The idea that Academy members are prudes is deeply rooted in their voting history. The way most people talk about the Academy is that they “will never go for that” or they can’t really handle anything except the most traditional, straight up and down drama. These are, apparently, the same people who lived through the 1970s and lived to tell about it. But after that, they settled down, had kids, retired — the other half of them are perhaps a bit more daring. But films featuring extreme sexuality, as was depicted in last year’s Black Swan, which won an Oscar for Natalie Portman and garnered
7 4 more nominations, are few and far between. Once a film crosses over into the blue zone, it ends up joining the ranks of movies that either aren’t take seriously or are too rough going for many of them. This is why I always love it when films that makes people blush, as Steve McQueen’s brilliant Shame does, enter the Oscar race.
If The Descendants touched hearts in Telluride, Shame is tickling other tender spots in Toronto. But even though it created the biggest stir I don’t have any illusions Shame will win the audience award. No, that will go to something less controversial, more crowd-pleasing and probably more Academy friendly. The way it’s looking for Shame, however, it might be sitting pretty with the DGA. It was pointed out to me on Twitter, though, that we always expect the DGA are going to return to their daring ways of the past but lately, they’ve been more predictable than any other group. Gone are the wild card nominations for filmmakers who don’t live inside the box.
Shame, of course, is not about sex at all, really. It’s about the need for intimacy and the inability of people to connect. Sex, in this case, provides false intimacy — it’s great for a minute but it can never give you what you really need. At any rate, an NC-17 rating is no doubt inevitable. Once that happens, the film will become ghettoized and much harder for Oscar to recognize it. It’s a silly thing, really, that NC-17 rating. Haven’t these people ever heard of the internet?
But I wanted to take a trip down Academy Lane and look at how they’ve handled films that were wildly praised but were also considered too sexy for the Academy. It seems to me that they fall into two categories. The first is that the sex is traditional, even if it there is a lot of it. This would be the case for films like The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The other category is where Shame sits – where sex is perverted, darkened, distorted or is just not what you’d expect from a mainstream Hollywood film. I don’t include, for instance, Brokeback Mountain, The Postman Always Rings Twice or Body Heat because those are mostly traditional love affairs with sometimes graphic sex scenes. I’m talking more about the stuff that makes people potentially walk out of a film.
To do this, I went to the Filmsite’s Most Controversial Movies page to see what films they had listed. If anything I remembered was not covered there, I added it. I have not included films that were merely sexually controversial and had nothing else to offer in terms of the Oscar race.
1956 – Baby Doll (4 Oscar nominations)- Elia Kazan’s film (based on Tennessee Williams’ play) told about a thumb-sucking, white-trash, 19 year-old virginal ‘baby doll’ child bride (Carroll Baker) who was married (but unconsummated) to Mississippi cotton gin operator Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden), and seduced by a competing vengeful Sicilian cotton-gin owner Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach in his film debut). In the opening scenes, Baby Doll was crib-bound in nursery furniture, spied upon through a wall by her ‘peeping tom’ husband, and given no privacy while taking a bath.”
1960 – Peeping Tom (0 Oscar nominations), “this chilling and disturbing film about voyeurism, child abuse, and serial murder by honored and best-loved film-maker Michael Powell was originally widely hated, universally loathed and denounced as sick, especially by British critics, who drove it off the screen.” Nominated for zero Oscars
1961 – Viridiana (0 Oscar nominations), “Bunuel’s ironic drama has been generally considered a masterpiece and it won the Golden Palm at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival in the year of its release. The film was originally banned in the director’s home country and condemned by the Catholic church for its perceived indictment of Catholic self-righteousness, blasphemy, and obscenity. It was also controversial for its scenes hinting at incest, rape and necrophilia.”
1962 – Lolita (1 Oscar nom, screenplay), we all know what Lolita is about. A complete horror that Peter Sellers and Shelly Winters were overlooked. But you know, it was the sex thing. It was the Kubrick thing.
1969 – Midnight Cowboy – (inexplicably WON best picture, Director and Screenplay, nominated for seven total) – been a while since I’ve seen it so I don’t remember if there are any graphic scenes of sex, but it could be said that sexuality is an important theme in the film.
1971 – Carnal Knowledge (nominated for ONE lousy Oscar nod for Ann-Margaret)
1971 – A Clockwork Orange (nominated for four, Pic, Dir, Screenplay, Editing) – while this film meditated more on violence than sex, it certainly had a fair amount of sex in it.
1971 – The Devils (Ken Russell won director from the NBR, but the film received zero Oscar nominations). “The film was vilified and met with outrage in its story of a womanizing (non-celibate), vain, libertine, rebellious activist renegade-priest Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) who faced questioning and persecution for his “diabolic possession” of the local, repressed Ursuline nuns. It included Vanessa Redgrave as tormented hunchbacked Sister Jeanne, who had unfulfilled, warped sexual desires for Grandier and expressed them through self-mutilation and self-flagellation. The only way the monarchy of Inquistion-obsessed France (including Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) and King Louis XIII’s (Graham Armitage) establishment) could destroy the Protestant-leaning French town of Loudon was to attack the liberal religious leader as a sorcerer and practitioner of witchcraft.”
1971 – The Last Picture Show (8 Oscar nominations, 2 wins), “Bogdanovich’s R-rated frank and realistic drama told about the dreams and loves of small-town Texans in the early 1950s, confronting various issues such as adultery, alcoholism, and promiscuity. The adult-themed film was considered obscene by some viewers – and noted for brief full frontal nudity in a sexy swimming scene at an indoor pool party in which the teenagers enjoyed skinny-dipping. Goaded by nude partygoers, the town’s young, rich, ravishingly beautiful, self-centered town tease Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd in her debut film) was reluctant to strip, but performed a neophyte strip-tease on the diving board. Another scene found the calculating, fortune-hunting Jacy in an aborted, deflowering scene with football-playing boyfriend Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) in the Cactus Motel in the dying Texas town, although she told her girlfriend-classmates: “I just can’t describe it in words.”
1971 – Straw Dogs (1 Oscar nomination for music), “The film was accused of implying that she brought on the assault (possibly as a means to insult her impassive husband) and actually might have enjoyed the first rape (a glamorization of rape). The climactic, stunning and barbaric ending also appeared to morally endorse vigilante violence, especially because of the main character’s redemptive yet unsatisfying homicidal rampage. It was re-edited for an R-rating and faced censorship bans in England for 30 years.”
1972 – Last Tango in Paris (2 Oscar noms, Actor & Director) “Bertolucci’s film was a landmark, controversial erotic film with raw (yet simulated) sexual scenes and primitive force – critics and audiences alike asked – was it erotic art or pornography? In the film’s story, a distraught, confused, grieving widower and middle-aged (45 years old), overweight American exile Paul (Marlon Brando) plunged into a sado-masochistic, physical (yet impersonal and basically anonymous) relationship with young, full-breasted 20 year-old Parisienne ingenue Jeanne (Maria Schneider). Paul’s gutter-language and set of ‘no questions asked’ rules was notable for the time: “We are going to forget everything we knew – everything” – and their relationship became increasingly more vile, slavish, empty, humiliating, and unromantic (i.e., “You know in 15 years, you’re going to be playing soccer with your tits. What do you think of that?”).”
1973 – The Exorcist – (a whopping ten Oscar nominations, 2 wins) – there is just no way a movie with a ten year old girl ramming a crucifix in her crotch saying “let Jesus fuck you” would either A) get made today, or B) ever get anywhere near the Oscar race. We’ve become much more conservative as the years have wore on so that even though we know it’s the devil corrupting the poor girl, and even though we know it’s a brilliantly made film – in every respect – it would still be trumped by its controversial content.
1977 – Looking for Mr. Goodbar (2 Oscar noms, one for supporting actress) – Diane Keaton’s Shame, a look at a woman exploring her darker sexual side turns out to be not erotic but sad and painful. America’s sweetheart, Diane Keaton won Best Actress that year for Annie Hall.
1978 – Pretty Baby (one Oscar nom, for music), “Louis Malle’s provocative American debut film – a semi-scandalous picture upon its release due to unfounded charges of child porn, debuted at a time when there was public uproar over child abuse, child pornography, and child prostitution. Some worried that young Brooke Shields would be traumatized by her ‘adult’ role in the film – yet the entire film was basically free of explicit scenes or language. Malle had hired a female scriptwriter (Polly Platt) to insure that the film was dealt with in a sensitive manner. It was gorgeously photographed by Bergman-cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and set in a 1917 New Orleans bordello in the legalized red-light district of Storyville.”
1986 – Blue Velvet (1 Oscar nomination for Director, back when the Academy had balls). Blue Velvet sliced right into the ’80s like a cool blade with its warped and explicit sexuality. Of course, it was just too much for most people and for Oscar. Later, Lynch would be back in the Oscar race with the brilliant Mulholland Drive.
1986 – She’s Gotta Have It (0 Oscar nominations) Spike Lee’s brilliant debut about a woman who is deciding on lovers. What a great female character he created here, even if it sometimes feels like a male fantasy. Wonderful acting, writing and directing – totally ignored.
1988 – Unbearable Lightness of Being (2 Oscar nominations) – a sexy, meditative look on fidelity, the film was popular but not enough to become an Oscar favorite.
1989 – The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (0 Oscar noms) – even a naked Helen Mirren couldn’t bring Oscar voters to this Peter Greenaway film, “The sensational film’s putrescence, debasement and excesses (sadism, cannibalism, torture, fornication, puke, and rotting fish and meat) and scatological themes (force-feeding of excrement (termed coprophagy), urination on victims) forced the Motion Picture Association of America to give the film an “X” rating, so the film (after being denied an appeal) was released unrated by the producers, and then given an NC-17 rating by the time of its video release. An alternative R-rated version cut out about 30 minutes of footage.”
1990- Henry and June (one Oscar nom for cinematography). The film might have gotten into the race more had it been more critically acclaimed. Oscar doesn’t mind lots of hot sex – he just doesn’t like weird hot sex.
1992 – Damage (1 Oscar nom, supporting actress) – a film about a sexual obsession gone wrong with great performances by Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche. Mostly ignored.
1995 – Leaving Las Vegas – (4 Oscar nominations, 1 win for Nic Cage) — sexual content that got pretty dark but mostly this was fairly traditional Oscar bait.
1996 – Crash (by Cronenberg) (0 Oscar noms) – Crash was labeled too weird and written off, “The alternating kinky, perverse and depraved sex scenes juxtaposed with gruesome car crashes was deliberately controversial and repulsive, and thought to possibly inspire people to have fetishistic sex in high-speed vehicles. This provocative film, initially released in two versions rated NC-17 and R, was vilified in much the same way as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), and the Cannes Film Festival screening had people walking out in disgust, nausea and revulsion. Ultimately, it received a Special Jury Prize “For Originality, For Daring, and For Audacity.”
2000 – Requiem for a Dream (1 Oscar nom for Burstyn) – everyone else totally ignored. “In the film, Sara’s addiction to weight-loss and obsession with being on a television show led to hallucinations, near insanity, and shock-treatment, while the harrowing price of heroin addiction caused Harry’s arm to become severely infected and require amputation, while despairing and pained Marion, earlier seen in full-frontal before a mirror, prostituted herself to pay for her addiction. The controversial sequence, argued as a necessary component and message that the cautionary film had to deliver about the consequences of drug use, was a nasty, extremely-graphic lesbian orgy scene with a shared anal dildo that shocked the MPAA which rated it NC-17 – Aronofsky appealed the ruling (which was denied), so the film was released unrated. An R-rated edited version of the film was released on video with a shortened sex scene.”
2004 – Kinsey (1 Oscar nomination for Laura Linney – incredible). “The non-erotic, non-exploitative, and non-prurient film was attacked by morality extremists for its candid and frank drama about the famous Indiana University doctor’s obsessive life-work. It illustrated how Kinsey’s own wife Clara McMillen (Oscar-nominated Laura Linney) had painful sexual problems with her inexperienced husband during their honeymoon, and then later was engaged in an extra-marital affair with her husband’s bi-sexual assistant Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard) – who also had a homosexual encounter with Kinsey and appeared in a full-frontal scene; and that a young Kinsey was punished with a confining genital strap to prevent him from masturbating by his ultra-moralistic, bullying, and repressive minister father (John Lithgow). In the film’s final heartbreaking interview scene with an older, middle-aged lesbian subject (Lynn Redgrave in a cameo), she expressed how she was freed from homosexual guilt (“You saved my life”), after experiencing lesbian feelings.”
My conclusion with this list, which is incomplete — I am sure there are many more films I could have included here — is that, except for a handful of times, sexually explicit films and Oscar do not mix well. That’s why Shame will be a tough sell with the Academy. You see, the Oscar race, and Hollywood films in general, are much happier when films depict our better nature, the good we are capable of, the happy endings we see coming, or the mourning of historical tragedies. The Oscar race, for the most part, dwells with what’s above the surface of our lives. It very rarely has us diving below the surface and looking underneath.