Oscar Movies Are Horny Again and That’s a Great Thing

Movies
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Before praising the 2024 Oscars and their approach to sex, we need to acknowledge one truth. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences completely ignored one of the best movies of the year, and a movie that features one of the most frank and vulnerable sexual scenes committed to film. It, of course, involves a bathtub, where one man’s desire for another becomes clear in a way that not even he had heretofore acknowledged.

What? No, not Saltburn. I said a good movie, not a loud nothing that approaches sex like a 12-year-old who just learned a few rude words.

I’m referring to the beautiful Andrew Haigh film All of Us Strangers, which received no Oscar attention, not even for its outstanding leads Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal. The scene in question occurs after screenwriter Adam (Scott) returns from his parents’ home, where he just came out to his mother, who did not respond as well as he hoped. Chilled from walking in the rain, Adam goes to Harry’s (Mescal) apartment, who promptly runs him a bath.

Still early in their relationship, to the point that Adam cannot undress for the bath with Harry watching, the two are tentative in disclosing their attraction to one another. As they talk, Haigh and cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay use soft-focus close-ups to capture the tenderness with which the two touch each other, lightly stroking arms and eyebrows while eventually revealing their sexual desires.

It’s a beautiful and human scene, one based in character development and grounded emotions. And it’s the type of scene too many filmgoers have disliked for too long. But despite the Academy missing out on All of Us Strangers, Oscars do recognize several movies with frank and beautiful sexuality, signaling a long-needed change in the understanding of sexuality on film.

Unsafe Sex Talk About Movies

While promoting his movie Argylle, actor Henry Cavill — who knows a thing or two about steamy bathtub scenes, thanks to The Witcher — offered his thoughts about sex on film. “I don’t understand them. I’m not a fan,” told the Happy Sad Confused podcast (via Business Insider). While he did acknowledge that nude scenes can move a story along, he concluded, “I think sometimes they’re overused these days.”

Cavill is not alone in his feelings. “Am I the only one that’s tired of sex scenes in films and shows?” asked a Reddit user in 2023. And while the premise of the question did receive some pushback (“unless beforehand they dance like birds in a david attenborough documentary” said the top comment), many people in the thread agreed. Even beyond social media posts, the perspective gets echoed through more official channels. According to a 2023 survey from the UCLA-based Center for Scholars and Storytellers, “47.5% of adolescents said that sex isn’t needed for the plot of most TV shows and movies.”

To be sure, there are many reasons behind these preferences. That same survey indicates that adolescents value platonic relationships and staying single more than coupling, and want that lifestyle reflected in film.

Furthermore, there’s a long history in Hollywood of sexuality forced into projects, particularly to please straight male viewers. Whether it be the “sex hygiene” and “vice” movies of the 20s and 30s, the Mondo movies of the 60s and 70s, or more straightforward horror and exploitation fare of the 80s, sexuality on film very often meant the camera leered at women. This is the issue that academic Laura Mulvey addressed in her influential 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In that essay, Mulvey identified “the male gaze,” in which the camera stands in for the eyes of the (straight) male viewer, who gets to stare at female subjects behind the protection of the fourth wall.

Sometimes, this focus on the male gaze invited gratuitous sex scenes that distracted from the plot (take Chris Pine’s Kirk walking in on Carol Marcus, played by Alice Eve, in her underwear for no reason in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness). At worst, the focus resulted in performers, usually women, forced to participate in sex scenes they did not want.

Infamously, director Paul Verhoeven joked about getting revenge on Sharon Stone when she refused to disrobe for Total Recall, assuring the actress that she would not be exposed if she removed her underwear (which he claimed reflected oddly in camera) during the interrogation scene in Basic Instinct. Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting have recently charged Italian director Franco Zeffirelli with exploiting them as teenagers in 1968’s Romeo and Juliet. The list is long and upsetting.

Given these examples, it’s easy to see why so many filmgoers are turning away from sexuality in movies. But if that’s the case, why did so many movies with sex and nudity get Oscar attention this year? What do these films, representatives of the best that cinema has to offer, understand about sex that viewers do not?

The Best Sex You’ll Ever See

The nude scenes in Oppenheimer, this year’s awards favorite, seems very much like the type of moment modern viewers find objectionable.

In the second nude scene, Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) sits across the room from his mistress, the Communist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). Neither wear clothes, and Tatlock’s chest is visible. As Tatlock presses the scientist for information, he evades, insisting that he cares for her while defending his privacy.

Some viewers might question the decision to include the nudity. It occurs in a flashback sparked by questions during Oppenheimer’s deposition with Roger Robb (Jason Clarke), who seeks to prove the scientist’s associations with Communists. Oppenheimer’s recollection need only show viewers that he did not, in fact, reveal any state secrets to her. With that truth established, we can go on certain in Oppenheimer’s innocence and Robb’s misplaced zeal.

However, such a shallow, binary reading misses the depth and humanity in director Christopher Nolan’s approach. The physical space between Oppenheimer and Tatlock indicates the emotional distance between them, a fact that pains them both, as demonstrated by the actors’ subtle and raw performances. The nudity indicates the longing and vulnerability they both feel, an openness and coldness that cannot be closed by the coming together of their bodies, as neither person can be what the other wants.

When we do see Oppenheimer and Tatlock together, they’re making love in the middle of Robb’s deposition. Obviously, this is not happening literally, but the scene captures the embarrassment and exposure Oppenheimer experiences during the questioning, as the intimate details of his life get shared for all. Worse, Nolan uses a shot/reverse-shot technique to see Tatlock staring at his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), to emphasize the latter’s embarrassment and humiliation at her husband’s activities.

None of that would be communicated the same if the two actors were clothed, or shot in a way that downplayed the nudity. The sex in Oppenheimer emphasizes the humanity of the characters, in all of their embarrassment and desires and passion and weakness. Given the film’s emphasis on the cost of Oppenheimer’s work with the Manhattan Project, these reminders of humanity are absolutely necessary.

Serious, Silly, and Human Sexuality

“If you look down, you’ll see a surprise,” aristocrat Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby) tells the soon-to-be conquerer Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) in Napoleon. She spreads her legs, pulls up her dress, and addresses her partner with frankness. “Once you see it, you’ll always want it.”

Even those who can accept Christopher Nolan’s handling of nudity in Oppenheimer may draw the line at the above scene from Napoleon, directed by Ridley Scott. It lacks the seriousness of Nolan’s film, with an archness and playfulness intensified by the baroque setting and the tiny, comical glance Phoenix allows Napoleon.

But, silly as it is, the naughty flirtation in Napoleon is without a doubt a human moment. The same can be said of an early incident in Maestro, when Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) draws back a curtain and reveals the male lover in his bed, the implied sexuality and nudity points to the central tension in the conductor’s life, as he gleefully practices his art while dealing with complicated questions of his sexuality. When Bella (Emma Stone) has sex for money in Poor Things, director Yorgos Lanthimos emphasizes not the male gaze but Bella’s shameless joy at her bodily autonomy.

The Oscars award these and other films because they understand sexuality, in all its complexity and beauty and absurdity, as an unavoidable part of human life. They understand that many people do have sex, and it’s sometimes moving, sometimes ridiculous, and sometimes tragic. It’s as much a part of life as making friends, eating dinner, writing a book, or any of the other activities enshrined in this year’s nominees.

The Secret to Good Cinematic Sex

To be clear, sex on screen need not be overburned with meaning to be good. Even an empty provocation like Saltburn features good sex scenes if it gets the desired result (acting scandalized in TikTok, apparently). Even more so for the awkward bumblings in Bottoms or the sex of necessity in Biosphere, or other movies ignored by the Academy.

In all these cases, the key element is the humanity, how the scene reveals the human side of the characters. That’s all the more true of the process behind the scenes. Part of the reason Oppenheimer, Poor Things, or even Saltburn don’t deserve to be mentioned in the no sex discourse is the fact that its subjects — Pugh, Stone, and Barry Keoghan — all consent to the scenes and feel comfortable shooting them.

That wasn’t always the case, as Kate Winslet recently revealed while talking to the New York Times. “I would have benefited from an intimacy coordinator every single time I had to do a love scene or be partially naked or even a kissing scene,” she admitted. “It would have been nice to have had someone in my corner, because I always had to stand up for myself.” Before that, Kiera Knightley told The Guardian that she won’t do intimate scenes with a male director, as female directors such as Phillipa Lowthorpe in Misbehavior ensure their safety and control over their bodies.

As these comments indicate, the sex in movies discourse should be focused less on specific scenes or portrayals, and more about the justice behind the scenes. As abusers such as Harvey Weinstein get revealed and intimacy coordinators become the norm, we can focus more on the effect and power of sex scenes in movies, making bathtubs safe for artistic expression again.

The post Oscar Movies Are Horny Again and That’s a Great Thing appeared first on Den of Geek.

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