Still, many have argued that the restrictions made for some of the hottest scenes ever put on film. Filmmakers could obey the letter of the law but still show the smoke, leaving the fire to the imagination. And seriously, has a more erotically charged, more rawly sexual creature ever threatened silver screen with spontaneous combustion than Rita Hayworth's Gilda? Everyone remembers Lauren Bacall reminding Humphrey Bogart how to whistle in To Have and Have Not (1944), but they forget the near-baritone build-up to the tease: "You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle." And you know the rest.
Gradually, a sort of alternative code was taking shape, a systematic language of signs standing in for what couldn't be shown. A kiss, and then a pan to the waves crashing up on the beach. Fireworks overhead? Orgasm. And an alternative alternative code evolved in the gay and lesbian subcultures of Hollywood, marvelously documented in Rob Epstien and Jeffrey Friedman's The Celluloid Closet. Lines like John Ireland's to Montgomery Clift in Red River flew right past the censors: "There are only two things more beautiful than a good gun - a Swiss watch, or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a Swiss watch?"
But of course, it's in our nature to want more than just a tease. Anyone who didn't want to creep over to the seedy side of town and slip into a porn theater before the advent of home video, held out hope that they might catch a flash of flesh from Europe at an art house cinema or a film festival. Few admitted it (though famed auteur theorist Andrew Sarris would years later in the New York Times), but many were looking for more than art in the European films that crossed the Atlantic between the end of WWII and the late 60s. Of course, Europe's reputation as a more sexually liberated continent had long been established, and on the screen, works like Ecstacy (1932) featuring Hedy Lamarr as a young woman exploring her sexuality, often without the benefit of clothes, only served to firm up that rep.
While cinephiles haunted screenings of early Ingmar Bergman or Michelangelo Antonioni (his Blow Up (1966) in particular promised to show what made London swing), European filmmakers kept pressing into new, previously forbidden territory, only occasionally setting off alarms at the US Customs Office, as I Am Curious - Yellow did in 1967. From Japan, there was Woman in the Dunes (1964), and "foreign films" in general could rouse a good controversy in many a community with a university film society in its midst, right on through the 70s. Among the notorious would be Night Porter (1973), Salo (1975), In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Caligula (1980), and list goes on...
The "Golden Age"
Why "Golden Age"? Consider that between 1972 and 1983, porn - not sexy Hollywood fare, not racy sexploitation, not European art films, but pure, unabashed porn - chalked up 16 percent of total box office returns in the US. And yet, 16 percent of all American moviegoers in the 70s were most definitely not dirty old men in raincoats. What was going on? The answer could be as brief as two words: Sexual. Revolution.
You already know all the cliches about what all the 60s brought and wrought. Just a few buzzwords to set the scene: The pill. Satisfaction. Woodstock. Make love not war. The miniskirt, and later, hip-huggers, then hot pants. And so on. In the movies, a few tell-tale signs of the times: In 1970, Midnight Cowboy became the first - and last - X-rated movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture (not to mention Best Director for John Schlesinger). Two years later, Marlon Brando would follow his comeback performance in The Godfather with what some argue to be the last performance he took seriously: Paul, the grieving expatriate in Last Tango in Paris (1972) who plunges into an affair with a younger woman with ravenous abandon. Butter jokes were everywhere, and if you wanted to be in on them, you had to go see this movie.
It was in this atmosphere that many Americans decided that maybe it was okay after all to check out something even racier. Perhaps the first above-ground box office success, a film people weren't ashamed to line up for, was Pornography in Denmark (1970), for which San Francisco-based hardcore pioneer Alex de Renzy conducted interviews with Danes immediately after their country had done away with censorship altogether and - this was the draw - spliced in a few choice examples of what was going on over there. Denmark was distributed by Sherpix, credited with the first hardcore fictional feature, Mona: The Virgin Nymph (1970) and the first hardcore 3D feature, The Stewardesses (1970).
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