Why sexcess doesn't lead to success
. . . as Anne Hathaway found out this week. Chrissie Russell reports
Is there anyone who hasn't seen Anne Hathaway naked? The doe-eyed actress has been on the front of Entertainment Weekly with only Jake Gyllenhaal's manly arms protecting her modesty, and she's on film posters bare but for a strategically placed pillow.
And in recent years we've seen her flaunt her (36C according to Celebrity Sleuth) assets in Havoc, Brokeback Mountain, and only the director's cut saved us from catching her nude in The Princess Diaries.
Now here she is again, topless and romping with Jake Gyllenhaal in Love & Other Drugs, the story of a Viagra salesman who finally meets his romantic match.
20th Century Fox no doubt was banking on the beautiful actress's semi-clad state turning the film into a money-making machine -- but it seems nobody's buying it. In its opening weekend the film failed to pass the $10m mark at the box office, posing the question: does sex still sell or has it lost its currency?
"Sex always has and always will sell movies," says assistant editor of Film Ireland, Steven Gavin.
"But looking at Hollywood 2010 you have to ask: where is the sex? We seem to be going through an impotent era in popular cinema that can't get it up on cinema screens and is afraid to present sex in any sort of adult way. Instead, we get vacuous teenager fantasies and rom-com misogynist cop-outs."
Casting an eye over the past year's cinematic offerings, even the vapid nudity of Love & Other Drugs stands out as an anomaly.
The year's highest grossing films were Toy Story 3 and Alice In Wonderland, both of which took in more than $1bn.
Other recent big hitters at the box office have included the thriller Inception, the excitement of Harry Potter and the vampire on-goings of the Twilight franchise -- all of which were high on production costs and low on explicit content. Studios have cottoned on to the fact that SFX is a bigger seller than sex.
Of course it wasn't always like that. Back in the day, the merest whiff of sexual friction was a guaranteed box-office winner. Cary Grant removing a spec of dust from Deborah Kerr's eye in An Affair To Remember had women swooning in 1957, while GIs whooped in 1946 when Rita Hayworth's Gilda stripped off one long, black, satin glove.
Fast-forward a few decades and slackened stringent film guidelines meant a frenzy of big-screen eroticism. Fatal Attraction grossed $156.6m in 1987 thanks in no small part to Glenn Close's bared bust and kitchen-sink antics while the steamy sado-masochism of Kim Basinger in Nine 1/2 Weeks secured its notoriety.
But with the dawn of the internet and stiff competition from TV shows like True Blood, Californication and Boardwalk Empire (coming to Sky this spring), titillation is no longer something we have to go to the cinema for -- our cinematic (s)expectations have changed.
"I think people have become more blasé when it comes to sex, we're not so easily shocked," says Susan Picken, head of independent Belfast cinema, Queen's Film Theatre.
'But I don't think it's as simple as saying sex does or does not sell. We've all become a lot more cynical and more demanding as movie goers. Back in the 1980s and '90s there was a real vogue for erotic thrillers but people want to see something different."
She adds: "There was real anxiety with producers over whether or not Avatar would work with audiences but it turned out to be a massive hit. People want to be entertained by something new. I think it will be the truly different films like 127 Hours (about a trapped mountaineer) and The King's Speech that will be the big hits."
Overall there has been something of a backlash towards overt sexual content. The raunchy performances of Rihanna and Christina Aguilera on The X Factor final prompted a wave of complaints by outraged viewers while steamy music videos by Lady Gaga and Britney continue to provoke contempt.
But it's important to question how much sex really sold anyway. Research of over 900 films carried out by the University of California between 2001 and 2005 revealed that sex and nudity "failed to positively affect a film's popularity among viewers or critics," while the biggest grossing films of all time are the sex-free classics Gone With The Wind, Star Wars Episode IV, The Sound of Music and ET. Even the erotic big hitters didn't rely solely on visual thrills, with Fatal Attraction packing a punch plot-wise and Indecent Proposal pulling on the heart strings of viewers.
"Bums on screens don't guarantee bums on seats," explains Film Ireland's Steven Galvin. "The lack of Love & Other Drugs' success proves that nudity is not necessarily going to counterbalance a poorly directed, inconsistent script that has all the sexual chemistry of a bag of rotten fish."
He added: "Sex in the cinema isn't about nudity or the mechanical spectacle of simulated copulation -- it's about the illusion of fantasy, pleasure and emotional, physical and psychological desire. We'll always want this, we just want it done well."