The stars of the ’seventies, therefore, were no longer larger than life or ‘glamoi*ous’ in the well-groomed, soft-focus sense; they were no longer exotic gods and goddesses living out fantasy existences; they no longer wished to be idolized or even recognized (except, maybe, as good actors). The accent was now on a serious, intelligent approach to the professional job of acting a pai’t. Even in a popular open forum, many modern stars would deliberately eschew the glib, studio-prompted response to questions about their lives and careers. Paul Newman once half-embarrassed, half-impressed a National Film Theatre audience in London by weighing up carefully and in long, multi-second pauses even the simplest, most trivial questions put to him before answering.
It is ironic that the term ‘superstar’ should have been coined in an era when claimants to the epithet were so distinctly
an earlier age – Wayne, Stewart, Grant, Crawford, Davis, Lancaster, Peck, Fonda-seemed to have diminished a fraction or two in star stature, with the compensation that they seemed consciously to turn in better performances than they used to and appear more accessible and human. One cannot imagine thirty or so years ago a star saying to a public audience, as Burt Lancaster did, ‘I like to get up early and go running. Some people choose masturbation to get their blood circulating in the morning – me, I run in the park!’
At the same time, there are many good actors on the modem screen who are simply that – good actoi-s – whereas, in the age of the major studios and the long-term contract they would have been carefully cosseted and cultivated and groomed into steady, dependable stars. James Garner springs most readily to mind, along with George Segal and Rod Taylor.
The way in which attitudes to stardom have changed over the years is admirably summed up by two statements by two superstars, one old, one new. ‘Actresses,’ said Mar>r Pickford, ‘should realize that when they deliberately choose a public cax-eer, they have no right to disappoint the public – and no right to privacy. As a toy of the public, that’s part of the price.’ Said Robert Redford: ‘I owe an audience a performance, nothing more.’ To which one should perhaps add a characteristic piece of sarcasm from the arch-enemy of privacy- invaders, Marlon Brando: ’Once you are a star actor, people start asking you questions about politics, astronomy, archaeology and birth control.’
The one major star who successfully bridged the generation gap between the old and new Hollywoods, retained a glossy, glamorous image, and skilfully preserved a dual claim as sex star and serious actress was Elizabeth Taylor. Said Shipman: ‘More than any other star in the history of the cinema, her private life has been public property; during the ’sixties it was almost impossible to pick up a newspaper without some item about her. This was intriguing. Her life was, and probably still is, exciting. Her beauty is unquestioned. Her talent is something else.’66 Her association since 1958 with steamy, erotic roles (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, Butterfield 8, and so on) and her knockabout public affair with Richard Burton, subsequently leading to an equally turbulent marriage and divorce, helped to keep her younger competitors in the shade. Latterly, though, her film roles have grown progressively dismal, culminating, in Ash Wednesday (1973), in an ill-advised part as a raddled, menopausal socialite who undergoes radical cosmetic surgery and rediscovers sex.
In early ’74, the only modern actresses who could remotely pretend to superstardom on a similar level to Elizabeth Taylor were Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda. Gossip-columnist Sheilah Graham described Streisand as ‘crude, unpolished little Barbra, the poverty-shriven ugly duckling who made it by sheer guts all the
way from a Brooklyn tenement to the cathedrallike shrine that Garbo built in that far-flung outpost of culture, Beverly Hills’. That was soon after she had taken the movie city by storm in her first film, Funny Girl, which won her a predictable Oscar and set her on the road to winning just about every popular entertainment award going – all, as she put it, ‘without having my nose fixed, my teeth capped, or my name changed’. The ugly duckling was, of course, a stunningly attractive swan, and one of the few actresses of the ’seventies who can convey deep sexual feeling without stripping to the huff, which she has steadfastly refused to do in her movies. One of the best moments in The Way We Were was her ‘seduction’ of an unwitting, semi-conscious Robert Redford who has passed out in her bed.
Jane Fonda started her career in pleasant, harmless light comedy roles, but became famous by going to Franee and displaying her splendidly lissom form in films (directed by her then husband Roger Vadim) like La Ronde (1964), La Curee (1966) and Barbarella (1968). Said Time: “Such Vadim-witted flicks were 25 per cent titillation, 72 per cent marzipan; but because they were 100 per cent Jane, they were worthwhile’. Eventually she reacted against the roles she had been playing, regarding them as antifeminist, and took up an aggressively antiexploitation stance. She even expressed regret at having played the prostitute in Klute (1971),
although she made the character intensely real and sympathetic and won an Oscar for her troubles.
Jane Fonda’s personal rebellion had deep roots; Hollywood had tried to mould her into a sex symbol from the start. Her figure – best shown, perhaps, in Klute- though superb in the eyes of most men, met with disapproval from studio chiefs who thought her breasts too small. She was peremptorily oi’dered into falsies which she wore in her films for several years; moguls stated baldly that they weren’t investing their money in a flat-chested actress! She later recalled: ‘I was not the material for movie stardom. My cheeks were too fat, my hair was the wrong colour; they plucked my eyebrows, put lipstick on, changed my hair – then I got the message about the falsies.’ One director even objected to her chin and wanted it broken and reset! Little wonder she deserted America for the more appreciative attentions of Vadim.
Most of Jane Fonda’s generation of actresses ultimately rebelled against being regarded purely as sex symbols, though they accepted the explicit portrayal of sex as an integral part of many of the roles they played. Even Stella Stevens, who, because of her blonde hair, substantial figure and pretty/sexy face, seemed destined to pop up occasionally simply as a reminder of Monroe, found herself in worthwhile roles, such as Jason Robards’s ex-whore girlfriend in Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable
Hogue. Similarly, Ann-Margaret, for a long period typecast in salacious teenager roles, suddenly emerged as an actress to be reckoned with in the part of Jack Nicholson’s rapacious lover in Carnal Knowledge (1971); and Tuesday Weld, Hollywood’s ‘baby beatnik’, made a similarly good impression in The Cincinnati Kid (alongside Ann-Margaret) and Pretty Poison.
Another emergent star of Carnal Knowledge was Candice Bergen, whose perfectly chiselled features and elegant build marked her down for cool but volcanic roles, in which, she noted with some cynicism later, she always seemed to
be simulating sexual climax: ‘I may not be a great actress, but I’ve become the greatest at screen orgasms … ten seconds of heavy breathing, roll your head from side to side, simulate a slight asthma attack and die a little!’
Prominent among other actresses who were beginning to overshadow the established, ’old- fashioned’ sex stars such as Elke Sommer, Ursula Andress and, of course, Raquel Welch – as much for their own strong sex appeal as their obvious histrionic talent-were Faye Dunaway, Katharine Ross, Ali MacGraw and Jacqueline Bisset. Of these, Jacqueline Bisset, surprisingly, emerged as the most sensual and versatile. ‘Under the star system twenty-odd years ago,’ said John Huston, ‘she would have been a monarch.’ Her gamine modesty and spontaneity and ability to convey deep affection, combined with the best kind of soft English physique and good looks, made her among the most desirable of modern actresses – at her best in Secrets (1971), in which she shared a startlingly abandoned lovemaking scene with Oskar Werner, and Francois Truffaut’s superb Day for Night. (1973).
The ’sixties and early ’seventies saw a resurgence of British actresses fully equipped in all respects to compete with their American counterparts, often in the steamiest roles, yet often conveying at the same time a certain intellectual quality. Glenda Jackson led a field which included Vanessa Redgrave and Susannah York (but not Susan George, whose
talents are more emphatically physical, though supremely so) if only for being the least inhibited about stripping off, which she did successively in Women in Love (1969), Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971) and The Music Lovers
(1971) . A British actress with more conventional star qualities, but a greater international standing is Julie Christie, who found few outstanding film roles after her Oscar-winning achievement in Darling, but has stayed in the public consciousness t hanks to a well-publicized liaison with Warren Beatty and, latterly, a controversial and very beautiful nude love- making sequence with Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now.
While old hands like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Kirk Douglas, and even John Wayne continued (to the increasing embarrassment of their audiences) to win the girl, a new breed of male hero arrived on the scene, better adapted to the violence and casual sex called for in the films of the late ’sixties and ’seventies. Less romantic, more laconic than his predecessors; tough, virile, sometimes brutal like Lee Marvin, or cheerfully amoral like James Coburn – whether cop, criminal or Westerner; and frequently saddled with all kinds of hardware in the shape of guns and fast cars. The most
popular archetypes for this model of hero became Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen.
Bronson’s strong appeal and vast international following are astonishing in view of his credentials. He was well into middle-age with a long career as a scx-een heavy behind him, specializing in mean gangsters, Apaches and occasional tough-but-tender, good-bad guys, before he suddenly rocketed to world popularity, topping box-office polls in France, Japan and South America. Despite his rugged, rough- hewn. self-confessedly ugly appearance, Bronson’s attraction is self-evident – he simply exudes sex appeal on the one hand, while at the same time cultivating an invariably cool, controlled, strong, silent image with which male audiences can easily identify. Nevertheless he rejected permissive trends such as nudity: ‘Stripping naked is not entertainment,’ he is reported as saying. ‘It’s for the voyeurs, and I’m damned sure I’m not going to let them get kicks from seeing me totally nude.’
McQueen is equally unconventional and difficult to analyse. His wizened, simian face is
pleasant enough in a Sinatra-ish way, but it’s no oil-painting, while his small, tough, wiry physique is hardly one’s conception of how a sex star should be constructed. Yet he clearly has what all the great screen stars have had, irrespective of their acting talents: old- fashioned charisma – and never more strongly in evidence than in The Great Escape, a vast, multi-star war epic which the neat, athletic McQueen completely dominated. Shipman has got nearest to the magic of the man: ‘Steve McQueen can act with the back of his head. He
can act without doing anything He has only
to appear on the screen to fill it. He may be doing nothing important – waiting under a clock, coasting along in a car, catching a ball in a baseball mitt – but there’s never any doubt he is a copper-bottomed, gold-plated star.’
In Magnum Force (1973), this pretty little Japanese chick gazes up at Clint Eastwood’s six-foot, five-inch frame and says: ‘How does a girl get to go to bed with you?’ He replies, ‘Try knocking on the door.’ They’ve only known each other for about half a minute, making it one of the swiftest screen seductions on record, and it illustrates the fact that Eastwood’s sex
appeal is instant and uncomplicated. He is the conventional tough-guy par excellence – handsome, laconic, cynical, determined and independent; clearly a man capable of wiping out half the male population of Mexico (as he did as the cigarillo-smoking Man with No Name in the first successful ‘spaghetti’ Westerns, A Fistful of Dollars, 1964, and For a Few Dollars More, 1965); clearly a man to be idolized by other men and worshipped by women.
A less rugged, more refined, almost intellectual image is presented by the two other dominant male stars of the modern screen – Paul Newman and Robert Redford. They discovered when acting together – as in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973) – that a special empathy exists between them, yet they represent different generations of stars and each is uniquely attractive. Newman is – or was when he concentrated on acting and less on directing – closer to the Brando generation of method actors; Redford, on the other hand, has qualities which could make him the first true star of the ‘seventies, ‘one of those rare stars,’ said an American critic, “who could sum up, all by himself, the spirit of his time.’
His star quality and sex appeal radiate from his devastating good looks and enormous acting talent, yet he is a complete loner, the antithesis of the old-fashioned star. ‘I am not,’ he has declared firmly, ’a Hollywood man’, and proved it by turning down hatfuls of plum parts (including Dustin Hoffman’s in The Graduate, John Cassavetes’s in Rosemary’s Baby and George Segal’s in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and getting himself sued by Paramount
for breaking a contract. He is a rebel, a recluse and a romantic (‘1 don’t like sexless love or loveless sex, but I believe in love first’) – the right qualifications, perhaps, for the star of the future.
Like Redford, Dustin Hoffman is a new-look star, sufficiently versatile to play a sexual innocent (as in The Graduate), a centenarian (Little Big Man, 1971) or a crippled con-man (Midnight Cowboy, 1969). Gene Hackman is in the same mould, yet represents a further variation – the character actor as star, with a paradoxical ability to render himself almost totally anonymous while acting everyone else off the screen (as in The French Connection, 1971, and The Conversation, 1974).
Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, stars
of M*A*S*H (1970) and S*P*Y*S (1974), similarly cannot be defined in old, conventional star terms: they are not quite romantic leads, nor are they outright character actors; they aren’t handsome or ugly; and they’re never typecast. (Perhaps for them and their like a new term should be coined – like anti-star.) A1 Pacino – a pocket edition of Dustin Hoffman – and Jon Voight are two more young stars who have been lucky enough to land strong, varied roles: Pacino in The Godfather (1972), Scarecrow (1973, with Gene Hackman) and Serpico (1973); Voight in Midnight Cowboy (as the hopeful Texan stud looking for a lay in New York), Deliverance (1972) and Conrack (1974).
One comforting chunk of beefcake surfaced among all these brash new faces: husky Burt
Reynolds, grandson of a full-blooded Cherokee Indian and the likeliest-looking chest-barer since Clark Gable. Reynolds crashed the fame- barrier in 1972 by agreeing to pose starkers, full-frontally, in Cosmopolitan magazine’s centre-fold. In fact, he kept one coy hand strategically placed in front of his genitals, but the pic caused enough stir (and admiration) to launch him on his film career, which included impressive performances in Fuzz (1972) and Deliverance.
Perhaps the most interesting of America’s ‘seventies male stars will turn out to be Jack Nicholson, a seasoned actor who laboured long and hard in ludicrous horror movies (The Raven, 1963, was one of the less shaming examples) before earning overnight fame in Easy Rider (1969). Carnal Knowledge and Five Easy Pieces (1970) confirmed his considerable talent and spotlighted him as a star with a very special sex appeal, deriving from his cynicism, world-weariness, and tough, almost Bogartian attitude to women.
One of the most dazzling, most revered personalities of the early ’seventies was the extraordinary Bruce Lee, an American-born karate expert whose athletic good looks and extraordinary virtuosity in the art of kung-fu made him the superstar of the myriad martial-
arts films which flooded the world’s screens, most famously in Fist of Fury (1973) and Enter the Dragon (1973). It was shortly after the latter that Lee suddenly died, allegedly from an internal haemorrhage brought on by overexertion in the film’s fight scenes, to be mystically mourned by thousands of distraught fans, just as Rudolph Valentino and James Dean had been before him.
A more permanent, more significant trend in American films was the rise of the Negro star. For many years, only one black actor, Sidney Poitier, could claim to have made the big-time in movies, although singer Harry Belafonte supplied some occasional competition. Poitier’s first serious rival was ex-footballer Jim Brown, who specialized in bare-chested action roles in fast-moving adventures like 1Q0 Rifles (1968,
opposite Raquel Welch, a notable breakthrough in black-white couplings). Then came the first Shaft films (1971 onwards), with Richard Round- tree as the lusty Harlem troubleshooter, the model for countless urban thrillers intended for black audiences, in which the whites were understandably the villains. White director Martin Ritt partially restored the balance with his lyrical, liberal portrayals of the Negro lot in Sounder (1972) and Conracli, with the sympathetic Paul Winfield emerging as an attractive new star.
Outside America, the established stars continued to hold sway, although in England a handful of pleasant young actors like Michael York, Edward Fox, Malcolm McDowell and Hollywood refugee Richard Chamberlain were beginning to forgesolidreputations. The biggest names in Britain were Sean Connery, Michael Caine and the handsomely scarred Oliver Reed. Connery had shaken off the sexy Bond image, along with his toupee, and was picking more serious paits – most notably in Zardoz (1974), opposite Charlotte Rampling. Reed, on the other hand, saw himself as the saviour of British films, England’s only true superstar. ‘There is no such thing,’ he said, ‘as a humble actor. Do you know what I am? I’m English and successful and good – that’s what. Destroy me and you destroy the British film industry. Keep me going and I’m the biggest star you’ve got.’
Caine was, by contrast, a paragon of modesty. ‘I wasn’t successful until I was thirty,’ he told one interviewer, ‘so I had thirty years to figure out what I was going to do with it. I was very set in my character. I looked at actors who failed. One of the reasons they failed was that they
changed with success until they were no longer what they had been. Success in my case is based on being very natural and recognizable. A man of my age can look at me and think, “Jesus Christ, he’s just like me.” It’s identification, you see.’87
Continental stars with traditional sex appeal were suddenly few and far between in the ’seventies. France had its triumvirate of Jean- Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon and Jean-Louis Trintignant, while the amiably lugubrious Marcello Mastroianni continued to undermine the myth of Italian virility with his amused portrayals of seedy lechers, culminating in the poxy nobleman of Polanski’s What? (1973) who can only get turned on when he’s dressed in a tiger skin or carabinieri uniform and whipped by a pretty girl.
The most enduring and respected European star turned out to be the one-time idol of the English teeny-boppers (who ‘never left a cinema without crawling out under some police horse’s withers’) Dirk Bogarde, whose recollection of his brief brush with Hollywood wittily sums up the absurdity of the declining days of the star
system: ‘Twentieth Century-Fox were buying up everyone. They were going to call me Ricardo . . . something or other Spanish, and I was going to have to do a crash course in Spanish so that I could be discovered in Mexico for some extraordinary reason – I think they’d got enough Englishmen at the time. And the contract stipulated that after a certain period of time I would have to marry one of the girls on the list who were also under contract to them!’ No wonder he said some years later, as he lay on the floor in an Italian studio on the set of Night Porter (1974) with his fly buttons undone and Charlotte Rampling sitting on top of him: ‘Film-making is no job for a grown man.’
It was in the early ’seventies that the dividing line between what was traditionally acceptable in legitimate commercial film-making and what had previously been regarded as fit only for the private sexploitation market began to blur. In the spheres of sex and violence, despite the beginnings of a moral backlash, the cinema reached an unprecedented peak of permissiveness. In Britain, at least half of the films passed by the BBFC carried an X certificate (the rest being evenly divided between AA, A and U). The family audience barely existed: certainly the major circuits could not survive on this fare. Increasingly they were forced to resort to appeals to the various minority audiences and sex films were able to emerge from their previous relative obscurity. And in America, hard-core pornography finally and legally entered the realm of public exhibition (although generally speaking, in direct contrast to the British cinema, the Americans tended to indulge violence but clamp down on sex).
There were two reasons for this strictness over sex and nudity in America. Firstly, there was, as we have seen. Catholic pressure. Although companies found devious ways to make profitable G-rated films, the power of the Church remains as long as it has the ear of the forty million plus Catholics in the USA. Secondly, the Production Code cannot ban films: the X certificate covers all pictures that cannot be passed in other categories and companies can X-rate films themselves without ever submitting them to the PCA. There are, therefore, many hundreds of small cinemas which show X films, normally of a sexual nature, that could not be shown in Britain at all. The celebrated’pornographic’films like Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones were only the tip of a very large iceberg which appeared after the courts severely reduced the powers of local censors in 1965. The enormous success of 1 Am Curious – Yellow, which in 1968 had been seized by the Customs, declared obscene by a
New York jury, but cleared on appeal, led to the importation of a large number of foreign films of a more dubious nature but defended none the less as having ‘redeeming social values’.
Following the first glimpses of pubic hair in Blow-Up and If … , the final months of the ’sixties saw a further sweeping away of old taboos, albeit with a touch of the censors’ bi-akes being applied here and there. Lesbianism – hinted at lightly in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1968)- became a clearly stated theme in The Killing of Sister George (1968), even though the climactic scene – the seduction of Susannah York by Coral Browne – was scythed out by the British censor (some local authorities fearlessly reinstated portions of it). Male homosexuality also began to be treated more and more overtly, first of all in Staircase (1969), which (rather misguidedly) cast Richard Burton and Rex Harrison as bickering queer barbers, and then much more uncompromisingly in William Friedkin’s adaptation of The Boys in the Band (1970), which introduced some of the plainer four-letter words in the English language to the screen for the first time. ’Who,’ asks Cliff Gorman, in his brilliant portrayal of the most effeminate of the homosexual group as they gather for a soul-searching party, ‘Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?’
Other homosexual manifestations to occur in movies around this time included an elliptical but unmistakable male fellatio scene in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) when Jon Voight, as a broke and disillusioned Texas stud, importunes in a New York cinema;
Racquel Welch’s anal rape, with the aid of a dildo, of an athletic but stupid young stud in Myra Breckinridge (1970); the buggery by backwoodsmen of Ned Beatty in Deliverance
(1972) and, of course, the celebrated full-frontal nude wrestling match by discreet, flickering firelight between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in Ken Russell’s Women in Love. These were the first substantial shots of the penis in a feature film and reflected the abandon with which filmmakers were now prepared to fill the screen with nudity whenever the opportunity arose.
Glenda Jackson stripped for the first (but not the last) time in Women in Love, and so did Jenny Linden; Ursula Andress pranced full- frontally across the screen in Perfect Friday (1970); and two of Britain’s more delectable chests – Judy Geeson’s and Helen Mirren’s – were bared in, respectively, Peter Hall’s Three into Two Won’t Go (1968) and Michael Powell’s Age of Consent (1969); Geeson also undressed for a nude swim with Barry Evans in Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, while Mirren made a magnificent full-frontal staircase descent in Russell’s Savage Messiah (1972).
It is worth mentioning that, despite all the daring nudity in Women in Love, the film’s most effectively erotic moment is that in which Alan Bates splits and caresses a fresh fig during a picnic and discusses its symbolic properties with his female companions.
Sexual themes positively abounded, some of them innovatory, some simply consolidating more daringly earlier breakthroughs. Easy Rider essayed a sexo-psychedelic LSD trip in a churchyard; Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice
(1969) staked a claim to being the first candid comedy – and a very funny one – about hippy ideals of free love and partner-swapping; Frank Perry’s Last Summer (1969), about adolescent sex, contained toplessness and a rape; The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1969) worked an implicit castration into its theme of miscegenation and murder, while miscegenation was played for laughs in The Landlord
(1970) ; and Mike Nichols’s Catch 22 (1970) proffered a splendid full-frontal shot of Paula Prentiss standing on a raft. Nichols’s film also depicted fellatio, between a GI and a prostitute in a darkened doorway.
The first stirrings of youthful sex was a theme sensitively and amusingly handled by Robert Mulligan in Summer of ’42 (1971), which contained a variation of the familiar condombuying scene in which the two boys (Garry Grimes and Jerry Houser) who are the heroes of the film are too embarrassed to make their vital purchase. In another scene, one of the boys gets carried away by his first experience of sex on a beach, and exhausts himself with several repeat performances. And in yet another, wittily observed, Garry Grimes contentedly and excitedly caresses his girlfriend’s upper arm throughout an entire cinema performance thinking it is her breast. The only false note in the film is struck by the climactic scene, in which Garry Grimes, still a virgin, makes love to a distressed war widow (Jennifer
O’Neill) for whom he has long nursed a secret infatuation.
The biggest controversy at the beginning of the decade was caused by a Danish adaptation of Henry Miller’s novel Quiet Days in Clichy (his Tropic of Cancer had also been filmed, but less provocatively). The film was prosecuted in America on the grounds that it went ‘beyond customary limits of candor’. It was certainly cheerfully amoral, like its source, as it followed its hero’s efforts to feed both his hunger and his lust while living in poverty in Paris. There was a great deal of nudity, some of it male full- frontal (though not erect, when, in context, it should have been – a frequent and silly convention in serious sex films), and one close-up of actual penetration during lovemaking – but probably what gave most offence was the opening credits sequence in which a title says: ’It was a time when cunt was in the air’, and the word ‘cunt’ appears, graffiti-wise, written several times over the sky in a shot of Paris. The court decision was eventually to pass the film since it did not ‘appeal to the prurient’. A Californian judge declared that ‘Bearing in mind the increasing frankness in society in matters pertaining to sex and nudity, and the possible artistic merit of the film, I find that the film appeals to the normal interest in sex and nudity which the average person has in such matters.’ This judgment was not echoed in Britain by the Board of Censors, who rejected the film completely. Eventually, three years later, it was passed by the Greater London Council.
There was no controversy at all over two British films which came out more or less simultaneously and purported to be comedies located precisely in the groin. One was called Percy, and was about a penis transplant and the sexual adventures subsequently enjoyed by its new owner (Hywel Bennett); the other was called
The Statue, starred David Niven, and focused on the question of whether or not a sculptress had used another, better-endowed model for the vital part of a nude statue of her husband. Both films were effectively emasculated (to use an appropriate word) by the fact that in neither case did one so much as glimpse an example of what they were about.
Mike Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge, at least, had the courage to tackle some taboo themes in its story of two college friends (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) who love the same girl (Candice Bergen), and of how social ignorance and repression, and their own emotional inadequacies lead to sexual misery. In an early scene, the friends discuss explicitly how one of them has been masturbated by Candice Bergen;
later on, Garfunkel produces a condom prior to making love to Miss Bergen – the first appearance of a sheath in a commercial feature film; and the final scene shows Nicholson, virtually impotent, going through a ritual with a prostitute which ends in fellatio, the only way he can enjoy sex.
Themes, or scenes, began to repeat themselves, with variations, in 1971. Glenda Jackson writhed nude on a railway carriage floor in an agony of sexual frustration in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers, an outrageous fantasy about Tchaikowsky’s homosexuality and inability to consummate his marriage. She was indirectly involved with another homosexual in John Schlesinger’s finely controlled Sunday, Bloody Sunday, about a charming, bisexual young man (Murray Head) who commutes between his mistress (Miss Jackson) and his male lover (Peter Finch) and their frustration at having to share him.
The Boys in the Band was displaced by an immeasurably more powerful portrayal of homosexual groups. Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1971). Set in a Quebec prison, this disturbing, factually based drama vividly recounted the corruption of a heterosexual convict trapped in a tough, potentially vicious homosexual society. In one horrifying scene a weak, put-upon prisoner is gang-banged by his fellow inmates; in another, the ’hero’ is blackmailed by his cellmate into accepting him as his lover for the duration
of the remainder of his prison sentence.
Just as sensational in theme- though delightfully sensitive in its handling – was Louis Malle’s Dearest Love (1971), in which a young teenager has his first sexual experience with his own mother: a beautifully controlled, convincing and totally unsalacious film.
Susannah York was seduced back into lesbianism by Elizabeth Taylor in Zee and Co. (1971), a desperate ploy by the latter to win her husband (Michael Caine) back from Susannah’s illicit arms.
A minor breakthrough was scored by Nicolas Roeg’s superbly photographed Walkabout (1970), the story of a young brother and sister’s survival in the Australian desert, which earned nothing more restrictive than an A certificate from the censor despite a full-frontal shot – admittedly utterly charming – of Jenny Agutter bathing nude in a shallow pool. Milos Forman’s comedy, Taking Off (1971), also achieved a small advance, this time on the language front, by being permitted to retain uncut in Britain a hilarious, beautifully sung folk-song called ‘Ode to a Screw’ in which every line of lyric contains the word ‘fuck’.
A much more significant piece of progress was notched up by Dusan Makavejev’s brilliant satirical fantasy extolling the theories (the main one being that social and political oppression stem from unfulfilled sexuality) of Wilhelm Reich, W.R. – Mysteries of the Organism (1971).
This contained not only extensive nudity and exuberant lovemaking, but also the commercial cinema’s first erection, in a scene in which a girl takes a plaster cast of a man’s erect penis.
One of the most delightfully bawdy sex films of the ‘seventies was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron (1970), which captured superbly, in a series of graphically ribald sketches, performed mostly by non-professional actors, the spirit of Boccaccio. Among the best was one about a man who achieves rear entry into another man’s wife by pretending to change her into a horse; and another about a gardener who seduces (or is seduced by?) a whole convent of nuns. An attempt by Pasolini to repeat the formula with his version of The Canterbury
Talcs (1972) was, alas, a total failure; where The Decameron was bawdy and funny, the Tales was merely tasteless and grotesque, in spite of explicit nudity and shots of (for example) simulated homosexual intercourse (again, with a limp penis).
The great conti-oversy of 1971 occurred in Britain and concei’ned the judgment of new censor Stephen Murphy on three separate films, The Devils, Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange, all of which came out in relatively quick succession and caught the new man l-ather unfairly on the hop. Coincident with Ti-evelyan’s l’etirement in 1971 there was a renewal of pressure to increase censorship. This movement was associated with a turn to the right in British politics and a reversal of the liberalism that had charactei’ized the ’sixties. It was also a reaction to the very different material that was now emanating from America, still the major source of films for this country.
The Devils proved to be Ken Russell’s most tasteless, hysterical and unpleasant film, an account, supposedly, of the sexual possession of the nuns of Loudon during the reign of Louis XIII. A catalogue of grotesque tortures and sexual excesses, with Vanessa Redgi’ave (as mad Sister Jeanne) frenziedly masturbating in her cell, The Devils met with scant appi’oval from the new censor who came down hai’d on it – though not hard enough for some people.
The trouble stai’ted when Murphy subsequently allowed Sam Peckinpah’s immensely gory Straw Dogs and Stanley Kubrick’s intrinsically violent A Clockwork Orange a fairly easy passage to the cinema. Critics and
public alike made spurious comparisons between the films and the apparently arbitrary decisions made by the censor. Many people, horrified by the mayhem in Straw Dogs, felt it should have been cut much further; the same with Clockwork Orange, especially the phallic murder sequence and the mugging scenes.
Straw Dogs had, in fact, lost a good deal of its violence (all of which remained in the American version), but only a few seconds had been snipped from the rape scene (most of which was cut from the American version), leading Alexander Walker to assume, quite erroneously and unjustifiably, that Susan George has been buggered, when it is perfectly clear that she has simply been entered from the rear. Many enemies of the Board of Censors took the opportunity to attack it at this very vulnerable time in an attempt to unseat Murphy, but he
Right: The ‘Don Gianni’ episode from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron (1970), in which a priest convinces a peasant that he can turn his wife into a horse. When she is naked and on all fours he ‘adds the horse’s tail*.
Opposite: Michael Green as Queenie’, who does a full- frontal drag striptease in Fortune and Men’s Eyes (Harvey Hart, 1971). a harsh study of homosexuality in a Quebec prison.
survived, and in retrospect his decisions appeared to be based on sound aesthetic judgment of the films concerned.
However, 1971 remains a potent instance of the constraining factor of public opinion. It is well known that the public is more concerned about sex and bad language than it is about violence, while British groups like the Festival of Light and the National Viewers and Listeners Association are almost solely concerned with sex and can exert disproportionate pressure by playing off one medium against another. After the traumas of 1971-2, there was little immediate likelihood of the Board relaxing its standards to any marked degree. The GLC’s liberal policy (always liable to be overturned by political circumstances) and the existence of the members-only clubs (so strongly threatened by the Conservative administration of 1970^1) remained as important alternatives in the face of severity on the part of the Board.
An almost incessant storm raged throughout
the early ’seventies round the films of Andy Warhol – or to be more accurate, of his colleague and active cameraman, Paul Morrissey. Most of Warhol’s product is regarded as ‘underground’ material, although some of his films (which ‘usually run for several hours and are totally boring except to the initiated’, says Leslie Halliwell) have a strong following, including Sleep (1963), Blow Job (1964), My Hustler (1965), The Chelsea Girls (1966) and Blue Movie (1969).
Morrissey’s first film for Warhol as director was Flesh (1968), a coherent, absorbing, accessible study of a young man (Joe Dallesandro, constant star of Warhol/Morrissey movies) who hustles for homosexuals in New York for a day in order to pay for his wife’s girlfriend’s abortion. It is candid and explicit, peopled with transvestites and homosexuals, contains a brief, casual shot of an erection, and has a fellatio sequence. The Board of Censors, then under John Trevelyan, could not justify giving
the film a certificate, but encouraged the distributors to approach the reputable Open Space Theatre to give it club-controlled screenings. However, a member of the public complained that Flesh was obscene and over thirty policemen descended on the theatre in February, 1970, in order to seize the film and charge its exhibitors under the Obscene Publications Act. A tremendous row followed, as much over the peremptory police action as anything else. The outcome was that the obscenity charge was dropped on the grounds that films were not subject to the Obscene Publications Act, but the theatre was heavily fined for admitting non-members to see the film. Flesh subsequently ran to predictably packed houses at a London cinema and ensured good audiences for any future Morrissey films.
The next was Trash (1970), a powerful antidrugs tract in which Dallesandro played a man who has been rendered sexually impotent by hard drugs. The Board again refused a
certificate (Stephen Murphy’s first decision of note), claiming that the message was not obvious, that there was an implication of approval for soft drugs, and that some scenes could give offence, namely ‘the opening fellatio, close shots of the needle in the drug-addict’s arm, and the famous masturbation-with-a-beer-bottle sequence’. After a long period of haggling (and refusal to show the film by most local authorities approached), the distributors agreed to cut the film, and it was fortuitously launched at a time of public outcry over plans to televize a documentary about Warhol (although the latter, when it was finally transmitted, proved to be so pretentious and tedious that most of the good publicity was nullified).
A third Morrissey film. Heat (1971), a smoothly made, almost ‘commercial’ feature vaguely sending up Sunset Boulevard, with Dalle- sandro as an ex-juvenile star ambitious to get back into pictures, was passed after elimination of a scene showing a dim-witted young man constantly masturbating and enjoying fellatio (later passed intact by the GLC).
Compared with the candour of a Warhol/ Morrissey film, even the cruder erotic features from the ’seventies look bland, and this would certainly apply to Portnoy’s Complaint (1972), a clumsy adaptation of Philip Roth’s celebrated book about a young Jew who sublimates his insecurities in masturbation. Also heavy- handed was Michael Winner’s peculiarly moribund exercise of ‘prologuing’ Henry James’s
story, ‘The Turn of the Screw’, which came out as The Nightcomers (1971). It did, however, have one remarkably tempestuous sex scene between Marlon Brando and Stephanie Beacham, strongly laced with sado-masochism.
A welcome comedy appeared in 1972, from the original hands of Woody Allen, with the excessively long title, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* *But Were Afraid to Ask. This took the form of a hit-or-miss series of sketches illustrating points from a sex manual, the funniest of which were a spoof horror movie, complete with crippled retainer transformed into a monster by an experimental four-hour orgasm; and a fantasy which imagines the inside of the body as a scientific operations room staffed by little men in white coats, all co-operating in a joint bid to complete a satisfactory seduction which the ’body’ is undertaking in a car.
Animation at last discovered sex, most notably in the full-length feature cartoons, Fritz the Cat (1971) and Heavy Traffic (1973), a pair of bawdy, often crude satires on Harlem tenement life of which a convention seems to be that you can get away with a lot more erotic excess in a piece of animation than you can in an ordinary film.
The next controversy to follow the Warhol disputes surrounded a film by Bernardo Bertolucci – Last Tango in Paris (1972). This study of despair, loneliness and lust, pivoting on a casual affair between a recent widower (Marlon
Brando) and a girl (Maria Schneider), became notorious for its candid sex scenes, although they took up no more than about ten minutes of the film’s two-hour length. One of them, however, involved anal entry, complete with butter (although Brando kept his trousers on throughout), and another called for a brief speech full of bestial images during an anal grope.
The Board trimmed the Butter Scene, as it became known, but otherwise left the film intact, angering the various reactionary organizations, such as the Festival of Light, devoted to stricter censorship of the media. A cui-ious Central Criminal Court ‘loophole’ judgment by the Lord Chief Justice in 1974, stating that films could, after all, be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, gave the hardliners some hope, however, that a private prosecution taken out against Last Tango by a retired Salvation Army worker might result in its being banned.
A further prosecution was taken out by Mrs Mary Whitehouse, a leading pro-censorship figure, against another controversial Continental film, Blow-Out (1973), a fantasy in which a group of people shut themselves in a house and eat themselves to death, with full wind accompaniment, pauses for defecation, and sex on the side. The prosecution, having been taken out under the Vagrancy Act and not the Obscene Publications Act, failed, but the judge made it clear that he thought parts of the film were obscene.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the breakdown of formal censorship paved the way in the ’seventies for much stronger meat than that which was causing reactionary hackles to rise in Britain. ’Nudie’ films and soft-core pornography had for some while been filtering on to the nation’s cinema screens, care being taken only to ensure that the strict laws against obscenity in advertising were not transgressed.
It was only a matter of time, therefore, before someone would take the plunge and set a dish of hard-core pornography before the public. This came in the surprisingly palatable form of Deep Throat, one of the most controversially successful films in cinema history. With total explicitness, and a shade or two more skill than is usually displayed in hard-core pornography, Deep Throat developed the amusing idea of a girl unsatisfied by sex until she discovers that her clitoris is in the back of her throat.
The actress who played this biological freak, Linda Lovelace, acquired sufficient fame from Deep Throat for her name to be recognized even by thousands of Britons who had yet to see her film, and even deemed it worthwhile to visit London and discuss censorship in Britain. Miss Lovelace became the object of a small but hilarious joke cult, among the best of which was the rumour that her follow-up movie was going to be a remake – Guess Who’s Coming – for Dinner.
Gerard Damiano, who made Deep Throat, was also responsible for its most celebrated and lucrative successor, The Devil in Miss Jones
(1973) – described by William Rotsler as a ‘modern existentialist drama’ and ‘the most determinedly anti-erotic film I’ve ever seen .. . they do virtually everything in the book, including oral sex with a snake…. The anal sex that was prominent in … Deep Throat is shown
here almost as a way of life. . . . Afterwards, I felt like going to a Disney movie to wash my mind out.’
More respectfully admired by hard-core initiates was the Mitchell Brothers’ (Behind) The Green Door (1972), about a woman’s bisexual orgy fantasies. Its star, Marilyn Chambers, expressed the sex actors’ ethos in an interview with Rotsler: ‘So many couples come to see The Green Door, it’s amazing! I’ve heard a lot of people say, “God, we went home and we hadn’t screwed for so long and jeez, it was out of sight!” To me that means I’m doing a good job. If people get turned on by it, then it’s groovy.’ She also summarized the American censorship situation with admirable succinctness: ’The rating system kills me. If a guy cuts off a woman’s breast it is rated R. If a guy kisses it, it’s rated X! How absurd!’
However, the threat of backlash hung over this whole lucrative arena. The Nixon administration had, from the first, been determined to make a vigorous effort to reverse the trend of the previous decade. After the election of 1968, the complexion of the Supreme Court rapidly changed as men known to be out of sympathy with the liberalism of the Warren era were appointed. In rejecting the report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography in 1970 Nixon made his own attitude very clear: ‘The warped and brutal portrayal of sex in books,
plays, magazines and movies, if not halted and reversed, could poison the wellsprings of American and Western culture and civilisation. . . .’
In New York, Mayor Lindsay tried to clean up Times Square but was rebuffed by the courts who ruled that the revoking of licences was prior restraint and therefore unconstitutional. Early in 1973, Nixon presented an Anti- Obscenity Bill that seemed likely to affect wide sections of the film industry, for prison was threatened for anyone who handled material that ‘represents any act of sexual intercourse, flagellation, torture or violence; shows any explicit close-up of a human genital organ; or makes any advertisement notice, announcement, or other method by which information is given as to the manner in which any of the obscene material may be procured’. Safeguards protecting material with an ‘artistic, scientific, or literary purpose’ seemed weak, given the broad framing of the Bill.
Shortly afterwards the Supreme Court reversed its earlier judgment that the constitution protects obscene matter, and argued that local community standards rather than national standards should be applied, thus opening the way for a resurgence of local censorship. Exhibitors were promptly prosecuted for showing films like Carnal Knowledge, Paper Moon and Last Tango in Paris.
The MPAA organized opposition to protect the industry from such local action, and
received some encouragement when the New York Supreme Court threw out cases against four films on the grounds that there was no way of knowing whether the majority of the population of the city would regard them as obscene or not. Within a few months the Supreme Court was indicating that it might amplify or redefine its decision in an effort to combat the confusion that had arisen. Much, of course, hinged upon general political developments in America and whether the campaign against ‘obscene’ films would go down with the Nixon administration.
By mid-’74 Britain had not dared to emulate America by introducing hard-core pornography into its cinemas, and given the state of the law and the eagerness of watchdogs to invoke it. the day when that would happen looked a long way off. It seemed ironic, therefore, that some distribution in the States was still subject to censorship and that the exquisite nude love scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now (1973), untouched by censor’s hand in the British version, was scissored out for American release. Meanwhile, it was intriguing and encouraging to note that the explicit but very discreet lovemaking in Siddartha (1973) drew from the British censor nothing more severe than an A certificate.
Every revolution produces a reaction, and there have been signs in the United States, with business in some sex cinemas down by 60 per cent, that even hard-core pornography is a passing phase at the public level. If this is so, what will replace it? One frightening answer is suggested in Guardian correspondent Richard Roud’s observations after watching Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie (1974) at the Cannes Film Festival: ’Sweet Movie features, you could say, urination and defecation. Not to forget a great deal of vomiting. Curious that these bodily functions should turn out to have been the last taboo to go, that sexual intercourse seems to have less thrill value than the digestive and excretory functions. But I expect the psycho-analysts could explain that.’