Playboy Magazine produced a documentary titled Sex at 24 Frames Per Second (2003) that was written and directed by Kevin Burns and Steven Smith. It gives the viewers a brief glance at the relationship between Sex and Hollywood.
In line with its producer’s characteristics, the film gives the audience a review of Hollywood’s sex goddesses from Theda Bara and Alice Faye to Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich to Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansefield to Gina Lolobrigida and Sophia Loren to Elizabeth Taylor and Raquel Welch to the James Bond girls up to sexy comedienne Cameron Diaz.
Of course, Playboy boss Hugh Hefner is one of the interviewees. Director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct and Showgirls) and Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction) and actresses Sharon Stone and Raquel Welch are among those interviewed for the film.
The documentary brings us on a nostalgic tour of Hollywood, showing us film clips from the silent era to the present times. We get glimpses of the naked bodies (PG-rated only) of the stars of bygone eras like Theda Bara and Heddy Lamarr. We get to hear once again the sexually witty one-liners of Mae West like when she quipped, “When I’m good, I’m very good; when I’m bad, I’m even better.”
We get to see the all-time G-rated love team of Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Under the Hayes Code (the very strict censorship code Hollywood invoked upon itself), the actors, even if they play husband and wife characters, were not allowed to be seen together in one bed. Even married couples were required to have separate beds! To get around that, Hudson and Day got to say a lot of double-entendres and the directors used a lot of split screen where they can be in say, separate bath tubs yet share the same movie screen (and viewers’ minds) at the same time.
Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor got the biggest exposure. Marilyn represents the tragic sex goddess while Elizabeth represents the sex goddess as a celebration of life.
Milestones in Hollywood’s cinematic sex history like The Valley of the Dolls, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice were acknowledged. And so were the ground-breaking X-rated films Deep Throat and Beyond the Green Door at the height of the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s. But understandably, Caligula, produced by Hefner’s rival, Penthouse’s Bob Guccione, was mentioned quite negatively.
Like Playboy magazine, Sex in Hollywood is presented through rose-colored glasses. The innocence of pre-Code Hollywood was mentioned but the hypocrisy of Hollywood under and after the Code was glossed over.
The legal battles between the movie producers and the State over Censorship were not mentioned at all. And it presented Hollywood as if it were at par with Europe in terms of presenting sexuality on-screen.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the enactment of any law abridging the freedom of speech or press. But censorship remained.
In the 1960s, the film version of Lady Chatterley’ Lover was banned in New York. Fortunately, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling. Justice Stewart, in his ponencia, noted: “What New York has done, therefore, is to prevent the exhibition of a motion picture because that picture advocates an idea…Yet the First Amendment’s basic guarantee is of freedom to advocate ideas. The State, quite simply, has thus struck at the very heart of constitutionally protected liberty.”
Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flint gives a good picture of how the battle for censorship was waged between the anti-censorship activists and the State.
SEX IN EUROPEAN CINEMA
The documentary tries to give the impression that Hollywood is as sexually advanced as European cinema. Nothing can be further from the truth.
By the mid-70s, sex in European cinema became ordinary fare. Before Jane Fonda starred in Barbarella, she already made a number of sexy films in France. When Sylvia Kristel as Emmanuelle burst into the movie screens, European cinema was already showing sex in cinema as a matter of course. The top ingredient of Emmanuelle was not the story or direction; it was the sheer charisma of its star, Sylvia Kristel. I saw the movie in Paris and people really queued up to see the film.
I remember the time I went to see Caligula in a mainstream cinema in Paris. When I entered the theater, the film already started. Before I took my seat, I looked up at the screen and was shocked at what I saw. The film starred Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren and Sir John Gielgud. I thought I went into the wrong cinema. I stood still for several seconds until the usherette brought me out of my shock. She kept on repeating, “Service, M’sieur.” She was waiting for her tip.
While Caligula was shown in Europe just like any mainstream film, it was banned in the United States and created a huge controversy. In the documentary, Bob Guccione said that he just wanted to portray how life really was in Imperial Rome. This, to me, is very important.
The Roman Empire had been inculcated in our minds as “The Glory that Was Rome”. It was the epitome of European civilization. When I was young, I thought of the ancient Romans as the Caesar of Rex Harrison or the Anthony of Richard Burton or the Brutus of James Mason or the Calpurnia of Diana Rigg. After watching Caligula, I researched into Roman history and was shocked at how barbaric it was. And yes, ordinary Roman and Greek soldiers were naked except for their shields and spears! Those who had ranks wore an upper armor but no skirts. Only the commanders wore skirt armors.
Recently, for the Athens Olympics, a film was made about the ancient Greek Olympics. Many people complained that it was not realistic. Many people now know that the ancient Olympians wore nothing at all.
It is quite remarkable to think that in the cradle of Western civilization, during the times of “The Glory that was Greece” and “The Grandeur that was Rome”, people actually go about their business stark naked and sex was not taboo.
EXPLICIT SEX IN CINEMA
The documentary did not delve into explicit sex. It ended by saying that by the late 1990s, sex was again being celebrated in Hollywood. While some interviewees said that Hollywood is hypocritical, the documentary itself is hypocritical. It tries to give the idea that sex in cinema today is exemplified by comedies like The Full Monty (1997) and Something About Mary (1998).
This Playboy documentary even ignores its own Playboy Channel on cable which features steamy sex and full frontal nudity.
Explicit sex in cinema has been around since the 1970s but such movies were usually shown “underground”. The one that started it all in mainstream cinema was the Franco-Japanese film In the Realm of the Senses by Nagisa Oshima in 1976.
European cinema has been pushing the envelope further to the edge since then. In 1986, one of my favorite actresses, Maruschka Detmers (Prenom Carmen), shocked the world by giving her co-star Federico Pitzalis a fellatio, which was shown uncut. The brief scene was totally gratuitous. The film was mediocre and it did not help Detmers’ career at all.
In 1998, Denmark’s top director Lars Von Trier made The Idiots which included explicit sex scenes. In Switzerland and Germany, it was rated only R-16 and was even shown on Australian TV uncut.
In 1999, Catherine Breillat outdid herself when she directed Romance X with Caroline Ducey, Sagamore Stévenin, and porn actor Rocco Siffredi. The film contained “unsimulated” sex accompanied with heavy philosophizing.
In 2000, Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi co-directed Baise-Moi, a film that showed explicit sex throughout the film. The film is anything but erotic.
In England, respected actors Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox starred in Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy (2001). There is also a fellatio scene. While Detmers and Pitzalis were young and beautiful, Rylance and Fox were middle aged and average-looking. Yet the Intimacy fellatio scene appeared more intrinsic to the film than the one in Detmers’ movie. Rylance is the Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater while Fox (An Angel at my Table) is an established New Zealand actress.
Mainstream British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom upped the ante with his 9 Songs (2005). The film’s actors Kieran O’Brien and newcomer Margo Stilley performed unsimulated sex which was shown in its entire splendor.
Cult director John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006) contains graphic sex but is also innovative, provocative and presents several perspectives on sex. It won several awards in international festivals.
Shortbus lead actress Sook-Yin Lee found out that having sex on screen may be dangerous to one’s job. Her bosses at Canadian Broadcasting Corp (CBC) fired her because of her sex act in Shortbus. Lee was a host of a radio program. The public and several celebrities like Francis Ford Coppola, Julianne Moore, Gus Van Sant, David Cronenberg, and Yoko Ono rallied to her support until CBC relented.
THE SEXUAL SUBJECT
In the documentary, Hugh Hefner said that his magazine’s centerfold is their way of saying, “hey, good girls want sex, too.” While Mr. Hefner isolates himself in his mansion with a bevy of bunnies, the rest of the word has grown up. World cinema has grappled with the sexual subject in all its manifestations.
Cinema offers us representations or versions of reality. When it comes to sexual activity, the manner and limits of representation in mainstream cinema continue to be passionately debated.