Whether romantic, playful, or dangerous, the sex scene has always been a Hollywood staple. Suddenly, it has disappeared. EW investigates.
We all remember our first time, right? If you were growing up in the ’80s, it could’ve been when Tom and Rebecca broke every public-decency law on that train in Risky Business. Or if you were a ’90s teen, it might’ve been Demi and Patrick getting clay in places clay should never, ever be, in Ghost. For the millennials: maybe Reese and Ryan playing tongue tag in Cruel Intentions?
The first love scene you saw in a movie is hard to forget. But what’s hard to remember these days is the last time any of us saw one on screen. Not just a sexy moment but a bona fide hot, unironic, don’t-watch-it-with-your-parents love scene between big stars in a big Hollywood movie. You definitely didn’t see one in any of last year’s nine Best Picture Oscar nominees, which featured characters getting killed, saved, sick, and angry — but never, under any circumstances, lucky. That includes Silver Linings Playbook, in which Jennifer Lawrence’s character is a self-proclaimed sex addict.
Actually, chances are you didn’t see one on the big screen at all in 2012. In a year when TV shows like HBO’s Girls and Showtime’s Homeland had more pants-down action than a urologist’s office, only one out of the 25 highest-grossing movies had a genuine roll in the hay: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1. It wasn’t just last year, either. Christopher Nolan has never shown a sex scene, Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox never got it on in the Transformers series, and apparently one marvel of the Marvelverse is that not even a superhero can get past second base. In fact, the last time a movie with a real star-on-star love scene topped the yearly box office — and no, Avatar‘s gratuitous ponytail play between CGI cat people doesn’t count — was 16 years ago when Jack and Rose fogged up the inside of a town car in Titanic.
The recent drop in onscreen sizzle is no fluke. According to Vincent Bruzzese, president of the film division of media marketing firm Ipsos, which analyzes scripts for major studios and filmmakers, the once abundant Hollywood Sex Scene is now officially an endangered species. “The number of sex scenes in the scripts we assess for our clients has absolutely declined in the last two years,” he says. “Writers are just leaving them out because they know they’ll get cut. And when they are in the script, our clients want to know, ‘Is this absolutely necessary?'”
If sex sells, as every clichéd ad exec ever in a movie has told us, how come Hollywood isn’t stocking it anymore?
Part of the explanation dates back to the ’90s, when studios began targeting teenage boys, those walking hormone piñatas, as their most reliable customers. Badass heroes, explosions, and tight-shirted ladies? Yes, yes, and oh-boy-please yes. Romantic subplots? Boooring. And forget about substantial nudity; teens might want to see it, but the MPAA doesn’t want them to — not until they turn 17.
“Now that young people drive the box office, if your film can handle a PG-13 storywise, then there is no reason to go R, because you’re just limiting the number of people who can see it,” says Michael Sucsy, director of last year’s hit The Vow. That movie was one of the few recent romances to make a buck — 125 million of them, actually — thanks in large part to its PG-13 rating. Which is to say, it scored because Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams didn’t. (Well, not that we saw.)
Adrian Lyne, the director of erotically charged successes like Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal (i.e., the guy responsible for an entire generation of worn-out rewind and pause buttons in the VCR era), says this is one reason for the blank space in his filmography since his racy 2002 hit, Unfaithful. “Would Fatal Attraction get made at a studio today? Not in a thousand years,” he says. “Maybe it would go to Sundance. I can’t think of the last relationship piece that was a success — I’m not sure the studios even make them anymore. Which is apparently why I haven’t done something for quite a while now.” (Lyne is now developing an adaptation of the Oprah-approved novel Back Roads.)
But there are also less obvious forces making sure Hollywood doesn’t go all the way, and one of them is probably on your desk (or even in your pocket) right now. Thanks to the Internet, sexual images and videos are never more than a click away, which makes audiences less eager to rush to a theater to see them, and also more critical about context when they do. “You can’t just put gratuitous T&A into movies anymore, like a steamy shower-sex scene out of nowhere. Those scenes are never rated highly by test audiences unless it’s part of the plot,” says Bruzzese. “Moviegoers will say, ‘Why am I going to pay to see that when I can Google it?'”
On the contrary, if a movie is going to get an R rating today, it’s better off getting a big, fat, flaming R with devil horns on it; super-raunchy fare like The Hangover, Superbad, and the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation have a shot at box office success when they go far enough over the line to make it worth moviegoers’ dime. (Though even R-rated rom-coms like 2011’s No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits have struggled at the box office.)
Pay-TV channels such as HBO and Cinemax, on the other hand, can feature as much explicit sex in their programming as they want because their subscribers are assumed to be over 18 anyway — and viewers get to enjoy titillating content in the privacy of their own homes. “It is weird that grown-up, adult sexuality in terms of studio movies has been left by the side of the road,” says Steven Soderbergh, who has done his part to keep Hollywood spicy with movies like Side Effects and Magic Mike. “We have to watch Girls if we want that.”
Another possible culprit throwing a bucket of cold water on Hollywood: CGI. As mind-blowing visual effects get cheaper to produce, it becomes more cost-efficient for filmmakers to add F/X than budget extra shooting time for love scenes, especially since sex can’t be included in a movie’s trailer (unless it’s a red-band version, shown only to adults). Explosions literally offer more bang for the buck. As Bruzzese puts it: “Putting a shower scene in a trailer is not going to drive people to the theater for an opening weekend. Blowing up a city will.”
At this point you might be thinking: Wait a second, I still saw plenty of sex on screen last year. Weren’t John Hawkes and Helen Hunt getting it on every five minutes in The Sessions? Didn’t Michelle Williams and Marion Cotillard both get to home base in Take This Waltz and Rust and Bone, respectively? Sure they did. But it’s no coincidence that when Seth MacFarlane sang his polarizing “We Saw Your Boobs” song at the Oscars, nearly every movie he mentioned — Monster’s Ball, The Reader, Mulholland Drive — was an indie. Art-house and foreign movies aren’t afraid of R ratings because their audiences are almost exclusively adults, no matter what. Plus, actors who don’t normally drop trou in front of a camera can take comfort in knowing they’re still clothed in the high-thread-count cloak of respectability that a prestige pic provides.
Of course, most indies make pennies compared with the franchise films that get wheeled out each summer. The big studios aren’t likely to mess with their flashy, prudish formula — not until they figure out how to do it in a way that would pass MPAA muster, avoid the audience eye-roll at test screenings, and work seamlessly with the movies’ stories. Until then, at least we’ll always have Risky Business on DVD.