Erotic Trends in Hollywood Films

Throughout the over 100 years of moviemaking glory, golden images of eroticism have titillated and enthralled us. Hollywood’s mystical weaving of storytelling has had a profound power to influence how we perceive ourselves and the expectations we have about our romantic lives. As the famous actor Tony Curtis stated,” By watching Cary Grant I learned how to dress and how to act with a woman.” Though this power to influence our love and sexual lives was used to engage us in positive ways regarding heterosexual relationships, such was not the case when it came to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community (LGBT). Messages were subtle though laced with seductive language such as the infamous bathtub scene in the renowned movie “Spartacus”. Laurence Olivier’s character while flirting with a slave utters, ” Some people like oysters, some people like snails. I like oysters and snails.” Many of the messages in film were not as pleasing as in Spartacus and could be degrading. As early as 1915 in a silent movie entitled “Behind the Screen”, Charlie Chaplin kissed a woman dressed as a man as another character mocked Chaplain in a crass way that communicated an overt aversion to homosexuality. Although the subject was never addressed openly, the message of disapproval was clear. When Marlene Dietrich dressed in tuxedos and kissed another woman in “Morocco” (1930) though intriguing and groundbreaking, the image also created hysterical laughter by other characters in the movie. This was a watershed film of sensuality that re-invented the roles of men and women. Though Ms. Dietrich set the stage for things to come, it was not until the 1970’s in the film “Cabaret” starring Liza Minnelli that bisexuality could openly be celebrated. As movies progressively became more open during the 1930’s the studios received threats from the Catholic Church that led to the ban of any topics related to seduction including acts of open mouthed kissing, erotic touching, etc. for over 20 years. Entire gay-centered plots were changed to be less threatening for heterosexual moviegoers. Although gay characters didn’t totally disappear during this era, their roles were transformed into evil vampires and the like such as in “Dracula’s Daughter (1936) that depicted terror being forced upon an innocent woman by a vampire-like woman. Although vampires have always had an erotic undertone in Hollywood themes, it wasn’t until movies such as “The Hunger” (1983) appeared that lesbian portrayals of vampires were accepted. In this film, Catherine Deneuve plays an intoxicating role as a vampire searching for immortality through a willing female participant. Lesbians seemed to be overlooked by censors early in Hollywood history but gay men were almost always portrayed as villains or killers that met tragic endings Even if they did survive, they always seemed to be unhappy which reflected the prevailing attitudes toward members of the LGBT community at that time. In the classic film “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958) it was clear that Paul Newman’s character had a romantic relationship with his best friend Skipper, though it was never said openly. He was portrayed as being tortured by the affair and denied the relationship. These images and messages were quite a challenge for the many closeted gay writers and directors but it would take many years before positive roles would be cast for gay, lesbian and transgender characters. _ The first film released by a major studio that depicted openly gay men on screen was “Boys in the Band” (1970). Unfortunately, it showed the all too familiar stereotypes of gay men as outcasts, though it dealt with the struggle to be openly gay in this society. In contrast to this dark film, my recollection of the first gentle yet bold mainstream film about two gay men with major stars was “Making Love” (1982). Kate Jackson (of “Charlie’s Angels” television fame), stars as a high level television executive married to a respected physician whose sex life is nonexistent. Questioning his sexual orientation, he begins a passionate affair with Harry Hamlin who plays an openly gay novelist. What is so moving about the film is when the husband speaks openly to his wife about his need to live as a gay man and lovingly releases her to move on. His entry into his new life was beautifully constructed with a tender embrace and passion that was unbridled for its time. As the demand grew for more positive roles for gay, lesbian and transgender characters and as society slowly evolved in its acceptance of various sexual preferences, Hollywood began to transform as well. Films such as “Philadelphia” (1993) which depicted Tom Hanks as a gay lawyer in a long term, loving relationship suffering from AIDS changed the landscape of mainstream films. To borrow an old phrase, Hollywood ushered in the “Gay 90’s” where popular films contained super- stars playing gay and lesbian lead characters. Openly gay characters played major roles in mainstream films such as “Birdcage” with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, “As Good As It Gets” (1997) starring Jack Nicholson, “Gods and Monsters” (1998), and in the case of transgender roles Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry”. Finally Hollywood was depicting more authentic characters in an open manner. As audiences flocked to these films, this trend made way for even more renowned films such as “Capote” (2005) starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, “Brokeback Mountain (2005) and “Milk” (2008) starring Sean Penn. All of these films garnered Oscar awards which was monumental in the mainstream media. As the best Director winner of “Brokeback Mountain” Ang Lee said in his acceptance speech, “This award is not just for all gay men and women whose lives have been denied by society, but it’s also a tribute to the greatness of love itself”. This fascinating evolution of erotic trends in mainstream Hollywood continues to progress for LGBT characters. We will explore erotic trends in television a la” “The L Word” in next month’s column. Stay tuned for this enthralling episode that will inform and amaze you.