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American Sexual Cinema

Cashing in on Sex

Of course film aesthetics and representation are not divorced from societal changes, but reality isn’t always reflected in the fiction. While we might safely assume that people were having sex during the thirties, forties and fifties in the US, that didn’t mean it was going to find its way on the cinema screens. But the liberation of society through feminism, the hippie movement, through the turbulent sixties where a president and three other major political figures were assassinated, through a Vietnam war that many people protested against, meant that the image finally caught up with people’s lives. While there were hardcore films making money (Behind the Green Door, Deep Throat and The Devil and Miss Jones), what interests us here is the presence of sex and nudity in American films that were not specifically aimed at sexual release, but instead sexual representation. As Brian De Palma so bluntly put it in The Film Yearbook (Vol.4): “the stuff that is shot and sold as porn is meant to get you aroused and to climax. I don’t think my movies have people coming in their seats.”

Often in early seventies movies we would see a flash of nudity, but the films weren’t especially focused on sexuality: from Paula Prentiss in Catch 22, to Gilda Texter in Vanishing Point. But other films from the late sixties to the beginning of the eighties played up the sexuality of theme as well as showing sexual content. Midnight Cowboy, Carnal Knowledge, Last Tango in Paris, American Gigolo, Looking for Mr Goodbar and Bad Timing were all complex explorations of the sexual. Of course we are being a little liberal with the notion of American cinema, with only one of the films directed by a born American (Looking for Mr Goodbar), but they all have at least one American protagonist, and seem part of a mature look at sex in an English language context, and will serve our argument as we look at three different moments of sexual film in English language cinema.

Midnight Cowboy shows a young, naïve Texan coming to New York thinking he can make it big as a stud: Joe Buck (Jon Voight) instead finds a city indifferent to others and where making a buck, so to speak, means turning a trick. The best way Joe can make a living is servicing men in toilet quickies rather than taking his time with high class women. When it seems like he has found some work, he ends up receiving a tirade rather than a few dollars: the older woman can’t believe he expects her to pay him. Like in Looking for Mr Goodbar, Carnal Knowledge and American Gigolo, sex is usually a seedy affair, a means by which people alienate themselves from each other instead of finding themselves. Norman O Brown in Life Against Death says: “man’s desire for happiness is in conflict with the whole world. Reality imposes on human beings the necessity of renunciation of pleasures; reality frustrates desire. The pleasure principle is in conflict with the reality principle, and this conflict is the cause of repression.” Joe Buck has enjoyed the sex but needs the money, just as in Looking for Mr Goodbar Diane Keaton isn’t looking for cash but a meaningful pleasure principle. When Richard Gere’s character comes over to chat her up his opening line is coldly comparative: “most of the others here are dogs, but you are okay.” How can love come out of such an encounter, and does it need to? Or does it become just another seedy exchange? When it looks like she isn’t interested he says: “you’re passing up the best fuck of your life.”

In Last Tango in Paris and Bad Timing, the films create encounters that are claustrophobically encompassing. In the first, Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider hole themselves up in an empty apartment, strangers looking at the same flat who become intimates in this liminal space. They know almost nothing about each other; but in some ways that doesn’t hamper intimacy – it creates it. It allows them to live a life temporarily in their world and not in the world. As Tanya Krzywinska says in Sex and the Cinema: “Sex is the primary route to existential authenticity… However, sex does not prove to be the universal panacea for healing the distortions inflicted by social conditioning. Instead, it is a moment of respite in which authenticity is fleetingly achieved.” In Bad Timing, Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell get out more, even holidaying in Morocco, but this is an affair of the heart that leads to catastrophe of the soul: the bad timing of the title indicating that these are two people who should never have met, as Garfunkel’s control-freak nature meets Russell’s need for freedom. Psychoanalyst Garfunkel wants to diagnose, but fails to see that he would need to love her more than his own dignity, in the words of her ex-husband.

In all these films the emotional and psychological complexity of the sexual is explored, but in the mid-to-late eighties this was simplified in an erotic cinema that seemed to play up the lifestyle choice more than the existential. Exemplified by 9 ½ Weeks, then evident in Two Moon Junction, Lake Consequence, Zandalee and Wild Orchid, these were films that couched the sexual within the notion of a lifestyle. If the apartment in Last Tango in Paris is a space that belongs to no none, in 9 ½ Weeks it is essential to Mickey Rourke’s desirability: he is the Wall Street financier; she is the struggling gallery employee. He has space aplenty; she has a cramped apartment. The films play up locations rather than locales; extracting from the environment what it needs to play up the advertorial glamour over the existentially authentic. As one website ( shows numerous images from the film and the places where they were filmed, so we see it is a world as fantasy: the high life intermingled with sexual pleasure all the better to show the commodification of the image without necessarily critiquing the nature of the environment.

The other films follow suit: a need to suggest the good life materially however tortured. Think of the motorbike moment in Wild Orchid, with Rourke sunglasses, ear-ring, open leather jacket with a bare chest, on a Harley Davison, the self-made millionaire brooding but retaining his cool down in Brazil. These are films in the tradition of European erotic cinema like Emmanuelle and The Story of O, with beautiful bodies against a backdrop of high-end housing and exotic location shooting. They are often psychological in the sense that a young woman seeks more from life and gets more than she bargained for: a sexual Faustian pact that usually gets a bit kinky or a little crazy.

It is as though this led into a wave of crime films of the early nineties where the perverse became prominent indeed. Here the suggestively sexualised femme fatale of forties noir meets a feminised power play, with the woman playing aggressively sexual rather than subtly manipulative. When in the forties film Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck comes down the stairs wearing an anklet, she nevertheless plays shy and shrunken as she sits small in a large chair and settles for a few sexual innuendos. In John Dahl’s The Last Seduction Linda Fiorentino puts her hand down a stranger’s trousers as she decides whether he will be a useful sexual companion. In Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone famously opens and closes her legs in an interrogation scene: rushed out of the house by a couple of detectives, she didn’t have time to put on her underwear, or didn’t care to do so. It made sense that the embodiment of post-feminist sexual allure, Madonna, would get in on the act. A year after publishing her book, Sex, she made Body of Evidence, directed by Uli Edel. As in the other films, a man finds himself caught in a lustful relationship with a woman whom he doesn’t trust, as noir paranoia meets a man’s wildest sexual dreams even if they always threaten to to turn into his worst nightmares.

Basic Instinct remains the key film here. In Verhoeven’s biography, Rob Van Scheers quotes Camille Paglia: “that interrogation scene in the police station became one of the classic scenes in Hollywood cinema! There you see it all: all those men around her, a fully sexual woman turns them to jelly. The men are enslaved by their own sexuality.” While in Last Tango in Paris and Bad Timing the films are complex examinations of nuanced feeling, the erotic dramas show women tortured by their own burgeoning impulses, and in the erotic thriller it is chiefly about power and manipulation. Sex in the latter is turned back into a very American notion: an issue of money. As Naomi Wolf says, again quoted in the Verhoeven biography: “[Sharon Stone’s character is “a complex, compelling, Nietzschean Uberfraulein who owns everything about her own power.” The existentially sexual that Krzywinska talks about, becomes the economically sexualised. Sex isn’t a problem with our minds and bodies; it is a tool we use to get what we want. Verhoeven’s film, for all its pulpy, crude vulgarity captures well the idea that everything isn’t about sex, but about control and cash. A primal force transformed into capitalist plenitude. Like with the erotic dramas, the erotic thriller can’t easily distinguish between the pleasures of the flesh and the pleasures of money, nor would it wish to do so. The earlier films are rather more interested in interrogating the question of sexual desire.

©Tony McKibbin