Sex in the Movies Guide

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A documentary inspired by the book, Mau Mau Sex Sex (2001), focuses on two icons of the grindhouse, David Friedman and Dan Sonney, following their long careers from the relatively harmless days of "nudie cuties" through their more daring and darker "roughies," in which women would not only get naked but abused as well. Mau Mau director Ted Bonnitt tells us in our interview, "As far as the misogynistic aspect of their work goes, I can count maybe on one hand a few women I know who were offended and didn't like it as a result. I said, 'That's what it's about. I'm not selling these guys. I'm portraying them. Definitely, this went on, and it's weird.'"

According to Luke Ford, Friedman made one of three breakthrough sexploitation flicks to appear in 1959: his Adventures of Lucky Pierre, Ted Paramore's Not Tonight, Henry and Russ Meyer's The Immoral Mr. Teas. All three broke new ground in terms of what could be shown "above ground," but as Paramore tells Ford, "You were only allowed to shoot girls in bikinis, and then in pasties, then nudes. But you couldn't show pubic hair." Paramore, the son of Hollywood screenwriter Edward Paramore, began his career making erotic film loops as mild as he describes; Not Tonight, his first feature, tells the story of Hank Henry, who fantasizes about having sex with the likes of Cleopatra, Pocahontas and Lucrezia Borgia.

For decades, Russ Meyer has practically been an industry unto himself. Returning home after World War II unsure of what to do with his life, a friend asked him, "'Why don't you start shooting girls?'," he tells Kenneth Turan and Stephen Zito in their 1974 book, Sinema: American Pornographic Films and the People Who Make Them. "And so I did, and I dug it, I really dug it. I had a kind of bombastic style, very mild by what's considered strong today, but I got into it hammer and sickle." Mr. Teas is a bachelor who can inexplicably see through women's clothing. Shot for $24,000, the film pulled in over a million during its initial run. Through the 60s and 70s, Meyer would share his taste for big-breasted, take- charge women, probably most famously in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966).

Honorable mention must be made of two more unique and remarkable careers. Ed Wood is known the world over for his no- budget, so-bad-they're-good sci-fi flicks, such as Plan 9 From Outer Space (1956), but one aspect of his life played down in Tim Burton's biopic was his dabbling in porn, specifically in the form of novels he hammered out with gusto and his hardcore film loops and features, such as Necromania (1971), a film he claimed in his book, Censorship, Sex and the Movies, "exemplifies the trend toward better entertainment in X-rated films." Meaning, of course, sex in coffins.

Radley Metzger, who claimed Max Ophuls and Orson Welles as influences on the films he made from the 60s through the mid-80s, attempted to raise the bar a bit and is known primarily for his softcore "Euro-erotica." As Gary Morris writes in Bright Lights Film Journal, he is also the best of a "meager lot" of "porn's pioneers who took the sexual revolution seriously and did bring more authentic gay and bi imagery into their 'straight' films." If it took a "Golden Age" to get mainstream society to formally recognize the existence of porn, it would take just as long for most of the porn world to face up to its own underground, gay porn. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Hollywood and the Code

You grow up watching Hollywood movies on television, it's easy to get the impression that sex and color must have been invented at around the same time - a notion the film Pleasantville (1998) takes off and runs with. It's now easy to snicker at married couples forced to pretend they're happy sleeping in separate single beds, but there was a reason, of course, and the reason was the Hays Code. Its roots go back to 1922 when the Hollywood studios tried to make a show of policing themselves by creating the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and appointed a former Republican Party Chairman and Postmaster General to head it up: William Hays. Soon enough, the MPPDA was known simply as the Hays Office.

It didn't have much effect for a while. In 1930, it drew up a list of "good taste" rules and standards that went pretty much ignored until one Joseph Breen, a ferocious Catholic missionary, threatened to throw the weight of 11 million Catholics who'd signed a pledge behind an all-out boycott of "all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality." The studios snapped to attention and began relentlessly enforcing the Code in July 1934. And it defined "decency and Christian morality" in strictest detail. Just as one absurd example, not only would married couples sleep separately, if they happened to even sit down on the same bed in any film scene, both would have to keep at least one foot firmly planted on the floor.

That's why many films made before 1934 can come as such a surprise. "In language and image, implicit meanings and explicit depictions, elliptical allusions and unmistakable references, pre-Code Hollywood cinema points to a road not taken," writes Thomas Doherty in Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934. "For four years, the Code commandments were violated with impunity and inventiveness in a series of wildly eccentric films. More unbridled, salacious, subversive, and just plain bizarre than what came afterwards, they look like Hollywood cinema but the moral terrain is so off-kilter they seem imported from a parallel universe."

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