Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange – How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos, by Robert Hofler. New York: HarperCollins, 2014. Hardcover, $27.99
When Michael Fassbender swings his virilia to and fro in Shame, or Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron in The Paperboy, or Kate Winslet goes serially topless (Titanic, Iris, The Reader, etc.), or the cast of Shortbus enjoys a cavalcade of hardcore sex, our collective culture, or rather what’s left of it, yawns. Oh, sure, there’s a burp or two in chat rooms and celebrity nude sights, but the fuss amounts to “who the fuck cares?”
Robert Hofler’s Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange – How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos takes us back to the late ’60s, a time when many people cared a great deal. The Film Production Code, that which kept naked skin, dirty language and graphic violence off the screen since the 1930s, had been cracking for years. It was finally scuttled in 1968 and replaced by ratings, though Hofler is mute on the subject of a cause of so much permissiveness. With minors limited or restricted in what they could see, filmmakers were free to shatter taboos in film content.
Or were they? Hofler does a nifty job of demonstrating that male homosexuality was disproportionately represented, scrutinized, and censored in the age that straddles Stonewall. Director John Schlesinger had a helluva time keeping the blowjob in Midnight Cowboy, and Nicholas Roeg couldn’t coax James Fox to go all the way with Mick Jagger in Performance. Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s worship of Joe Dallesandro in Flesh, Trash, and Heat works because of ripe, oddball humor and Dallesandro’s prized ability to be at absolute ease as the camera adores his taut, alabaster body.
Told in quick and tasty bites, Sexplosion looks at the rule changes, courtroom dates, scandals du jour, careers made/ruined, and reinventions that coursed through our more adventurous popular culture. In literature there was Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (masturbation), Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge (transsexuality), and John Updike’s Couples (mate swapping). In theater there were the bare butts and sex organs of Hair and Oh! Calcutta! Even television broke ground with An American Family, the reality show progenitor and documentary treatment of divorce and a son’s coming out.
Newly explicit violence gets limited space, reflecting the minor notes struck for the trauma and blood of Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch. Rarely does Hofler connect the new art to its tumultuous era of assassinations, war, the generation gap, and urban riots. Instead, Sexplosion revels in fevered and sometimes prurient yarn spinning. The relative dick sizes of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed actually matter for the steamy nude wrestling of Women in Love, since the straight Reed fluffed before each take while the gay Bates did not. We are back among such faded works of titillation as The Story of O, Fear of Flying, and I am Curious (Yellow), with the male gaze being pandered to by marketing them as “bold” explorations of female sexuality.
As Sexplosion illustrates, filmgoing was both more communal and more central to our society before VCRs and pay-per-view. The nuclear bomb that was Deep Throat became such a phenomenon of “porno chic” that Jack Nicholson and Johnny Carson were subjects for the paparazzi as they exited screenings. Not only did celebrities not deny attendance, they stood for reporters outside theaters for friendly chit-chat.
The era of sexual license flagged by 1973. Assault and exploitation were leveled by Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace, while Last Tango in Paris costar Maria Schneider felt “a little raped” by Marlon Brando and director Bernardo Bertolucci during the infamous sodomy-with-butter-as-lubricant scene. When the chatter for Throat and Tango ended, it was as if America woke from a sordid wet dream. Pants were zipped and blouses were buttoned. Crowds would soon flock to the popcorn thrills of Jaws and the juvenile fantasies of Star Wars. We’ve crept back to “shocking” material since then, but it’s been fractured into billions of Internet log-ons. As today’s exploits suggest, and Sexplosion confirms, sex in popular culture just isn’t what it used to be.