Not even Amber Heard's breasts can revive the Hollywood sex scene
Johnny Depp's ex is being sued for trying to alter nude scenes but maybe she was doing producers a favour, writes Donal Lynch
Even allowing for her millions in the bank and goddess looks, it's been an undeniably tough year for Amber Heard.
This summer her split from Johnny Depp made headlines around the world and she was portrayed alternately as a victim of domestic abuse and a money-grabbing villainess. She appeared in public with a black eye and got a restraining order against him - but somehow became the bad guy in the story.
It was difficult to say exactly why this happened, but the pedestal Depp resides on probably had a lot to do with it, as did the news that Heard had been arrested for domestic abuse before.
Some observers claimed it was victim blaming, while for others it smelled like a shakedown of Depp (despite her own considerable wealth and the couple having had no children, she wanted $50,000 a month maintenance from him, as well as an enormous lump sum). Heard alternately courted and shunned the press and eventually dropped all the charges. She seemed strangely calculating, a wilful, entitled starlet in the Katherine Heigl mould.
It was an image that was reinforced this week as it emerged she is now being sued by the producers of London Fields - an adaptation of a 1989 Martin Amis novel in which she starred - for conspiring with the film's director Matthew Cullen to have nude scenes edited after production was completed.
The lawsuit alleges that "during principal photography, Heard and Cullen secretly made unauthorised changes to certain of the screenplay's more provocative scenes, including scenes containing nudity".
The dispute about the nude scenes took place in the context of a broader power struggle between the director and star, and the producers. It was also alleged that Cullen went millions overbudget and that Heard refused to involve herself in promoting the film.
On the other hand, Cullen has alleged that the producers "hijacked" the movie, adding "incendiary imagery evoking 9/11 jumpers edited against pornography" to the final edit.
London Fields is, by all accounts, dire. It got a very frosty reception from the few critics who have seen it thus far, and its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival was cancelled earlier in the year.
But what seems extraordinary is that Nicola Six - the production company behind the film, and also the name of Heard's character in the movie - seems to believe that giving audiences a bigger eyeful of the star's body will do anything to change this.
Sex scenes have been on the wane in films for nearly a decade but there was a time, in the 1980s and 1990s, when celluloid shag ruled the box office. Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction were just two of the films of that era that were iconic, in large part, because of their sex scenes.
I grew up in a world where teenage boys scoured films for dirty bits. At my school we exchanged a dusty VHS copy of Last Tango In Paris, with its famous butter scene. I might have broken the still button for My Own Private Idaho, with its blurry montage of Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix being seduced. In Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, which came out while I was in college, Goldstein and Rosenberg sit around smoking weed and waiting patiently for a glimpse of Katie Holmes' breasts. A few years after that came out I interviewed Seth Rogan for Knocked Up, in which his character lists off the nude scenes of various actresses.
By then, online porn had all but obliterated the Hollywood sex scene. A glimpse of Heard's breasts wouldn't cut it any more. And even if they were visible they wouldn't be a huge draw. Unlike porn, cinema is a communal, emotional, passive experience. Audiences want to be swept away but not aroused during it.
Over the last decade or so films that have placed sex at the forefront of their marketing have tended to fail, either critically, commercially, or both. Nine Songs, which came out the same year as Harold and Kumar, depicted some of the most graphic sex ever seen in mainstream cinema. It was widely mocked and sank without trace. Nymphomaniac, the Lars von Trier film about a sex-obsessed woman, managed to be both fantastically boring and completely hysterical. Shame, which starred Michael Fassbender, was as graphic as you would expect in a film about sex addiction, but the sex was tragic, not erotic. Even Fifty Shades of Grey, the first blockbuster in a long time to attempt to place sex at the forefront, was criticised for being completely unrealistic.
If men have to be dragged to see a film with allegedly graphic sex scenes, you know something is not working. Anyway, research shows that women make the majority of decisions as to which films a couple watches together - and a glimpse of side boob tends not to top their list of priorities.
Hollywood long ago cottoned on to all of this. One producer recently told me that all a graphic sex scene does is rule out a younger audience without necessarily drawing in an older one. The result is that we can watch any level of graphic violence and explosions but, as far as screenwriters are concerned, nookie only happens in a before-and-after blur of gauzy curtains and strategically placed sheets.
In the context of all of this, you might think that Heard was just saving Nicola Six from itself. The New Yorker this week depicted her and Cullen as warriors for artistic integrity who are fighting the good fight against the producers' baser instincts and programmatic insistence on certain scenes in a certain order. This completely ignores the fact that commercial concerns jostle art aside at every level in Hollywood.
The director's artistic vision is rarely given absolute free reign. It may be a fallacy to assume that Heard's body will save this celluloid turkey but, at the same time, he who pays the piper surely calls the tune. I haven't seen the full contract Heard and Nicola Six signed, but generally speaking buying one's way out of a nude clause is an expensive business for actors. The producers may feel that Heard was simply trying to wiggle out of what she signed up to, without paying the price.
Sex scenes may be passe, but nudity, as actress Amy Schumer recently told TV host Jonathan Ross, is sometimes "called for" in a script.
The public may never get to give its verdict on London Fields but the Heard saga is set to run and run as she takes her fight to the court of public opinion. She went onstage in LA last week to perform the words of the Stanford rape victim. Through tears, she read: "To girls everywhere, I am with you."
Given the impending London Fields case, it seemed a strange blurring of art and life. Heard, whose victimhood always seemed doubtful, aligned herself with another victim. And the message seemed to be clear; in fiction or in real life, unwanted sex scenes will not be tolerated.