by Christopher Campbell
There apparently are other reasons to see Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona besides the infamous lesbian kiss between Scarlett Johansson and Penélope Cruz or the threesome between these actresses and Javier Bardem. But as the first things most of us heard about the movie, the sex scenes are certainly a big sell (the ménage à trois is even being used in a promotional contest to win a “threesome” with ScarJo). Even if they’re reportedly underwhelming.
Promise of tantalizing footage has been an appeal for moviegoers likely since the dawn of cinema, with film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge’s The Human Figure in Motion - Descending Stairs and Turning Around featuring nudity as far back as the 1880s. And if you’ve seen any of the titles included in today’s list, chances are their respective sex scenes were at least part of what made you buy a ticket (or rent the video).
The Brown Bunny (2003) - As if this was the first feature film to show an actual blowjob. Yet the promise of seeing starlet Chloë Sevigny with a mouthful of Vincent Gallo was a huge tool in the marketing of this otherwise artfully shot but depressing movie, an ultimately disappointing follow up to Gallo’s highly enjoyable debut, Buffalo ‘66. Though the trailer above is quite tasteful, American ads for the film exploiting the fellatio sequence include a questionable billboard in Los Angeles and a theatrical spot that simply labeled it “the most controversial American film ever made” and spotlighted that it is for adults only. Too bad it was made in the era of internet porn and so wasn’t nearly as profitable as the blowjob blockbuster Deep Throat.
9 ½ Weeks (1986) - Here is the first of many films on this list that I haven’t actually seen. I guess sex just doesn’t sell me on a film like it does other people. Having such a detachment, though, makes it clearer for me to see how effective most of these sex scenes were, since I have no idea what this movie is about, yet I am sufficiently familiar with the scene involving ice cubes — though I think I’ve really only seen as much as is shown in the trailer above (the fuller, better quality version can be see here), as well as the parody in Hot Shots! I was only 8½ when 9 ½ Weeks came out, and I remember then hearing about the allure of the sex scenes. 22 years later, I still haven’t heard of any other reason to see it.
Wild Things(1998) - A decade before ScarJo and PenCruz locked lips for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, this movie was sold on the prospect of seeing lesbian action between Denise Richards and Neve Campbell, who also participate in a threesome with Matt Dillon. Again, the trailer above doesn’t do a good job of exploiting the sex scenes, but fortunately word got out about them and the movie became fairly successful. Similar movies that likely attracted some audiences due solely to the inclusion of lesbian scenes include Bound, Mulholland Dr. and, forty years ago, The Killing of Sister George.
Traffic in Souls (1913) - Going back almost a century, this film was one of the first features to be sold for its “sex scenes”, according to the comprehensive (53 page) “Sex in Cinema” guide at FilmSite.org. Historically, it was the first American feature-length sex film, the most expensive production of its time, the greatest moneymaker of its time and, well, there might never have been a Universal Pictures without its being a success for Carl Laemmle and his Independent Motion Picture Company. For those of you disappointed that the film lacks actual nudity, check out this clip from Lois Weber’s 1915 feature Hypocrites, which does contain a completely naked woman prancing around a forest and therefore had a very controversial release.
Monika: Story of a Bad Girl(1953)- Kroger Babb, which also had one of the highest grossing films of the ’40s (Mom and Dad) thanks to promises like “EVERYTHING SHOWN!”, distributed this American version of Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika, which was cut down, dubbed and re-scored and marketed solely on the appeal of its nudity and single love scene.
American Pie- It may not be a sexy sex scene, but there’s no denying that the love act shared by Jason Biggs and a pie was a draw for audiences hungry for gross out humor. Never mind the scene’s inclusion in the trailer or the poster with the poked-in pie featured prominently, the title alone alludes to the act.
Emmanuelle (1974) - I grew up always thinking that Emmanuelle series of films were simply famous pornos, like Deep Throat or the Debbie Does ….franchise. But that’s probably because it has spawned so many ripoffs and has become synonymous with erotic films. Plus, in my lifetime, softcore movies have been more associated with late night Cinemax (or Skinamax) and straight-to-video titles. I would have never guessed that this was one of France’s highest grossing films of all time nor that film critics such as Roger Ebert paid it attention let alone gave it a good review. But at its time, it must have been very appealing to have so much nudity and so many sex scenes without displaying hardcore penetration. Or, as Ebert wrote: “It’s a relief to see a movie that drops the gynecology and returns to a certain amount of sexy sophistication.”
Caligula - Of course, there was also this big-budget, mainstream Hollywood production, to which Ebert gave zero stars and admitted walking out of. He even included a quote from a fellow moviegoer: “‘This movie,’ said the lady in front of me at the drinking fountain, ‘is the worst piece of shit I have ever seen.’” Produced by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione and starring highly respectable British actors such as John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole and Helen Mirren, the epic period piece was certainly expected to cash in on the popularity of erotic films in the ’70s. Ebert, one more time: “I assume that the crowds lining up for admission to the Davis Theater were hoping for some sort of erotic experience; I doubt that they were spending $15 a couple for a lesson on the ancient history of Rome.”
Lust, Caution - It’s possible that selling the explicit (and allegedly real) sex scenes in this Ang Lee film hurt it, because the well-publicized embrace of its NC-17 rating made the film seem like these scenes were the main reason to go see it. Never mind the awards the film received or the fair amount of positive reviews. Looking at its dismal $4.6 million U.S. gross, it’s apparent that sex is not as big a sell as it once was.
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