Saturday 23 March 2019

After Weinstein, #MeToo and #TimesUp, Hollywood may have to rethink its approach to sex scenes

After Weinstein, #MeToo and #TimesUp, Hollywood may have to rethink its approach to intimate scenes, argues Elizabeth Day

Titillation in Tinseltown: Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’
Titillation in Tinseltown: Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Elizabeth Day

The Thirties Hollywood sex symbol Mae West once said that she was a firm believer in censorship: "After all, I made a fortune out of it."

West was speaking in an era when the notorious Hays Code - a set of film industry morality guidelines that banned "nudity, in fact or in silhouette" on screen - was still in force.

Of course, banning something makes it only more popular - hence West saying she'd made a successful living from flouting the rules, with her saucy winks and double entendres.

I thought of Mae West again in the wake of murmurings that the current post-Weinstein climate would affect how the film industry portrayed sex.

Mae West
Mae West

The age of official censorship in Hollywood ended in the 1960s, but after a string of sexual assault allegations and the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, what might that mean for carnal scenes on screen?

There are already signs that our appetite for them is waning. The third instalment of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is due for release in a couple of weeks, but the franchise has seen declining fortunes. The first film, starring Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, took €468m worldwide. The second, Fifty Shades Darker, barely scraped €311m.

Then there was Keira Knightley's interview with Variety magazine last week, in which she said that her preference for period drama stemmed from the fact that: "I don't really do films set in the modern day because the female characters nearly always get raped."

There have been, she added, some signs of positive change: "I'm suddenly being sent scripts with present-day women who aren't raped in the first five pages and aren't simply there to be the loving girlfriend or wife."

Stacy Martin in the controversial poster for Lars von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’
Stacy Martin in the controversial poster for Lars von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’

There's been a shift in tone at the studio level, too: a Hugh Hefner biopic that was being made by Warner Bros has effectively been ditched, not just because the content seems out of step with the times, but also because (irony of ironies) it was due to be directed by Brett Ratner, who has been accused of sexual assault by six women.

Meanwhile, the actor James Franco was going to produce and direct Zola Tells All, about a prostitute's trip to Florida with her friend and a violent pimp. But that project - which stemmed from a series of tweets by the real-life Zola - is said to have stalled. Franco is the subject of several allegations of inappropriate behaviour, many relating to on-set experiences filming sex scenes.

The claims include one that Franco removed protective plastic guards covering actresses' vaginas while simulating oral sex on them in an orgy scene for a production shot three years ago and that he became angry when no women would agree to be topless while filming. Franco denies the allegations.

Where do we go from here? Do we need a manifesto for how to proceed with portraying sex on screen?

Maria Schneider in ‘Last Tango in Paris’
Maria Schneider in ‘Last Tango in Paris’

The depiction of sex in art has always been a tricky issue, especially in an industry where the line between art house and pornography is so frequently blurred. Paul Verhoeven's Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert, about a businesswoman who not only decides not to report a sexual attack but seems to be turned on by it, won critical acclaim for its "suave perversity" when it was released in 2016, but was also accused of glamorising rape.

The Danish film-maker Lars von Trier hired porn actors as body doubles to perform hardcore sex scenes in his 2013 film Nymphomaniac. For an accompanying poster, the film's stars, including Charlotte Gainsbourg, Christian Slater and Stacy Martin, were asked to strip naked and pose as if they were having an orgasm. The experience, Gainsbourg said later, with typical Gallic understatement, was "awkward".

Among the litany of accusations directed at Harvey Weinstein was one by the actress Salma Hayek, who produced and starred in the 2002 movie Frida.

Weinstein, as head of the production company Miramax, was said to have demanded the addition of a love scene with full-frontal nudity, threatening to shut down production if the actors refused. The scene was included, but Hayek said filming it caused so much emotional distress that she took a tranquilliser to get through it.

In all these examples, it is not merely the depiction of sex that is problematic, but also how it made the actresses feel. Much of the issue undoubtedly stems from the fact that all of these films - with the exception of Sam Taylor-Wood's Fifty Shades of Grey - have male directors.

The male gaze, and how it objectifies women, is so deeply embedded in the film industry psyche that it has become the default.

There has been a recent spate of films (Nocturnal Animals, Elle) and TV dramas (The Fall, Game of Thrones) portraying women as victims of sexually motivated crime, rape and murder, but this fascination with sexual violence has been prevalent in film for years.

In 2016, a video clip surfaced that showed Bernardo Bertolucci, the director of Last Tango in Paris, saying he failed to inform the 19-year-old actress Maria Schneider of some elements in one of the most notorious rape scenes in cinematic history because he "wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress".

Bertolucci said he conspired with Schneider's co-star, the 48-year-old Marlon Brando, to shoot an assault by Brando's character in the 1972 film using a stick of butter as lubricant - a detail that had not been in the script.

Is it any wonder that actresses such as Keira Knightley, are now seeking to exert more control over the portrayal of the female sexual experience?

One possible solution is an on-set 'intimacy director' - a professional who choreographs sex scenes to ensure the least discomfort for actors and least scope for inappropriate behaviour. Perhaps predictably, there has been huffing and puffing from (mostly male) voices who decry the idea of reintroducing a form of cultural self-censorship.

Marc Simon, an entertainment lawyer, was quoted in the Hollywood Reporter as saying: "There may be concern in this zero-tolerance climate that creativity and creative opportunity could be restrained."

Ah, the creative process! The 'misinterpretation' defence! That oft-quoted fig leaf for the antediluvian male who worries about the damage wrought to his fragile ego. This kind of misplaced concern is apparent everywhere - from the politician who complains he's no longer allowed to be "flirty" by brushing a junior researcher's knee under the table, to the CEO who worries he can't get his end away at the office party for fear of a neurotic woman screaming "rape!"

These men are on the wrong side of the debate. It's not that Hollywood will no longer produce sexy movies; it's that any sex scene will hopefully be filmed with equal care and attention paid to the woman's perspective as well as the male gaze.

As more female directors filter through the ranks (such as Dee Rees, who directed an excellent sex scene between Carey Mulligan and Garrett Hedlund in the Oscar-nominated Mudbound) this will undoubtedly start happening. That's good for the individuals involved, but it's also great for the end product. Being in a safe space on-set can surely lead only to better, more human performances.

And, while the sight of a bare-chested Jamie Dornan getting hot and heavy under the sheets might have its charms, there's arguably nothing sexier than consent.

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