Owen Gleiberman on why sex in cinema is dying: Yes, reviews were bad -- but there's more behind the failure of ''Basic Instinct 2,'' says EW's critic

By Owen Gleiberman
April 06, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
BASIC INSTINCT 2: Jaap Buitendijk

Owen Gleiberman: Why sex in cinema is dying

The media flaunted, or maybe feigned, a certain delighted shock at the absymal opening-weekend grosses of Basic Instinct 2. But was anyone really very surprised that it bombed? Here was a sequel that arrived 14 years after the first Basic Instinct, long past the point that the audience could feel much connection to it. Sharon Stone is now 48, which in sexist-Hollywood years makes her about 148, even if she still maintains a freaky-regal, dark-lady allure. To top it all off, Basic Instinct 2 got savage reviews — more savage, I would say, than it deserved, almost as if it were being punished for its existence. Then again, who cares if it was irrelevant or bad? Plenty of shoddy horror movies, unfunny Rob Schneider comedies, and completely uninteresting teen drag-race thrillers bring in appallingly vast amounts of money. The key reason that virtually no one in America went to see Basic Instinct 2 is that sex, in case you hadn’t heard, no longer sells. At least, it no longer sells at the movies.

Think about it: When was the last time a sexy thriller, a sexy art film, or a sexy…whatever became the movie of the moment? When was the last time a famous actress took her clothes off and sparked one of those irresistable manufactured publicity scandals? (When was the last time a famous actress didn’t use a body double?) Yes, we can all tick off a few examples. The midnight-in-the-tent sex scene in Brokeback Mountain was practically destined to become a conversation piece, and the art-house hit Y Tu Mamá También unfolded in a fleshy fever. Diane Lane, in the racy adultery drama Unfaithful, regenerated her career with her smoky, amorous frankness. Then there’s the matter of a drama like Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, which featured hardcore sex and was greeted with a collective yawn, perhaps because it was too sterile to generate any heat (or controversy).

But these are, to a vast degree, the exceptions. Look at what’s playing at the megaplex at any given moment, and you will overhwhelmingly see movies — superhero fantasies, heist thrillers, animated fables — that couldn’t care less about sex. Even our romantic comedies, in their cookie-cutter way, wink at the erotic, with bedroom scenes that feel about as routine as brushing your teeth.

So how did this happen? Why did sex, for all practical purposes, become an afterthought at the movies?

I think there are several interlocking reasons. In the ’80s, thanks to those liberating sensual devices known as videocassettes, masses of people, for the first time, began to watch porn in their own homes, and this altered the chemistry of the movie landscape. It made viewers realize that they preferred to see a sex scene at home. Though porn obviously had few pretensions to any sort of dramatic involvement, it still, in a crude way, filled the space that sexuality in real movies once did: the promise of titillation — of enlightened arousal.

At the same time, the ratings board, never a great friend to adult subject matter, began, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, to crack down on sexuality, implicitly threatening risqué filmmakers with commercial disaster (call it an X or NC-17, it boils down to the same thing: a scarlet letter). As a result, Hollywood, for economic reasons, began to tone down the sexual content of movies, a trend that culminated in 1999 with that awful yet telling moment when Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut was censored in the wake of his death. Audiences had to watch Kubrick’s big orgy scene by trying to peek around digitized shadow figures, a sorry, puritanical spectacle that looked as if it were being parodied two years later when filmmaker Todd Solondz, in Storytelling, placed a big red box over a very nasty sex scene rather than trim the scene for the ratings board. It was a gambit designed to provoke audiences, but at that point, audiences were almost beyond provocation, having accepted the notion that erotic entertainment is something to rent, to watch on HBO, to download on the Internet. It has become a private affair, not one that you want to share with an audience in a darkened theater.

Even art cinema, that last holdout, has mostly given up the ghost. In the ’60s and ’70s, the films of Europe blazed a powerful sexual trail. Today, the austere parables of artists like Abbas Kiarostami or the Dardenne brothers are praised for their ”purity,” almost as if these lofty visions would be compromised by a little dirty pleasure. It’s almost hard to remember the way that filmmakers like Federico Fellini, with his hedonistic reveries in La Dolce Vita or Satyricon, or Ingmar Bergman, with his outrageously gorgeous and sensual actresses (Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann), or Bernardo Bertolucci, with the earthquake that was Last Tango in Paris, reveled in the ferment of the erotic. What seemed, back then, like a revolution looks more and more like an endgame: the last tango for sex in cinema.

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