On his iconic 1970 album “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox,” poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron cautioned America that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Yet the sexual revolution of the late ’60s and early ’70s did manifest itself in multiple ways on the movie screen and the theater stage. The staggering shifts in mores may not have been beamed into the country’s living rooms (or bedrooms) very often, but a short walk to the local cinema brought a bracing and often graphic update on the evolution of the status quo.
Although its title may suggest hack work, “Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to a Clockwork Orange — How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos” was written by a true pop culture connoisseur. Veteran entertainment journalist and former Variety senior editor Robert Hofler has no shortage of bona fides or enthusiasm for detailing the brief span of entertainment history — 1968 to 1973 — that delivered so much groundbreaking film, theater and literature. These days, we may take for granted the lurid ultraviolence of “A Clockwork Orange,” the hippie-dippie, sing-along idealism of “Hair” and the coming-of-age onanism of Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint.” But before these works found a place in the cultural canon, they had to travel bumpy roads. The origin stories of these and dozens of other similarly controversial works of this era compose most of this absorbing book.
As a historical document, “Sexplosion” stands as an engrossing chronicle of artistic expansion — for good or ill. Not every effort from this swashbuckling span of years has withstood the test of time — for every enduring “Midnight Cowboy,” there are a dozen films that now seem dated and flat, like a cinematic leap that ended in a belly flop. But Holfer doesn’t play favorites or weigh one work’s legacy against another. That bit of business falls to the reader.
Even if you don’t give a fig about Stonewall’s effect on queer theater or the box office take for the initial run of “Deep Throat,” “Sexplosion” can keep you hooked. If your guilty-pleasure tastes run toward showbiz gossip, note that this book is pretty delicious. For instance, those who have seen “Last Tango in Paris” and bemoaned the seemingly sexist nudity imbalance between the young female lead, Maria Schneider, and the much older Marlon Brando might be amused to learn that it wasn’t gender bias that led to full-frontal shots of Schneider while Brando was more discreetly displayed — it was his insecurity. “If Schneider was relaxed with her nudity, Brando was not,” Hofler writes. “Where she walked around naked almost from day one, Brando demurred. ‘We have to wait a bit longer,’ he kept saying. ‘I’m not thin enough yet.’ ” Director Bernardo Bertolucci fudged on Brando’s behalf. “I wanted to show it as essentially an oedipal relationship,” he said. “Her nakedness makes her more childlike, his clothes make him more fatherly.”
“Schneider gave a simpler reason for the disparity in their respective wardrobes. ‘It was just his complex about his body,’ she said of Brando.” Readers will also learn how the infamous butter scene came about. (I know I’ve always wondered who came up with that one. Surely not the American Dairy Council.)
The book delivers all this omnisexual pop cult history via a most circuitous route, broken down into a rough timeline that loops from this movie to that movie to a book, then a play, then a television show and around again. Would “Sexplosion” be a smoother read had it been organized by genre or project, or just more straighforwardly? Oh, probably. But it would be no more amusing. The roundabout structure gives the book a dishy or, if I may be so 1970s, “rompy” feel, like a long, three-martini lunch with a chatty acquaintance who knows the studio-lot scuttlebutt and isn’t afraid to share it.
Perhaps the book might have greater impact had Hofler spent more time detailing the depth and breadth of conformity and repression in pre-sexual-revolution America, as younger readers might not thoroughly grasp just how uptight things really were and, correspondingly, how radical things became in reaction. In an age when the Grammys open with a prime-time grind-fest from pop music’s most beloved couple, the gate-storming bravado of these 1960s-’70s pioneers might be underestimated without a full-roll history lesson for comparison.
As complaints go, this one is minor, for what the book has to offer far outweighs what it lacks. And there is no great shortage of information about the Puritanical spasms this country has seen — as with any other burning desire, one can always Google one’s way to greater satisfaction if the need presents itself.
From Andy Warhol to a Clockwork Orange — How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos
By Robert Hofler
It! 344 pp. $27.99