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The Reel Thing

Real sex in non-pornographic films has never caught on, but it’s never completely gone away, either

by Shawn Stone on February 13, 2013


“Does she . . . or doesn’t she?”

Back in the golden age of pop-culture double entendres, that was the pitch for a long-running series of advertisements for a popular brand of hair dye. It continued:

“Hair color so natural only her hairdresser knows for sure!”

This clever campaign managed to layer one obvious sexual reference (does she have sex?) over another (only her lover knows for sure . . . if the carpet matches the drapes), letting every young woman know that using Miss Clairol was the ticket to an image of allure and sexual maturity.

Back in the golden age of Hollywood, “Does she . . . or doesn’t she” (or “Does he . . . or doesn’t he”) applied only to off-screen behavior. Outside of pornographic “stag” films—look around the web, you can find porn dating to the mid-1910s—there was no such thing as actual on-screen sex. Audiences tried to guess, however, if hot celluloid romance equaled a genuine off-screen relationship. Sometimes, as in the case of John Barrymore and most of his leading ladies, the answer was yes. (He even married a couple of them, one of whom became Drew’s grandmother.) Often, the answer was no, and for the obvious reason: Hollywood had as many off-screen gays playing on-screen heterosexuals then as now.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, and the end of traditional censorship. Nudity had arrived in the late ’60s, followed by on-screen simulated sex. For a deliriously demented example of the latter, see Russ Meyer’s mainstream box-office smash, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Boys and girls, girls and girls, boys and boys. . . . It’s a barrier-breaker.

Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience

While it’s a sure thing that Julie Christie didn’t actually have sex with a computer in 1976’s Demon Seed, audiences weren’t as sure about the graphic (“for its time,” Wikipedia demurs) sex scene between Christie and Donald Sutherland in 1974’s Don’t Look Now. Two aspects of that scene made it special. First, it wasn’t the titillating possibility that actual sex occurred, but rather that audiences believed that “sex happened.” And, second, it was important because of the deeply emotional context of the (fictional) married couple’s sex. Folks also swooned over the sex scene between Jon Voight and Jane Fonda in the post-Vietnam trauma film Coming Home.

Simulated sex threaded its way through ’70s mainstream cinema, but ended up a casualty of the conservative ’80s. (There were teen sex comedies, but these were usually neither funny nor sexy.) Porn, of course, remained unaffected.

In the 1990s, actual sex in cinema began to show up on the fringes, by which I mean the cinema art houses. Philip Kaufman’s Henry and June kicked off the decade with a fresh NC-17 (the legit equivalent of the old “X” rating) controversy, but there didn’t seem to be much actual sex.

On the other hand, French feminist provocateur Catherine Breillat has made a career examining women as sexual beings—and, along the way, has incorporated real fucking into some of her films. The 1999 drama Romance concerned a young woman (Caroline Ducey) insanely sexually frustrated in her relationship with a vain, selfish, self-involved male model. (Thus turning the usual art-film situation—earnest young man obsessed with a frigid goddess—upside down.) The woman sought fulfillment with random partners in a variety of situations, all the while trying to maintain her independence and emotional distance. For one long, explicit sex scene, Breillat hired Europorn legend Rocco Siffredi to sex up Ms. Ducey; it is suitably erotic. Not all of the film’s sex scenes are supposed to be erotic, though, as Romance also prominently features a harrowing rape.

Violent sex was at the center of Ang Lee’s 2007 World War II drama Lust, Caution, which presented a Chinese underground fighter (Tang Wei) in an often brutal relationship with a collaborator (Tony Leung). The sex scenes were powerful, but damned if I could tell if they’re “real.”

No doubt about Vincent Gallo’s 2003 art-house flop The Brown Bunny, however. That’s Chloe Sevigny performing fellatio on her director/co-star.

These days, you’re more likely to find a porn star trying to cross over into nonsexual roles than actual sex inserted into mainstream movies. Sasha Grey made this jump in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, and has a slasher film, Would You Rather, in limited release right now. (We’re a long way from the days when the studio prevented Brian De Palma from casting a porn actress in Body Double.) Still, the provocateurs keep trying: This year will see the release of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (reportedly, God help us all, in two parts), in which we’ll get to watch Shia LaBeouf fuck.

Get your popcorn early.