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July 6, 1999
SEX IN THE CINEMA: FROM 'LAST TANGO' TO 'EYES WIDE SHUT'
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
No matter how much you love "Casablanca" (1942), you have to laugh.
Here's the big lovemaking scene coming up; Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are in a tense confrontation that finally melts into passion. The shot dissolves to a watchtower light coursing through the night sky, a clear signal that the two stars are enjoying an intimate physical encounter.
But when the camera comes back to the room they're in, what we see is Bogart still in his fancy dinner jacket! His tie is still tied! His collar isn't even unbuttoned! He is smoking a cigarette, but then Bogart is always smoking a cigarette. Off-camera, Bergman is yakking about something meant to move the plot along.
Today we're getting ready to catch the thoroughly unclothed Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in flagrante delicto in Stanley Kubrick's last movie, "Eyes Wide Shut."
The "Casablanca" passage is a "sex scene" as such scenes were shot during that long period, roughly from the early '30s to the late '60s, when Hollywood bluenoses had strict control over how far filmmakers could go in portraying acts of love between consenting adults. Married couples could not be shown in bed together, even if they were merely eating crackers, and any man and woman who were shown necking had to have at least one foot on the floor at all times. It was like the longest, most heavily chaperoned junior-high-school dance in history.
Finally around 1970, in the wake of court decisions and cultural sea-changes that relieved filmmakers of many constraints, American audiences could sigh with relief at finally being allowed to hear four-letter words and to see bloody violence and bare-naked sex at their neighborhood theater- a triumph for the First Amendment. Among other things, it meant filmmakers could now try their hand at using unabashed sex as a vehicle for drama. Results since then have been mixed.
Neophyte director Bernardo Bertolucci got things off to a rip-roaring start with "Last Tango in Paris" (1972), in which Marlon Brando - in the last fleeting flush of his attractive prime, immediately before he turned into a second Orson Welles – and an actress named Maria Schneider climb all over each other in an unfurnished Paris apartment.
Although the great critic Pauline Kael incurred the ridicule of her peers by comparing the film to Igor Stravinsky's shocking ballet music for "The Rite of Spring" in terms of its revolutionary nature, the consensus of film history has shown her to be absolutely right. The movie, about a grief-stricken American who expresses his rage and loneliness during encounters with a French student who is impassively floating into a marriage with her boring boyfriend, holds up as a wrenchingly believable character study filled with passion, tragedy and humor.
Since then, though, it's been one long case of cinematic postcoital letdown.
"Body Heat" (1981) took a young and highly desirable Kathleen Turner, hooked her up with a boyish William Hurt, threw in a lot of late-noir "Double Indemnity" type double-crosses, laid on a mess of suggestive photography and rising steam and stood back to let audiences bask in the spectacle of Turner and Hurt behaving very naughtily with one another.
All very well and good, but “Last Tango" it wasn't. Essentially an exercise in "what if?" noir revisionism (what if Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck had been allowed to take each other's clothes off?), the movie was that not-so-rare combination - an essentially cold film that manages by main force to be titillating.
And then there was "9-1/2 Weeks" (1986), with Mickey Rourke as an enigmatic pretty boy who turns Kim Basinger into his semi willing accomplice in semi-kinky activities.
The problem with the movie, based on a far more explicit novel, was that the filmmakers lacked the courage of their convictions. The result was, and is, laughable. Blanching at the prospect of showing truly out-there sex, the movie settles for mind games and blindfolds - you almost expect Rourke to suggest a heavy round of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.
Matters were a bit more promising with "Sea of Love," a 1989 movie that is today unaccountably little mentioned. Not only was it the first actually good screen performance Al Pacino had managed to turn in since before the scrofulous "Scarface," he had as his fetching co-star Ellen Barkin at the very apex of her appeal.
True, it was just another gussied-up policier, with Pacino as an alcoholic detective on the track of a killer and Barkin as a quasi-deviant femme fatale who crosses his path and may even be the culprit. But the suspense is pretty good and the sexual element is absorbing.
However, it became clear that the idea of using semi-explicit sex to sell story and character points had reached a dead end with the release of "Basic Instinct" (1991), with Michael Douglas as a confused, libidinous police officer and Sharon Stone as a bisexual suspected of murder.
Everything you could say about "Body Heat" applies here. The filmmakers become so desperate that they present Stone's visible lack of undergarments during a police interrogation scene as something "provocative."
If it's Nicole Kidman you're talking about, though, you can get rid of the idea that she only became a sex goddess with her recent London and New York stage appearances in "The Blue Room" and now with the release of "Eyes Wide Shut." Because In "Malice" (1993), another nasty little thriller that everyone's forgotten about, she was as lubricious as movie women get.
In a plot that makes "Body Heat" look straightforward and plausible, Kidman plays the wife of a mild-mannered professor (Bill Pullman); she is victimized by an arrogant doctor (Alec Baldwin), who deprives her of her reproductive capacities and whom she proceeds to sue for millions of dollars. Later, it turns out that little Nicole has been playing both sides of every fence in sight, and gets to do some hot and heavy on-camera work with one of the actors, whom we will not name for fear of giving away the plot. (OK, it’s Baldwin.)
The sexual element is a little more organic than anything you saw in "Body Heat" or "Basic Instinct," but the movie as a whole can't stand up to examination for the excellent reason that it makes almost no sense at all.
We leave out Kidman's performance as a TV vixen who seduces Joaquin Phoenix into committing a murder in "To Die For," because it's a dark comedy and therefore falls outside our purview.
How "Eyes Wide Shut" will fit into this cinematic history remains to be seen. The fact that it was made by a filmmaker who seldom previously had an erotic artistic impulse is something to keep in mind. It's entirely possible that the spectacle of Hollywood's most famous married Scientologists pleasuring each other under the direction of the man who conceived and shot the infamous rape scene in "Clockwork Orange" will leave viewers with their eyes shut tight.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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