Happy Valentine's Day! It's the most romantic day of the year (at least, if you've been listening to the endless advertising), and we hope you've made your plans, movie-related or otherwise (we'd argue that nothing says Valentine's Day like the twists and sexual politics of "Side Effects," but other options are available...). Now, February 14th is about many things: wining, dining, flowers, cards, chocolate, declarations of undying love. But all being well, it's about something else too: knocking boots.
Yep, sex is as much part of Valentine's Day as love and romance, even if Hallmark aren't quite so keen to push that side of things. The history of the cinematic sex scene is a decidedly spotty one; just as it's tricky to write a convincing literary coupling, it's easy for movies to descend into cliche and unintentional comedy when it's time for their characters to make the beast with two backs. So, in honor of all those getting laid tonight -- and to give those of you who are single something to do -- we present a brief history of the movie sex scene, with a somewhat random selection of ten of our favorites, and ten of what we consider to be the very worst. Let us know your own favorites (and not-so-favorites) in the comments section below. Oh, and everything that follows is pretty much NSFW, obviously.
Unquestionably one of the single greatest ever committed to film, "Don't Look Now" somehow managed to reinvent the sex scene in a way that only few have dared try (Steven Soderbergh being one of them, but more on that in a minute). What makes the "Don't Look Now" sex scene so hot and so damn brilliant, is that director Nicolas Roeg cuts up the action, and this chronological unmooring actually adds to the sensuality and emotional weight of the moment. Yes, we get to see Donald Sutherland (and his argyle socks) and a lithe Julie Christie getting to know each other in the biblical sense, but interspersed with that we also see them getting ready to leave their apartment, so while they're writhing around naked they're also putting on their jewelry and adjusting their blazers. The sequence is disorienting and amazing, with sexiness to spare. It was so sexy, in fact, that several seconds had to be clipped from the domestic release to secure an R rating. Those cuts have been reinstated for the now out-of-print DVD release, which for some reason still carries the R. Rumors have persisted that the scene was not simulated, and watching it now, you can understand why many thought it was the real deal.
You could argue, in a way, that David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" is almost entirely a sex scene -- a fevered, guilt-ridden masturbation fantasy as Naomi Watts' failed actress Diana mourns the woman that she's in love with, who she's hired a hitman to murder. But regardless of your interpretation of the film, there's one rather more straightforward sex scene that marks among the most memorable of recent years. It takes place as Watts' Betty and the amnesiac Rita, hiding out in the apartment of a dead woman, finally consummate their passion. It's unashamedly titillating stuff (though chaste in comparison to some similar scenes), but, as with so much about the film, it's Watts that elevates it. Her nervousness and uncertainty ("Have you ever done this before?"), and almost unwillingness to believe her own luck, makes it not just sexy, but downright romantic. And by the time they've gone through the rabbit hole at Club Silencio, there's a retrospective pain to the scene, knowing that Betty/Diana is remembering, or fantasizing about, better times with the woman she's just had murdered.
Few filmmakers in contemporary cinema know how to use sex more effectively than David Cronenberg, and few actresses have mastered the form like Maria Bello (her scene with William H. Macy in "The Cooler" is another classic). So it's no surprise that the two scenes in "A History Of Violence" are textbook examples of how to use sex scenes to show character and tell story, rather than to stop audiences from falling asleep. Early in the film, Bello's Edie Stall dresses up as a cheerleader for her husband Tom (Viggo Mortensen), and the two make out like hungry teenagers, culminating in what must be the first mainstream cinema depiction of a 69. It's an important scene (and a strangely charming one; see the bug-eyed excitement in Mortensen's eyes, and the way Bello laughs as she pulls off her belt) in that it shows how deeply in love the pair are. But it also serves as a contrast to the later scene. Tom has confessed to his wife that he's really mobster-on-the-run Joey Cusack, and the pair fight in the staircase of their home, an argument that turns violent, and suddenly sexual, as it appears that Tom/Joey, now off the chain, is going to rape his wife. Suddenly, he stops, but then she urges him to continue, the two desperately fucking on the stairs with a passion that is markedly different from the comfortable, romantic sex of the earlier scene. A sequence such as this is always going to require walking a fine line (see: "Straw Dogs"), but the performances are so perfect, and the direction so finely judged, that Cronenberg pulls it off.
Sex and disability have been back in the headlines of late thanks to "The Sessions," but for all the strengths of that film, it's never quite as memorable as this classic scene from Hal Ashby's 1978 Oscar-winner "Coming Home." After a certain amount of dancing around each other, as it were, conservative military wife Sally (Jane Fonda) and paraplegic vet Luke (Jon Voight) finally go to bed together. He's been consigned to a wheelchair after being wounded in 'Nam, but they work it out, Luke giving Sally her first ever orgasm by going down on her (which, if it's a rarity in cinematic sex scenes now, was even more so then). Haskell Wexler's camera lingers on the intimate touches between the pair, and on Fonda's face as she comes, giving it a real tenderness, while refusing to ignore the scars on Voigt's back. It's just about as sexy as anything that's ever been put on screen, and one of the more memorable scenes in a tremendous film (released, coincidentally, thirty-five years ago tomorrow).
Borrowing from Nicolas Roeg's uncanny "Don't Look Now" sex scene (see above), director Steven Soderbergh rearranges the order of this sex scene between George Clooney (as an escaped bank robber) and Jennifer Lopez (as the federal agent tasked with chasing him down). We seem them getting to know each other at a cheesy hotel bar, in a kind of elaborate role-playing game, and at the same time we see them getting frisky, with both stars getting down to their skivvies. Even if it is a riff on something else, it's clever and supernaturally sexy, aided by the slinky electronic score by David Holmes and the lush cinematography (the snow falling outside their hotel room window is a nice flourish). The sequence works so well because Soderbergh has an academic understanding of what made the Roeg sequence so powerful; it isn't just a lazy photocopy, it's its own thing – a living, breathing, totally sexy thing. The fact that it features two giant movie stars at the peak of their respective handsomeness is just an added bonus. This is an homage that has just as much of an impact as the original.