What are the movies that helped shape your view of sex? In light of the juggernaut that is Fifty Shades of Grey – which, as the world knows, opens on Friday – a good friend in the media posted that question on her Facebook page, along with this one, "Will Fifty Shades shape this generation's view of sex for good or ill?" She got back a deluge of interesting answers.
Based on the age of the respondents and the films they chose, the sex-memory-movie sweet spot is from age 15 to 24. My friend is in her 40s, so her friends' picks are mostly from the 1980s – everything from Porky's and Dirty Dancing through Endless Love and the films of John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink), all the way to Body Heat and Blue Velvet. The grunting, randy Quest for Fire made a surprising number of appearances, as did the cautionary tales Something Wild, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Fatal Attraction. The Bond franchise is huge. And the most-cited film was 9 1/2 Weeks, the movie where Mickey Rourke blindfolds Kim Basinger and feeds her weird things from the fridge. (I'll return to that one in a bit.)
Though a scroll through film releases from the 1980s to now showed me, dispiritingly, that the number of romantic hits has dropped with each decade (as the superheroes have risen), I can easily imagine younger generations feeling tingly for Titanic and The Bodyguard, Eyes Wide Shut and Basic Instinct. (The sex doesn't have to be positive to have an impact.) My friend's kids watched a lot of Step Up, Across the Universe and 500 Days of Summer. And of course the Twilight series, with its on-the-nose warnings that sex can kill, is inescapable.
My personal axis would be somewhere from Last Tango in Paris and An American Werewolf in London, through (the admittedly soapy) Summer Lovers and Against All Odds (Jeff Bridges all sweaty in Mexico, mmmmm), up to Risky Business, She's Gotta Have It, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
But character moments were always sexier to me than sex scenes: the way Daniel Day-Lewis says, "I will find you" to Madeleine Stowe in The Last of the Mohicans; the way Annette Bening stands in the doorway, resplendently naked, in The Grifters; the way Kevin Costner tosses his cereal bowl aside before ravaging Susan Sarandon (again) in Bull Durham; the way Shakespeare in Love turns "It is the nightingale" into breathless pillow talk. Sometimes seeing less is sexier – in The Player, for example, when Robert Altman shoots an entire sex scene between Greta Scacchi and Tim Robbins from the neck up; or in Reversal of Fortune, how merely hearing Jeremy Irons flick at his sexual proclivities – "You have no idea" – is somehow filthier than seeing it would be.
But seeing "it," seeing something that ignites your senses, and burns into your brain – that's what these movies are about, right? In 1993 I interviewed Adrian Lyne – the director who made a pant-inducing string of soft-core films, including Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Lolita, Unfaithful – as he was releasing Indecent Proposal, where Demi Moore sells herself to Robert Redford for a million bucks. Louis Malle had just put out Damage, a much darker film, in which Jeremy Irons plunges into an intense affair with his son's fiancée (Juliette Binoche), complete with ropes and blindfolds, grunting and grimacing. Lyne would have staged Damage much differently, he told me: "You don't like to see them doing it."
That's the crux of this matter. Liking to see "it" – a sexual moment that isn't porn, played out larger than life, with pretty people (us, but idealized), well lit and with just the right song rising on the soundtrack – that's one of the main things we go to movies for.
Which brings me to Fifty Shades of Grey, a movie that is bound – har! – to enter the sex-movie-memory canon. It was a stupid book, and despite some smart directing (by Sam Taylor-Johnson) and casting (Dakota Johnson, the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, is a perfect choice for the ludicrously named Anastasia Steele), it is a deeply stupid movie. There's no character development, no plot and no psychological insight whatsoever. The "it" that they do is the same thing over and over – she's planked out naked, he teases her for a bit, she gasps and writhes fetchingly, then he climbs on top of her, and – smash-cut to cuddling. But it will be a hit, because people will like to see them doing it.
Unlike more sophisticated sex-memory movies, where part of the thrill lies in making you feel uncomfortable that you're feeling turned on, Fifty Shades never goes past garden-variety naughtiness. There's a blindfold here, and a spanky-spank there. But the truth is, this pic is as square as a slice of processed cheese.
First of all, it's an age-old tale. Anastasia is a spunky virgin who's eager to learn, and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) is spunky-virgin catnip: older, worldlier, yet deeply damaged. He will teach her; she will fix him. He's supposed to be this dark BDSM figure, but he's driven wild by her – specifically, by everything a young woman hopes someone will find attractive about her. She trips when she meets him; she says, "Holy cow!" in the rain; she pukes and he holds her hair back. She wears pigtails while carrying a laundry basket. She stirs pancake batter while swaying to music wearing nothing but one of his white shirts. He keeps insisting he's not romantic, and then does sweepingly romantic things, carrying her to bed, carrying her from bed, telling her he mustn't be with her, but is "incapable" of leaving her alone. Johnson has her mother's can't-help-it, stunned-by-sex appeal, so she pulls it off, but the whole thing is basically nuts.
Second of all, the core story is much more an older woman's fantasy than a younger one's. It's all about being taken care of, absolved from responsibilities. That to me is much more the desire of an overtaxed, mature woman than that of a 22-year-old who's just graduated from university and is eager to self-actualize. But bully for author E.L. James, because that means book and ticket sales in multiple demographics.
And third, Fifty Shades is a mashup of every sex-memory movie that came before it. It's Wuthering Heights with whips, Pretty Woman in wrist cuffs, 9 1/2 Weeks with … younger actors. Ana holds her face up to be kissed just like Scarlett O'Hara. Christian plays the piano after sex and takes Ana on a date in a helicopter, just like Richard Gere did in Pretty Woman. Christian runs an ice cube down Ana's belly, exactly as Rourke did in 9 1/2 Weeks. It's shameless.
So to answer my friend's second question: As sex-memory movies go, Fifty Shades is mostly harmless. You might lose a few IQ points. But on the plus side, Christian always uses a condom.