“Fifty Shades of Gray”, officially the fastest selling paperback of all time, is to be made into a major motion picture, after a hefty bidding war was won by Universal and Focus Features. It has already had an enormous impact on the sales of handcuffs, spanking paddles, riding crops and other S&M paraphernalia – oh, and the book trade, with over 40 million copies already sold around the world.
The big issue that the studio and filmmakers have to contend with, though, is that it is one thing to read about salacious BDSM goings on and quite another to actually watch them on the big screen – and they say women, the vast majority of the book’s audience, prefer to read, and use their imaginations in relation to such material, where men are the ones who respond more to being stimulated visually.
A look at the history of sex in the cinema shows limited commercial success for erotic films. However, even pre the release of the “50 Shades” movie, it has been claimed to be responsible for increasing the viewing of erotic films by as much as 55%, according to LoveFilm. The explanation for this disconnect appears to be grounded mostly in the division between what people will view in public and what they will watch in the privacy of their own homes.
One question now is how explicit will the movie be? Whilst it doesn’t have (mostly wholesome) young wizards, nor repressed adolescent sex with vampires and werewolves – as everyone now knows, the book was developed by E. L James from the fan fiction she wrote as an online tribute to Stephanie Myers’ “Twilight” novels. It may be no surprise, then, that many of the actors up for the lead roles are being sought from these blockbuster films. Frontrunners for Anastasia Steele are Alexis Bledel and Kirsten Stewart (“Twilight”) and even “Harry Potter” star, Emily Watson (though IMDB is tipping Mila Kunis, from neither). For Christian Gray, Ian Somerhalder, from “The Vampire Diaries”, came top in the Cosmopolitan poll, though other contenders include Ryan Gosling, so steamy in “Blue Valentine” and Michael Fassbinder, who revealed all in “Shame”.
How far will such mainstream actors be prepared to go and when does acting tip into real sex? Film has run the gamut. At one end of the spectrum there is a whole category of performance in erotic films called “unsimulated sex” where actors engage in actual sex acts rather than just faking it or resort to body doubles. In another major sex film currently shooting, Lars Von Trier’s “The Nymphomaniac”, Shia Le Boeuf, star of “Transformers”, is apparently up for going the whole way. He says, “[Von Trier] is a visionary.. I’ll do anything he tells me.” (Historically, it was the award-winning success of Von Trier’s highly explicit “The Idiots” – following on from the hardcore porn scenes in 70’s Danish ‘Zodiac’ films – which gave a major boost to including full-on sex scenes into mainstream cinema).
Though it took until the 70s for adult-content films to escape from only underground screenings and gain widespread exposure, their production began virtually immediately after the invention of motion pictures around the turn of the 20th century. And even early erotic films were pretty forward, especially for their times. In 1896, for what was certainly one of the very first ‘porn’ films, a woman performs a bathroom striptease in the 7 minute French film “Le Coucher de la Mariee” (“Bedtime for the Bride”). An early German film “Am Abend” (“In the Evening”), 1910, opens with a woman masturbating solo, then moves on to showing her with a man, fellating him and then having sexual intercourse and anal sex.
In these early days the Pathe’ brothers (creators of the famous Pathe Newsreels), who then had the world’s largest film company, became major distributors to underground, men-only screenings of erotic films, then known as “stag” films. And notably, it was the appearance of vibrators used for masturbation by women in 20s stag films that made it impossible for society to continue to turn a blind eye to the true purpose of these female massage devices. Up until then they had been openly advertised in women’s magazines but now they were banned and pretty well died out until the 1960s when one Jon H. Tavel applied for a patent for the “Cordless Electric Vibrator for Use on the Human Body” – and the modern, personal vibrator was born.
After World War II, with the introduction of the ‘home movie’ film gauges of 8mm and Super 8, an era of amateur, and do-it-yourself, porn film-making was ushered in. There were still problems in having such films developed, though, for those without their own equipment at home. It took the introduction of the video camera for people to be readily capable of making their own erotic movies – and now the internet is awash with such user-generated content uploaded to a vast crop of amateur porn sites.
Major breakthroughs in erotic cinema for general public consumption came with the sexual revolution of the 60s, as social attitudes eased to the open depiction of sex on the screen. The Swedish film, “I Am Curious Yellow”, 1967, proved to be a watershed not only for the explicitness of its simulated sex scenes – and a shot of the lead actress kissing her lover’s flaccid penis – but also for winning the obscenity case brought against it, which went all the way the U.S. Supreme Court.
It was around that time that the first of the “educational” (real or claimed) sex films came to the fore, with the Swedish film “The Language of Love” in 1969. (Indeed, this and other such films of the time, were the precursors to the Lovers’ Guide series of adult edutainment films which I began producing in the 1990s.) And then there were semi-documentary films, notably “W.R.: Mysteries of the Orgasm”, which intercut documentary footage with the story of a Yugoslavian woman seducing a Soviet ice skater. In that film Betty Dodson, an artist and pioneering sex educator, is seen with her masturbation artworks, leading a discussion group about raising female sexual response.
From the 70s onward, swathes of art-house sex films began to be seen in the cinemas. Some of these moved from sex being straightforwardly arousing to being more disturbing. “Last Tango in Paris”, 1972, featured the (simulated) controversial anal sex scene between Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, famously using butter as lubricant. It provoked international controversy over its portrayal of sexual violence, and in 1994 it became the first film to be prosecuted under the UK’s Obscene Publications Act. “In the Realm of the Senses”, 1976, showed fellatio and other unsimulated sex acts. It culminates in the (simulated) killing of the male lead in the height of intensive lovemaking and his penis then being severed by his lover.
In 1979, Bob Guccione’s film of the sexually perverted Roman Emperor, “Caligula”, has the distinction of being the first major motion picture to feature both top actors (Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole) and authentic sex scenes. In the uncut version, at least, there is penetrative sex, fellatio, cunnilingus and ejaculation.
A further storm – and, this time, protests by the gay community – erupted with the filming and release of “Cruising”, 1980, with Al Pacino, which included oral sex and fisting scenes performed for real by extras in gay bars.
There are many, many more erotic films that could be discussed – including “Emmanuelle”, “The Blue Lagoon”, “The Devils”, “Deep Throat”, “Salo”, “Baise-moi”, “The Brown Bunny”, “Blue Velvet”, “9 ½ Weeks”, “Le Grande Bouffe”, “Basic Instinct”, “Crash”, “Don’t Look Now”, with its widely beloved sex scene, “Shortbus” with full-on orgies, and Von Trier’s last film, the graphically sexual and violent “Antichrist”, to name but a few (feel free to add your own).
The issue of when sex is no longer acting became a major discussion topic with Patrice Chereau’s film “Intimacy”, 2001, where Kerry Fox performed full-on fellatio with Mark Rylance. It prompted the film critic, Alexander Linklater, then Fox’s boyfriend, to write about his emotional response to having to watch her actually doing this on the big screen.
The first film to including an explicit ejaculation scene – cum shot – to be certified by the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors) for general release for 18 years and above is Michael Winterbottom’s “9 Songs”. The male orgasm is there along with scenes of (unprotected) fellatio and cunnilingus, and (protected) penetration,
The advent of video in the 80s and the internet in the 90s, with all the new distribution channels that provided, meant more erotic films could now get into consumers homes. The large studios still had a problem with sex on the big screen. The first issue was getting in the audiences given that disconnect with what consumers are prepared to watch alone and what they will go to the cinema to see (which may, of course, have a lot to do with the self-arousal purposes of porn.)
There is also a practical issue of distribution – in the 90s the U.S. film censoring body, the MPAA, gave up the X rating and created the NC-17 rating, designed to distinguish those films with strong sexual content. However, this turned out to be the kiss of death as many cinemas would not screen films with that rating and major video chains, such as Blockbuster, also refused to carry such titles. The mainstream sex-thriller, “Basic Instinct”, 1992, lost around 75% of its potential release by having this rating and was then cut to the more favourable ‘R’ rating – with the full director’s cut being limited to video.
All of this meant that the large studios generally stayed away so erotic films mostly had to be made cheaply and by independent producers. This inevitably meant that many erotic films outside of regular pornography have remained cult and art-house and frankly many were thoroughly boring and/or badly made.
So where will “50 Shades..”, clearly intended as a major commercial endeavour, be pitched? It may well take its cue in tone from “Secretary”, 2002, Steven Shainberg’s independent film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, which involved sadomasochism and a dominant male – also, incidentally, called Grey – but managed to do so while being sufficiently restrained that it passed the censors. The U.S. film critic, Roger Ebert, praised the film for approaching a “tricky subject… with a stealthy tread, avoiding the dangers of making it either too offensive or too funny.”
The numbers, though, flash a big red warning light for Universal and “50 Shades..”. The budget of “Secretary” was a minimal $4 million and it barely managed even to recoup that at the box office in the USA, though it looks to have reached $9m worldwide. Still, this is small change for the major studios.
It is unlikely that “50 Shades..” can be made for less than around $20 million. That means it would need to take in around $50 million at the box office, given the costs of prints and advertising, just to break even. That will be a very tough call for something that, though it works commercially exceptionally well as the written word, will have a struggle to lure sufficient numbers of its 40 million readership into the cinemas. The history suggests that the more its stars are willing to reveal all the less the film will earn at the box office. Perhaps, as noted above with such films as “Basic Instinct”, and as Von Trier has announced for “The Nymphomaniac”, two versions will be shot to cover the public/private disconnect, one softcore for general release and a more explicit version – whether simulated or not – for a “directors’ cut” DVD release for private viewing at home.
Robert Page is founder of the Lovers’ Guide