A brief history of sex in cinema

James Oliver 30 November -0001

As Fifty Shades Darker gets audiences hot under the collar, James Oliver casts an eye over the history of sex in movies...

As has been abundantly clear for the past 100,000 years or so, human beings are absolutely obsessed by sex. Mating rituals and procreation have been inspiring artists ever since the days of cave paintings and while depictions have become more sophisticated—wrapped up in poetry or hidden behind Mona Lisa smiles—the basic themes, of attraction and desire, have barely changed.

And it remains an enduringly popular topic—witness how sweaty sequel Fifty Shades Darker has thrust its way to box office glory.

This is only the latest iteration of cinematic sex. “It” has been a popular subject from the medium’s earliest days: once they’d got over the sheer novelty of moving pictures, early filmmakers quickly started getting seductive. Cheerfully embracing the national stereotype, it was the French who led the way:

Such things drew the crowds. So you could say sexuality helped build the film industry. At the very least, it helped cement the Star System: let’s not pretend that those thespians who became audience favourites were being acclaimed for their acting abilities. Nope—watching attractive people making eyes at each other (and imagining what happens after the fade out) is one of the perennial pleasures of movie-going.

You might think that older films, made before what’s now regarded as the sexual revolution, would look chaste by today’s lubricious standards. In fact, this is not so: Hollywood films from the early 1930s are surprisingly frank about the pleasures of the flesh, often exhibiting an easy virtue that appalled right-thinking people everywhere. Such shamelessness is usefully illustrated here:

These relaxed attitudes came to a shuddering halt with the arrival of the Production Code in 1934, a statute that enforced a rigid morality upon the American film industry, designed to ensure that the only hanky-panky in movie theatres would be that taking place on the back row.

Nevertheless, more inventive directors found ways to circumvent this cinematic chastity belt, using innuendo to sneak things past the censors. Take this scene from The Lady Eve...

Or Lauren Bacall in her first film, To Have and Have Not:

One director made it his mission in life to thumb his nose at the thin-lipped moral guardians. This was Alfred Hitchcock. For instance, the Code said no kiss should last longer than three seconds. So Hitch cooked up this little number in Notorious:

Sometimes, he was more blatant. Like the ending of North by Northwest...

As with so much, things changed in 1960s. The Production Code bit the dust in 1968. Finally free to show what they liked, filmmakers rushed to take advantage. No film better represents this than Last Tango in Paris, in which Marlon Brando mourns his late wife and embarks on an anonymous affair with a foxy “chick” many years his junior.

Back then, it caused controversy thanks to its graphic on-screen sex. These days, Last Tango in Paris is controversial all over again. Not for its sex scenes but for allegations about how its lead actress (Maria Schneider, then only 19) was treated on set.

Image via filipamoreno

Leaving the specifics aside for now, the change is revealing: not (just) that we are more aware, and concerned about abuses of power but how relaxed we are about “explicit content”. Fifty Shades of Grey and its progeny give us another example: a couple of decades back, this would have been strictly a cult proposition. Now it’s a mainstream success.

So blasé are we about on-screen sex, it’s worth taking a step back and thinking whether this is always for the best. Now, let’s not deny there is a real place for films with something to say about the complexities of adult sexuality—the likes of Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, for instance. But...

Consider the case of (the prize-winning) Blue Is the Warmest Colour, a (largely) sensitive and insightful drama that periodically pauses for what tabloid newspapers might describe as “romping”. The thing is, these scenes are boring. They kill the film’s momentum and sit awkwardly alongside the careful observation that makes the rest so compelling.

No one wants to go back to the days of Alfred Hitchcock’s train set but there’s a case to be made for some restraints, and not the Fifty Shades of Grey sort either. We’re in danger of losing the noble art of suggestion, a more effective stimulant than letting it all hang out. If the history of cinematic sex has taught us anything, it’s that less really can be more.


Read more: 10 Shady romance films about the darker side of love 

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Feature image via rogersmovienation