If I could finish that time machine taking up space in my guest room to travel back to visit college-aged Gwen I think the first thing I would tell her would be to take more notes in her Film Studies classes. Remarkably she would need them nearly five years later. All those hours spent in the dusty, haunted film book section of the library stacks devouring the almost forgotten tomes detailing women’s objectification in cinema, the battle between art and pornography, and the influence of 1960s era sexploitation films on modern day moviemaking would definitely not be for naught. I still have vivid memories of discovering there were in fact sexy movies being made before 1970, and they were considered treasured celluloid artifacts.
In 1966 the previously used American rating standard known as the Hays Code was traded out in favor of the industry-wide rating system we now know. While the studios got used to this new form of self-governing rather than censoring, many controversial films passed through to receive national distribution. Audiences could now attend sexual charged films just as easily as they could a family-friendly picture. By the time the rating system really got its legs in the late 1960s to early 70s it was too late. The country had had a taste of something always featured off-screen, and they wanted more.
In the coming weeks I’m going to explore each decade’s contribution to modern-day exploration of sex on screen. I chose to start in the middle, mostly due to my happenstance screening of the English sex comedy Georgy Girl this weekend. It sparked my memory of all the hours I spent reading about the decade and never writing about it in school.
As someone who did not live in the 1960s, all I have are movies to show me what life was like back then. So, in my view, the 1960s were filled with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It appears as a charged moment in time where students wanted more for themselves by asking for the simple things—freedom through individuality and love. War was inevitable, but the exaggerated fear of the 1950s changed to a rational acceptance that life is short. Young people wanted to live the best, most passion-filled lives they could and the Swinging 60s movies showed them how to do it.
1965’s Darling and 1966’s Georgy Girl both offered glimpses into this sex-fueled, mod-tastic and dreamlike world. They each begin with hedonistic characters, only wanting for themselves and nothing more. In Darling, main character Diana (Julie Christie) craves the physical connection with men, but can never warm to an emotional connection. Instead she often finds herself bored and disinterested in men, even the ones she thinks she loves. After each subsequent failed relationship, she throws herself into work which involves finding a new, more powerful male conquest. Once she marries a prince and becomes a bored housewife she realizes the life she previously had was the one she desired, unfortunately by this point she had left so much damage in her sexual wake that she was had to be punished by the one thing she feared most—dullness.
A movie ending with characters in monotony was a common theme for the Swinging 60s set. Women characters could drink, have sex, talk about their abortions (I know, right?), and fall in love, but by the end they were relics trapped by the older men desiring to tame them. Georgy Girl falls so harshly into the Swinging 60s cautionary tale that while the credits roll a song reminds Georgy she needs to tell herself she got everything she wanted. Who cares if her dull, older husband doesn’t interest her and she is stuck in a loveless marriage? She’s rich now and doesn’t have to worry about passion influencing her anymore. What a sad way to live.
Bond and Sexplotation
For tamer audiences, sex wasn’t out of the equation. Ian Flemming’s popular James Bond pulp series found a home on screen with the sexy Scotsman Sean Connery in 1962 with the first “077” movie Dr. No. Luckily the 1962 release occurred years before the rating system renovation, and the glossy big budget picture with the well known sexual double entendres skirted by in the tumultuous final years of the Code. Life is a better place with bikini clad sexbombs cavorting with (and often times trying to kill) our man Bond. Six Bond movies were released during the 1960s, with each one trying to outdo the previous one in ways to display an 80% naked woman.
However on the opposite side of the James Bond machismo was the sexploitation film. Using a similar blend of action and nudity, grindhouse movies like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill and Lorna portray women who use their sexuality as weapons against the men who done them wrong. Not to be confused with revenge movies, these two films embrace female empowerment through sex and violence. Russ Meyer’s female characters are powerful, captivating, and sexually predatory, whereas the men are weak, often impotent and dimwitted. While both films end badly for our antiheroines, they share a common sexual awakening through their mutual experiences with violence.
Too Much of a Good Thing
We’ve already touched on how sex can make you crazy, but in the 1960s the occurrence of sex-triggered insanity skyrocketed. What Elizabeth Taylor’s Oscar winning role in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? lacks in nudity sure makes up for in sexual tension with her then husband Richard Burton and their co-stars. Alcohol fuels the characters’ desire and they are driven mad from wanting each other. The film never shows anything more risqué than bare shoulders and hairy chests, but it still received the first “Suggested for Mature Audience” warning along with its 13 Academy Award nominations.
In 1962 Stanley Kubrick explored a taboo in sexual desire—pedophilia. His adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita received multiple threats from the decency boards while in production, resulting in a sexually charged, yet only suggestive final product. Humbert (James Mason) is sexually tempted by Dolores “Lolita” Haze (Sue Lyon), however his pedophile is only hinted at following their shared evening in a hotel room and his admittance of sexual jealousy directed at Dolores later in the film. He justifies to himself that it is okay to have these feelings, even as the movie consciously kills a different pedophile for his grotesque actions towards the end. The inappropriate gaze of an older man on his 12 year old step daughter discomforted many audiences, but the film remains as an iconic piece of pop culture.