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From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange - How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos
by Robert Hofler
Interesting turn of phrase describing Time mag's "cash-register-friendly" headline "The Adulterous Society" (for Updike article).
Philip Roth had writer's block for several years until his hated ex-wife was killed in a car crash in Central Park. (She had tricked him into marrying him by pretending to be pregnant after buying a vial of urine from a pregnant woman for ten dollars. And since she refused to divorce him, he had to pay her half his income. No wonder he saw the driver of the car as his emancipator. Since he no longer had to split his income with her, he finished off Portnoy's Complaint easily.
Gore Vidal explaineing Myra Breckinridge: "The US is filled with fat, flabby men who think of themselves as Gary Cooper - two-fisted he-men - when actually it's a country of beer-drinking fat men looking at television. They have all this machismo poured into their poor fat heads, and that's why we're in Vietnam."
Midnight Cowboy originally had a $1m budget but that eventually swelled to $2m then 3. The studio heads forced the producers and writers to give up their salaries in return for higher percentages of profits, as they were convinced the film would never make money. (It wound up with 3 Academy Awards - Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay - and grossed $45m in US alone.
Oh, Calcutta opened to terrible critical reviews, but that attracted sell-out audiences. They not only doubled usual price for off-Broadway theatre seats, but made a killing renting out binoculars.
(Some unusual words - ecdysiast - just means a stripper or burlesque dancer, and zaftig meaning having a pleasingly plump figure.
Producer's analysis of Last tango In Paris: "Can a man and a woman live together without destroying each other?"
When the British film director John Schlesinger released Sunday Bloody Sunday in 1971 - his story of a female recruitment consultant and a male doctor both having an affair with a bisexual artist - the stars came out for the London premiere. It was Schlesinger's first film since scooping three Oscars in 1970 for Midnight Cowboy. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier turned up, together with Princess Margaret - who, at the after-party, made it clear what she thought of Schlesinger's offering: 'Horrific. Men in bed kissing!' Hip to the changing times, her husband, Lord Snowdon, snapped: 'Oh Margaret, shut up.'
What is most extraordinary about this little episode in cinema history, as is revealed in this richly detailed, entertaining study of film and theatre's sex boom in the late 1960s and early 1970s, isn't the fact that Margaret was put off by watching men kissing - it's the fact that she was there at all.
Just a few years earlier, it would have been unthinkable to see anything as racy as a gay kiss in a mainstream film. Yet suddenly it was hard to move for sex and sexuality in cinema. In the same year as Sunday Bloody Sunday, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song - Marvin Van Peebles's film about a black man's sexual awakening - outdid the soppy Love Story at the box office. A year later, Bernardo Bertolucci would unleash Last Tango in Paris, featuring a nude, butter-wielding Marlon Brando.
Everything, argues Robert Hofler, changed in the depiction of sex on stage and screen between 1968 and 1973. Back in 1966, cinema-goers had waited patiently through Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up just to 'get a two-second glimpse of a young woman's pubic hair, delivered in long shot'. A few years later, barely anybody could keep their clothes on. The musical Hair paraded actors in nude tableaux. Not long after, Alan Bates and Oliver Reed were wrestling naked in Ken Russell's film of Women in Love (1969).
As Hofler points out, literature had already started blazing the sex trail. Couples, John Updike's 1968 novel of swinging partners in Massachusetts, was such a hit that Time put Updike on its cover. You can glean a sense of the era's sensibilities, though, from the same magazine's review, that year, of Gore Vidal's novel Myra Breckinridge, about a young woman who goes around raping men with a strap-on dildo, and is later revealed to be a man halfway through a sex change. Anyone who had ever been 'down to the local fag bar', brayed Time, could have seen the book's twist coming. Philip Roth quickly emulated Vidal and Updike's hits with his masturbation-filled Portnoy's Complaint (1969). It sold, like Myra Breckinridge, more than 2m copies in paperback.
But it was in plays and films that the battle for baring bodies was fought most ardently ('Blow jobs,' runs a typical Hofler sentence, 'continued to present sizeable problems for film-makers in 1970'). The merest whiff of anything sexual drew in the crowds. The 1968 Broadway play The Boys in the Band, about a group of gay men at a birthday party, was a sell-out. Jackie Kennedy, Groucho Marx and Marlene Dietrich flocked to see it - seats were so hard to come by that Margot Fonteyn had to sit on Rudolf Nureyev's lap.
Everyone jumped on the sex bandwagon - even Samuel Beckett. In 1969, he put on a one-minute play in New York called Prologue, in which three bodies lay intertwined in a pile of rubbish 'as the pre-recorded strains of female orgasms washed over them'. But nobody chased the commercial lure of sex more keenly than the National Theatre's former literary manager Kenneth Tynan. Spurred by the success of Hair, he curated his own lewd revue, Oh! Calcutta! On its opening night in Los Angeles in 1969, his entire cast was arrested for illegal 'genital contact'.
In the following years, mainstream films displaying sex as their selling point became gold mines. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), starring Natalie Wood, made $30m at the box office; Last Tango in Paris reaped a then huge $45m. In the gold rush, Vidal became desperate to turn Myra Breckinridge into a film. The result, released in 1970, was a commercial and artistic car crash: one scene, in which Myra, pre-sex change, fellates herself as a man, was spliced with a shot of Shirley Temple accidentally squirting herself as she milked a goat in Heidi. President Richard Nixon personally insisted on Temple being removed.
As is possibly appropriate for a former senior editor at Variety, Hofler tells all this more as a long collection of Tinseltown tittle-tattle than as a deeply satisfying critique. But he corrals his material well, to show how the series of key works he cites nudged the door to portraying sex ever wider.
But by the end of this golden era of sex, as Hofler highlights, the vogue for filmic nudity had already given way to another kind of cinematic voyeurism: sexual violence. This was exemplified in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (in which Peckinpah considered shooting his central rape scene with real sex between the actors) and, with its own shocking rape scene, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Both films came out within weeks of each other in 1971. Nobody seems to have recorded what Princess Margaret made of them.
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