Saturday 25 November 2017

Acting dangerously

As the remake of Sam Peckinpah's ultra-violent 'Straw Dogs' is released, we take a look at the actors and directors who went right out on a limb to make controversial films

Pushing boundaries:
Malcolm McDowell
inA Clockwork
Pushing boundaries: Malcolm McDowell inA Clockwork Orange

No one is likely to get very worked up about the appearance of Straw Dogs, an American drama that was released here with an 18 cert yesterday, but it's actually a remake of one of the most controversial mainstream films ever made.

Sam Peckinpah's 1971 original caused a storm of outrage due to its (for the time) shocking violence and a very dodgy rape scene.

Susan George played a pretty young wife who moves to the English countryside with her writer husband and encounters extreme hostility from the locals. Feminist groups were incensed by a scene in which George is raped by a man to whom she then appears to show affection. The implications of this were pretty seismic, and caused protests outside cinemas in America and the UK.

The new Straw Dogs keeps fairly close to the spirit of the original, but the difference is that this version stars James Marsden, a fine young actor but hardly an A-lister, and Kate Bosworth whose career has stuttered somewhat of late.

Peckinpah's 1971 version starred Dustin Hoffman, who was then a huge star on the back of successes in The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy.

Controversial movies are much more interesting if the people making them have something to lose. Films like Deep Throat and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were undertaken without any risk to the careers of those involved for the simple reason that they didn't really have any.

What's more intriguing is when a well-known and respected director, or actor, takes a punt on a taboo-busting film that might be the making or the breaking of them. Sometimes the risk pays off and sometimes it doesn't, as the 10 films below prove.

Victim (1961)

Dirk Bogarde was one of the most popular screen idols in British cinema in the 1950s, and starred in many hit romantic comedies.

But he was also a homosexual, and in 1961 he took the brave step of appearing in Basil Dearden's drama Victim.

At that point, homosexuality was still illegal in Britain and punishable by a prison sentence, and in Victim he played a gay London barrister who fights the blackmailers of a young man he'd had a relationship with. After the young man kills himself, the barrister risks all to see justice done.

Victim was the first film in the English language to use the word homosexual, and was banned in America for a year, but it's now credited with helping liberalise British attitudes.

Did the risk pay off? After Victim, Dirk Bogarde abandoned romantic roles and worked mostly in European cinema.

Peeping Tom (1960)

Thanks to his work with Emeric Pressburger on films like The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death, Michael Powell was among the most respected post-war directors.

In 1960, he released a film called Peeping Tom that explored the psychology of a serial killer.

German actor Carl Boehm plays a lonely young cameraman who was subjected to cruel psychological experiments by his father as a child, and is now obsessed with recording terror. He kills women and films them as they die to form part of his collection.

Peeping Tom is now considered a horror masterpiece, but at the time there was a huge critical backlash.

Did the risk pay off? Not really -- Peeping Tom effectively ended Powell's film-making career.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Warren Beatty's star was rising fast in Hollywood in 1967, but his involvement in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde was a risky business as the film ended up being pilloried for its sexual overtones and supposed glamorisation of violence.

Beatty produced the film and starred alongside Faye Dunaway in a story based on the crime spree of 1930s outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

The film rather sentimentalised the couple, and made frank allusions to Clyde's impotence. But the movie's most controversial and famous scene involved the bloody slow-motion killing of the pair in a hail of bullets.

Critics were incensed, and Bosley Crowther of The New York Times began a campaign against violence in films because of it.

Did the risk pay off? It did indeed because the public loved it, and Beatty's profile soared.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

After making Lolita in 1962, Stanley Kubrick was well used to dealing with controversy, but even he was taken aback by the reaction to A Clockwork Orange.

Based on a novel by Anthony Burgess, the film starred Malcolm McDowell as the leader of a futuristic gang of nihilistic thugs who beat people to death and attack women.

One famous scene involving a home invasion and rape that was considered practically unwatchable at the time.

The controversy intensified when a series of apparent copycat crimes were committed in England by felons wearing Clockwork Orange costumes. A horrified Kubrick removed the film from circulation in Britain himself, and it wasn't shown publicly for many years.

Did the risk pay off? The furore added to Kubrick's mystique, but made him withdraw completely from public life.

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Marlon Brando wasn't afraid to take chances, and straight after playing a mob boss in The Godfather he travelled to Paris to star in this hugely controversial Bernardo Bertolucci film.

He played Paul, a middle-aged American who comes to France to mourn the recent suicide of his wife and meets a young woman called Jeanne (Maria Schneider) who's engaged to be married.

They begin a passionate, but purely sexual, relationship that involved butter, sodomy and complicated sexual positions. Hailed by some as a masterpiece, it was condemned as soft porn by others, and Schneider, who was only 20 at the time, later complained that she'd been manipulated. The film was banned in several countries and remains controversial to this day.

Did the risk pay off? Brando carried on regardless, and was paid almost $4m for his 10 minute-stint in Superman a few years later.

Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Martin Scorsese's biblical drama based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis featured a sequence that got a lot of people very hot under the collar.

While crucified, Jesus (Willem Dafoe) is tempted by Satan to get down off the cross, forget about saving humanity and lead a normal life. Jesus then imagines an alternate life in which he married Mary and Martha, had kids, and got old.

It was all a dream and he did the right thing in the end, but Christian fundamentalists were not amused and picketed the film all over the world. It was banned or severely censored in Mexico, Turkey, Chile and Argentina, and in Paris extremists with links to the Front National threw Molotov cocktails into a cinema during a screening, severely injuring four people.

Did the risk pay off? The film did poorly at the box office, but Scorsese's reputation was not unduly tarnished.

Natural Born Killers (1994)

Oliver Stone's deeply disturbing 1994 film was actually intended as a satire on the glorification of serial killers in American society, but a lot of people didn't seem to get the point.

Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis played a couple of maniacs who fall in love and go on a cross-country killing spree, and become feted celebrities when they're eventually caught.

Satire it might have been but the film was incredibly violent, and Stone landed himself in hot water when it emerged that several copycat killers had imitated scenes from the film. Eventually more than 12 murders were linked to Natural Born Killers, and one victim's family even tried to sue Stone and Warner Brothers. It was banned in this jurisdiction.

Did the risk pay off? Mr Stone, as ever, thrived on the controversy.

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Mel Gibson hadn't directed anything since Braveheart in 1995 when he set out to film this clearly heartfelt account of Jesus Christ's passion.

With dialogue in Aramaic and Latin, the film starred Jim Caviezel as Jesus and followed him from his temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane to his crucifixion, death and resurrection.

The depiction of the crucifixion was incredibly graphic, and critic Roger Ebert described it as "the most violent movie I've ever seen".

Another critic called it "The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre", but the violence caused less controversy than Gibson's depiction of biblical Jews. Jewish groups protested and called Gibson an anti-Semite, a claim that's been repeated since.

Did the risk pay off? The film was a big success, but further trouble lay ahead for Mel.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Ang Lee's slow-moving drama based on a story by Annie Proulx was acclaimed by critics. But it was banned in China and across the Middle East, and caused uproar among conservative and Christian groups in the US because of its sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual love affair.

Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger played sheep herders in 1960s Wyoming who find time hanging heavy on their hands during a long summer and end up falling in love.

Both actors showed huge bravery in a series of fairly graphic love scenes, but there was an outcry in the Bible belt.

Did the risk pay off? Brokeback Mountain was nominated for eight Oscars and won three.

Antichrist (2009)

Lars von Trier has always embraced controversy: He flirted with extreme misogyny in Breaking the Waves, and orchestrated an orgy involving actors pretending to be disabled in The Idiots.

But he surpassed himself in Antichrist, a clunky psychological drama starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a couple who repair to a forest cabin to recover from the accidental death of their son.

Things appear to be going swimmingly until she loses the rag, crushes his testicles with a rock and mutilates her own privates with a rusty scissors.

Four people fainted during a screening at Cannes, and the festival's ecumenical jury later called Antichrist "the most misogynist movie ... in the world".

Did the risk pay off? Von Trier revelled in the subsequent publicity, and followed Antichrist with the brilliant Melancholia.

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