The Wedding Singer, on cable the other night, brought some unexpected lessons with it. Arguably Adam Sandler’s sweetest work, the film is about a singing schmoe who gets left at the altar and eventually wins the heart of a waitress played by Drew Barrymore. Funny stuff, and entirely harmless.
Except, of course, for what now plays as a “shock” scene in the middle. You’ll remember it. Barrymore’s Julia Sullivan asks a homely bar mitzvah boy to dance. He clamps his young hands on her behind. Julia looks stunned, but Sandler’s Robbie Hart tells her to ‘just go with it.’ Before long, everyone in the hall is groping everyone else.
It seemed innocent enough in 1998; but 19 years later, the sequence is bristling with sexual and even legal issues. Is the bar mitzvah boy guilty of abuse, and destined, at a minimum, for some stern counseling lest he wind up in a Title IX proceeding at his future college? Or is Julia in trouble for encouraging sexual contact with a minor – something that could bring a criminal charge if someone chose to pursue it. And what of those other gropers? Did they get consent? Or were some of them behaving like George H. W. Bush, who was shamed lately for his shameless bottom-patting?
Viewed closely, movies, both old and new, are full of behavior that would now land perpetrators on the wrong side of the sexual ledger. In the upcoming Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill merrily warns a female assistant that he’s about to emerge from his bath in the altogether. That certainly wouldn’t wash in 2017. Neither would the sexual banter in, say, Come Blow Your Horn, written by Norman Lear, based on a Neil Simon play, and released by Paramount in 1963. That was on cable, too, the other night. I channel-hopped into the middle of a scene that had a swinging bachelor, played by Frank Sinatra, baiting an ingénue with tales of a Paramount executive pal who could presumably help with her career. Oops.
We won’t soon be seeing another Manhattan, given the storm around not just Louis C. K.’s misdeeds, but also around the old man-teen girl love theme of his recently scrapped Woody Allen homage, I Love You, Daddy. (Pretty Poison, also on cable lately, is another that probably wouldn’t fly now. Made in 1968, it stars Tuesday Weld as a sexually aggressive teen who lures older Anthony Perkins into deadly plots.)
As fresh accusations of Hollywood sex abuse surface – as they surely will – on-screen behavior is going to change. Where new lines will be drawn is far from clear. But wily filmmakers have already been stepping carefully.
In Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, Matt Damon’s very tentative kisses come packaged with apologies. In Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, the Sacramento teen Saoirse Ronan complains that her first sexual encounter finds her ‘on top.’ But that’s the safest place for her. Because the audience needs a minute to sort through some issues. Is her character over 18? How old is her boyfriend? Exactly what is the law of consent in California? And will this moment come back to haunt one or both of them later?