Peter Bart: When Sexuality Onscreen Was Sexy, Not Self-Destructive

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Sex is getting a raw deal in movies and TV. That rather unoriginal idea occurred to me this week as I revisited two sterling late-‘60s movies, Goodbye Columbus and The Graduate, which treated sexuality both humorously and, well, lovingly (more on that later).

Game-of-Thrones-Jaime-CerseiNo one would employ those terms today to describe sex as depicted by Amy Schumer or Melissa McCarthy. For that matter, the HBO show Girls, from Lena Dunham, is the zika virus of sexuality – it’s a pity she forgot to add Hulk Hogan to the cast. Clive James in The New Yorker aptly describes the sex on Game of Thrones as “torture festivals” and “showrooms for naked pulchritude.” These depictions, he said, “would have been more appropriate in Caligula.”

There seems to be a competition in film and TV over who can put the foulest language in the mouths of the youngest characters. In The Boss, subteens scream epithets at each other that would merit expulsion from the NBA. The lexicon of broadcast TV would have caused coronaries among the old-school standards-and-practices bureaucrats.

Here’s the irony: In the two ‘60s movies I cited, no one talked dirty. Both films concerned themselves with sexual discovery, but the act itself didn’t turn out to be a Rocky Horror Show. The Academy screened Goodbye Columbus last week as a tribute to director Larry Peerce. The film was based on a superb novella by Philip Roth, whose work was just igniting critical raves (he was accorded the cover of Time magazine as the film was greenlighted). Ali MacGraw, Richard Benjamin and Peerce, along with producer Stanley Jaffe, all attended the screening and shared a delight in rediscovering the wit and gentleness of the film’s sexual commentary.

The movie’s climax (yes, films, too, had climaxes in those days) goodbye-columbus-richard-benjamin-ali-macgraw-1969was triggered when MacGraw absent-mindedly left her diaphragm in her bedroom only to be found by shocked parents. There were glimpses of nudity in the very candid love scenes. While no penis was on display, the sheer mention of the organ elicited threats of a dreaded X from the ratings board. “Dirty” words were not permitted in that era by the board, even though “dirty” acts were emblazoned across the screens, albeit within a certain context of innocence. It’s hard to forget the looks of terror on the faces of both Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and Richard Benjamin in Goodbye Columbus as they signed their hotel registers for their hot dates.

Of course, some of the movies of four decades ago also set out to defy that era’s standards of morality. The Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci boldly to re-defined the boundaries of onscreen sexual behavior. Also in the early ’70s, Deep Throat effectively thrust porn into the mainstream, but in Throat, as in Tango, the shock value was delivered in the action, not the dialogue. As a result of the record box office numbers for Deep Throat, three of the major studios seriously debated establishing porn divisions – initiatives that were shot down by the boards of directors.

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol

The common denominator of most of today’s films that deal with sexuality is that the sex itself is self-destructive – witness last year’s Carol or The Danish Girl. On network television, sex is used as a device to trigger off-color wisecracks that only a few years ago would have caused cancellations.

I’m not one of those people who sentimentalize the ‘60s, but, assessing the media today, it sure was a nicer time to take a date to the movies.

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