Politics and economics and the rest of our usual fare seem far too dreary for such a mild spring day as today, so we might as well take time out to note an interesting development in the field of motion pictures. According to a report in London’s Telegraph, the steamy sex scene has all but disappeared from Hollywood fare.
The Fleet Street dispatch confirmed our own observation of the contemporary cinema. Although our theater-going virtually ceased way back in the four-dollar-ticket days, when we noticed that all the good movies had already been made, the advent of Netflix and other stay-at-home media have allowed us to indulge a purely sociological interest in the latest offerings to an extent that we have lately noticed a distinct lack of gratuitous sex and nudity. Having been regular movie-goers back in the ‘70s, when movie-makers felt obligated to insert a few bare breasts into even the most asexual plot lines, the frequent absence of such scenes is strikingly conspicuous.
More avid movie buffs will no doubt be able to cite numerous exceptions to this trend, and might even know the exact moment on the well-worn video disc to find them, but it’s certainly not like the old days when even such respectable actresses as Julie Andrews were routinely exposing themselves. In today’s cinema the actresses are more likely to be wielding actual bazookas rather than the slang variety, and shoot-outs seem far more common than sex scenes. This strikes the Telegraph’s correspondent as an odd development, given the continued popularity of sex, and it strikes us as doubly odd at a time when Hollywood is self-righteously embracing both the current gun control mania and an anything-goes sexual philosophy.
The Telegraph offers the expected economic explanation, citing the importance of an under-age audience that is theoretically excluded from any motion picture that receives an “R” rating. Although the theory is quite plausible, and backed up by quotes from suddenly censorious movie directors and producers, it overlooks a longer trend in the development of movies.
Since the advent of television, the movie industry has mostly devoted itself to offering something that can’t be found at home. In the ‘50s this meant the kinds of big-budget, wide-screen, Technicolor epics that wouldn’t fit on the tiny black-and-white screens that were then the state of the television art. The moral standards of the time meant the epics were usually of the Biblical or historical variety, and while such directors as Cecil B. DeMille could always find some fairly salacious passages of scripture or risqué episodes of antiquity the actresses always kept their robes on. Color television and mini-series eventually allowed television to compete on these epic terms, but by then the “sexual revolution” had come along to allow movies a degree of explicitness that still wasn’t allowable on the federally-regulated public airwaves. A natural public interest in what a famous movie star looked like naked could only be sated at the theaters, and Hollywood took full advantage. Cable television then negated this advantage, however, and much of its premium-channel fare was devoted to nothing but nudity and simulated sex scenes with all of that extraneous plot and dialogue and character development stuff dispensed with altogether.
Now that the internet provides easy access to an astounding abundance of outright pornography, with something for even the most arcane tastes, Hollywood has retreated back to the big spectacle gimmick. This time around the technology is even more extravagant, with Imax theaters that dwarf the old curtained Cinemascope screens and computer-generated special effects and seat-shaking sound systems that make Moses’ parting of the Red Sea seem a cheap parlor trick, with all of that extraneous plot and dialogue and character development stuff dispensed with altogether. It doesn’t make for very compelling viewing to anyone but that coveted under-age audience, but it doesn’t require a lot of complicated translating for the foreign markets and thus far it can’t be found at home.
Demur as we are about matters of sexuality, being of a conservative temperament both politically and culturally, we regard this latest development with some regret. “The Last Detail,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and numerous other films of the ‘60s and ‘70s took full advantage of the era’s license to make meaningful statements that were made worthy by their frank depictions of a licentious time. On the other hand, the Hays Code era of strict restrains produced an even more impressive body of work, and such ingenious filmmakers as Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges and numerous others took full advantage of the hated studio system to create meaningful statements that were made worthy by their sly innuendo and elegant subtlety.
That Golden Age of Hollywood isn’t coming back, though, and the current circumspection of the cinema doesn’t signal a return to traditional sexual standards but rather an admission that they are gone with internet wind, so it’s sad to see that the movie-going public apparently prefers special effects to good old-fashioned sex. We never really minded all those breasts, to be quite honest in a ‘70s sort of way, and we always found them preferable to seeing some guy’s brain get blown all over the extra-wide screen Better to have a well-told story of interesting and believable people, maybe even a profound shoot-‘em-up such as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” or “The Professionals,” but apparently the kids aren’t interested.
— Bud Norman