You know what’s funny? Sex. And you know what’s scary? Sex. And guess what’s uncomfortable and upsetting, at least when it’s not embarrassing and ridiculous? Sex!
Or, at least, that’s what Hollywood now seems to believe. Over the past decade, sex has remained an ideal subject for ribald comedies and brainy, tortured character pieces. But when it comes to actually being sexy, in a mature and serious way? Or even a tawdry, titillating, vulgar-but-hot way? Hollywood is no longer interested.
This wasn’t the case very long ago. As recently as 2002’s Unfaithful, mainstream American movies were perfectly comfortable tackling stories built around steamy scenarios. However, since that Diane Lane-Richard Gere marital thriller (marked by sizzling extramarital encounters between Lane and co-star Olivier Martinez), the pickings in this arena have been woefully slim. There was the rough-and-tumble tussling of Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello in A History of Violence (2005). And the psychosexual tango of Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke in Taking Lives (2004). And just about everything in Brian De Palma’s undervalued 2002 masterwork Femme Fatale (which should have forever established Rebecca Romijn’s superstardom). And, um, well...that’s about it.
Which begs the question: Where did Hollywood’s sexiness go? Sure, for the younger set, there’s still plenty of nubile jailbait flesh to drool over in the latest Michael Bay extravaganza. And for the older crowd, there’s always innocent fluff like And So It Goes featuring Diane Keaton doing her usual frumpy-Charlie-Chaplin cross-dressing routine. But when it comes to the sticky, sweaty, pulse-pounding adult fare that used to make its way into multiplexes, there’s almost nothing left but the faint scent of Fatal Attraction and its lurid ilk.
It’s easy enough to blame this turn of events on the rise of ubiquitous online porn, or to point the finger at American prudishness, and to then point another at domestic movies’ preference for slaughter over skin; after all, that’s why countless violent movies continue to receive kid-friendly PG-13 ratings, while nudity and “sexual situations” are a ticket to an R designation. That ratings paradigm, however, has been in place for decades, and yet the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s were a veritable golden age of erotic thrillers, and even the aughts churned out its fair share of movie star-headlined sexy genre films.
Beginning with ‘70s classics like Last Tango in Paris and Don’t Look Now and continuing through Body Heat (1981), Body Double (1984), 9 ½ Weeks (1986), Angel Heart (1987) and Fatal Attraction (1987), Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), Basic Instinct (1992), The Last Seduction (1994), Bound (1996) and Crash (1996), and culminating with Wild Things (1998), to name a few, those decades afforded audiences a steady stream of films in which drama, tension and horror were intertwined with grown-up carnal urges. Following in the tradition of their illustrious genre forefathers, who’d been lacing relationship stories and crime sagas with seedy, sultry electricity ever since film noir’s 1940s heyday, A-list directors such as De Palma, Paul Verhoeven, Adrian Lyne, John Dahl and the Wachowskis, as well as the era’s sleazy screenwriting titan, Joe Eszterhas, embraced the cinema’s capacity for sensuality. In doing so, they created a hunger for erotic thrillers that was so strong, it could even withstand notoriously limp duds like Jade (1995).
As for today? Well, there’s the likes of Sex Tape, which finds Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel fumbling and bumbling about trying to keep a recording of their Kama Sutra-inspired exploits from going viral. There’s also Nymphomaniac, Lars Von Trier’s two-part art-house slog that uses hardcore sex not to arouse moviegoers (heavens, why would we want to do that!) but, instead, to facilitate a chilly intellectualized investigation of female sexual development. And don’t forget about other recent sex-addiction offerings like Don Jon, a goofy comedic character study that somehow squanders the seductive charms of Scarlett Johansson, or Shame, a 2012 drama directed by Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) and starring Michael Fassbender that’s as grim and tortured as its title implies.
This isn’t to say that using sex for smutty laughs or academic inquiries is wrong; rather, it’s to lament that 2014 Hollywood seems outright afraid to turn on its audience. There’s no question that many of the aforementioned erotic thrillers (especially those penned by Eszterhas) often hinged on less-than-flattering portraits of women, as this acute piece by my Complex compatriots Ross Scarano and La Donna Pietra details, Michael Douglas’ three iconic films in that genre expressed all sorts of noxious male anxieties about females (and feminine sexuality). Yet even when they became tangled up in sexist gender and homosexual representations (I’m looking at you, Single White Female!), such films at least respected the fact that adult sexual dynamics and circumstances were prime real estate for introspective drama, heart-racing thrills, and libidinous excitement.
Far more than because of any prudishness, this swing away from the sexual is primarily the byproduct of a studio system that views teens as its most lucrative demographic, and adults as a niche that chiefly needs servicing during the year-end award-courting season. Is that an oversimplification of a multifarious industry comprised of many different mainstream and independent arms? Possibly. And could this situation radically change with one out-of-left-field eroticized hit—perhaps, for instance, next year’s hotly anticipated adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey? Of course. But for now, no matter where you look, the view remains the same—and it doesn’t involve anything sexy. It’s a state of affairs depressing enough to make one wonder: Where have you gone, Joe Eszterhas?
Nick Schager is a film critic who's contributed to The Dissolve, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among numerous other publications. He tweets here.