My all-time favourite sexy movie scenes . . . (How were they for you?)
As controversy rages again about Julie Christie's most controversial film, Paul Whitington on 77 years of cinema sex
Published 02/04/2011 | 05:00
It boasts one of the most celebrated sex scenes in movie history, and almost 40 years after its release Nicholas Roeg's acclaimed gothic horror film Don't Look Now is still causing controversy.
Aside from its disturbing storyline and Oscar-winning cinematography, the 1973 film is most famous for that extended sex scene between its stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie that was considered extremely graphic for its time and is so convincing that rumours have persisted that the sex was unsimulated, ie real.
Those rumours seemed to have finally been confirmed as true last week when a former Paramount producer who visited the set claimed he saw Christie and Sutherland actually having sex. In his new memoirs, Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob (and Sex), Peter Bart claimed that he was on set the day the scene was filmed and was left in absolutely no doubt that Sutherland and Christie were actually making love.
"It was clear to me," Bart explains, "that they were no longer simply acting: they were ****ing on camera."
Bart's version of events has prompted an angry response from Sutherland, who described the author's claims as "mendacious".
According to the actor, who's now 75, not only did no sex take place but even if it had Mr Bart could never have seen it, because the only people present for the scene were him, Christie, director Nic Roeg and his cinematographer Anthony Richmond.
Christie has denied the claims in the past, as has Nic Roeg, and it's possible that Bart's version of events may not be entirely unconnected with the desire to sell some books. However, it's not hard to see why the rumours about Don't Look Now's love scene have persisted, because it's extremely convincingly done.
Roeg's intercutting of the couple's passion with their mournfully dressing to go out for dinner afterwards gives the scene a poignancy that only makes it seem more real. It's justly celebrated as one of the sexiest film scenes of all time, but in one sense it's the graphic exception that proves the rule, because most of cinema's most erotic moments come not from actual depictions of sex, but the subtle suggestion of it.
Of course for a long time depictions of sex or even direct references to it were out of the question anyway, but that didn't stop directors and writers finding ingenious ways to make their films covertly erotic.
The Hays Code, which was introduced in 1930 and didn't become irrelevant till the mid-1960s, made all sorts of ridiculous stipulations about what was and wasn't morally acceptable in Hollywood cinema: no depictions of pre-marital sex or adultery; no man and woman lying unaccompanied on a bed; and absolutely no nudity. But the power of suggestion was always stronger than any of that.
In Frank Capra's classic 1934 screwball comedy It Happened One Night, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert argued their way across America while secretly yearning for each other. When they were having no joy hitching a lift one day, Colbert raised the temperature by lifting her skirt and flashing a shapely leg, causing considerable controversy at the time.
Gable also starred in the 1939 southern epic Gone with the Wind (1939), and in a memorably charged scene his character Rhett Butler tells his coquettish wife Scarlett "this is one night you're not turning me out", then grabs her and carries her up the stairs to have his way with her. The film then cut to the 'next morning', and showed a tousled Scarlett looking decidedly pleased with herself.
Sometimes the subtlest of details suggests a steamy subtext. In Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck memorably played a lying, cheating wife called Phyllis Dietrichson, who talks an insurance man called Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) into helping her kill her husband. In the scene where Phyllis and Walter first meet, he notices her ankle bracelet -- it sums her up, and he becomes obsessed by it.
By the 1950s, things had loosened up sufficiently for Fred Zinnemann to show Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr lying on a beach kissing in From Here to Eternity, lapped by furious waves that were meant to suggest that they would shortly be consummating their passion.
The late Liz Taylor appeared in one of the most erotic scenes of the 1950s in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, lying draped across a bed in a white slip as she tried to persuade her aloof husband Brick (Paul Newman) to have sex with her.
The most erotic moment in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960) was considered so outrageous it was cut entirely and only reinstated years later in a director's cut. The scene in question was one where Roman general Crassus (Laurence Olivier) attempts to seduce his handsome slave Antoninus (Tony Curtis) with snails and oysters, and the homosexual implications were obvious.
Sometimes the sexiest scenes can appear in terrible films. In the late 1950s French hack director Roger Vadim set out to singlehandedly put the sex back in cinema, beginning with And God Created Woman (1956).
His plan here was simple: he just pointed his camera at a young Brigitte Bardot and started shooting, and the scene where Bardot danced alone to the beat of the bongos in a night club is one of the most nakedly erotic screen moments ever. A leatherclad Jane Fonda was Vadim's muse in the titillating space opera Barbarella (1968).
Although a more serious filmmaker, Ken Russell was equally famous for his erotic scenes, the most famous of which was a memorably frank love scene between Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed in Women in Love (1969).
Some of the most famous screen love scenes are not all that convincingly erotic at all. Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris is one of the best-known mainstream erotic films, yet the 30-year age difference between Marlon Brando and co-star Maria Schneider makes the famous butter scene seem creepy and even repulsive rather than arousing.
The same is true of other overtly erotic films like Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs (in which the sex really was 'unsimulated') and the terrible 9 1/2 Weeks.
Far more genuinely erotic was the famous moment in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain where two lonely cowboys (played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) fall for each other drunkenly in a tent on to a remote mountainside.
Equally unsettling is the sequence in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan where Natalie Portman's character fantasises about making love with rival dancer Mila Kunis.
Truly erotic movie scenes expose the rawness of human desires: bad ones merely try to exploit them.