Sex in the cinema: A timeline

April 4

Nudity at the movies is nothing new. Some of the earliest action committed to film — going back to the movement studies of photographer Eadweard Muybridge in the 1880s — involved naked human bodies running and jumping. It wasn’t long before filmmakers figured out other naughty things for people to do in front of the camera. In response came the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of standards imposed on the American film industry in an attempt to keep things clean. First enforced in 1934, the code’s strict censorship wasn’t dropped until 1968, replaced by an early version of the voluntary rating system we have today.

But the bar keeps getting raised. (Or is that lowered?) Here’s a brief history of some of the milestones along the way from the initial loss of our cinematic virginity to “Nymphomaniac.”

Ecstasy (1933)

Hedy Lamar plays a newlywed fleeing a passionless marriage in this Czech romance, the first non-pornographic film to depict the sex act.

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

Marilyn Monroe’s low-cut halter dress — blown skyward by a gust from a subway vent in this comedy about marital infidelity — signaled the dawn of the modern era of movie sex.

I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967)

The subject of a censorship battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, this erotic Swedish drama introduced America to the more liberal erotic standards of European cinema. It became a hit after its 1969 release in the U.S., reigning as the highest-grossing foreign film until 1994’s “Il Postino.”

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

The gritty story of the friendship between a male prostitute (Jon Voight) and a con artist (Dustin Hoffman) was the first (and only) X-rated film to win a best-picture Oscar.

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Marlon Brando’s portrayal of a man involved in a purely physical relationship with a much younger woman (played by a 19-year-old Maria Schneider) shocked audiences for its graphic sex and nudity.

American Gigolo (1980)

Richard Gere, playing a narcissistic male escort, made history as the first major American movie star to go the “full Monty.”

Porky’s (1982)

The age of the raunchy teen sex farce officially begins with this crudity-and nudity-filled yuk-fest.

Henry & June (1990)

Inspired by the diaries of Anais Nin, the drama starring Fred Ward and Uma Thurman was the first major Hollywood film to receive an NC-17 rating. Created to replace the X rating, the new designation warned of content that, while not pornographic, was nevertheless unsuitable for children.

Basic Instinct (1992)

This erotic thriller scandalized audiences for its depiction of rough sex, lesbianism, bondage and Sharon Stone famously uncrossing her legs and leaving nothing to the imagination in her portrayal of a bisexual murder suspect.

Kids (1995)

Larry Clark’s cinema-verite story drew criticism for its nonjudgmental portrayal of underage sex that many saw as child pornography.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger brought major starpower to Ang Lee’s groundbreaking story of cowboys in love.

Shortbus (2006)

When shown at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, this arthouse flick by “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” director/writer/star John Cameron Mitchell — notable for numerous permutations of unsimulated sex — was the most explicit film ever screened at those prestigious festivals.

READ MORE:

Sex, movies and the desperate attempt to shock audiences

michael.osullivan@washpost.com

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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