Why I wince though Hollywood sex scenes and not porn

I don’t want to read about another crying actress attached to a fake penis

Jul 2, 2012 at 11:12am | Leave a comment

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“I didn't become as disturbed during those scenes in the sleeping chamber. I kind of taught myself to meditate …I wasn't present in those scenes at all." – Emily Browning on Sleeping Beauty. 

There was a talented girl at my high school that went on to star in a hit HBO series.When she spoke with our school paper about this experience she shared an unhappy time filming a sex scene.

At the 25th hour, her director upped the ante in terms of nudity and physical contact. Feeling unable to back out from her big break she acted professionally and afterwards she went to the bathroom to cry and hyperventilate.

“That’s show business, kiddo” they say. Push your limits for your art. Nevertheless after reading her story I didn’t want to watch that TV show. Or any performance that features an actor sobbing into her merkin between takes.

Butterflies are one thing. When Chloë Sevigny’s role in Hit&Miss required her to have a prosthetic penis glued to her foof I hardly expected her to be windmilling around the set with glee but hearing that she “felt like a freak” and “cried every day” was enough for me to lose interest.

Nor am I thrilled to learn that Naomi Watts “kept on weeping and falling to pieces” during the Mulholland Drive masturbation scene. Or that Marie Schneider was “crying real tears” and “felt a little raped” after Marlon Brando had a bright idea about a packet of butter in Last Tango In Paris - a scene that wasn’t negotiated with Schneider before filming.

If their distress doesn’t bother you, gentle reader, then consider this: Penelope Cruz was so troubled by the nudity in her debut film that she cut her hair short and “didn’t do any love scenes — not even kisses — for many years.”

Ergo, the price we paid was to lose what may have amounted to even more footage of Cruz running around in her knickers. A cinematic tragedy, indeed.

Perhaps it takes a certain quality to undress in a clinical environment. You won’t catch Julie Andrews or Halle Berry downing shots of vodka to get through a pretend spanking from Michael Fassbender, a la Kiera Knightley in A Dangerous Method. They radiate a good humoured approach to what Helen Mirren so Englishly refers to as “getting your kit off.”
 

Berry claims that “if the world wouldn’t persecute me, I’d take nude pictures every day,” which is a funny reminder that if some actors exaggerate their distaste for nudity it’s because they’ve seen what happens to the women who enjoy themselves without penance.

'Getting away with it' will always anger those who are insecure about their decision to ‘behave’ themselves. Naturally, it’s not about attitude alone because these ladies were afforded more respect than Schneider ever received.

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Julie Andrews on her topless scene: “I had a lot of years to think about it [..] I was directed by my husband and in good hands […]it wasn't quite as daunting as it may have seemed.”

Even the heartiest of performers must have their boundaries respected and it’s no surprise that the positive experiences of Mirren and Andrews have included the times when their husbands sat in the director’s chair. It’s not the wedding ring that helps but the communication entrenched in any successful collaboration, be it in marriage or business.

And so, a romantic, soft lit, topless scene from a chick flick can unsettle me in ways that a supposedly degrading, adult movie rarely manages to accomplish. In one interview, adult entertainer Dylan Ryan explains that although degradation may be in the eye of the beholder, what appears to be non-consensual is not the case for her:

'Even when I am tied and gagged and being flogged, which would seem like one of the most disempowered positions, I am still completely present and never victimized.'

That presence of mind and body from someone who is still acting in a fantasy world is markedly different from some actors’ use of disassociating techniques involving booze and meditation. I’m not saying that those who willingly participate in uncomfortable scenes are victims because, like Ryan, they get the last say on that matter. However, I would rather watch the person who isn’t trying to numb things out with a bottle of vodka.

I’m not naive enough to think that sex workers are free from shitty days at the office but, given their job description, I’m less likely to be watching someone wary of getting their front bottom out, than if I were watching a mainstream actress in a sex scene.

A skilled performer doesn’t negate the presence of manipulative agencies but the internet is making it easier than ever to gauge someone’s reputation in an erotic ecosystem. Dylan Ryan, for example, is a regular at Kink.com - a website renowned as the gold standard for upholding a strict take on business practice and worker welfare, i.e. the bit that matters.

One explicit, mainstream film that doesn’t make me die inside is Boogie Nights. Director Paul Thomas Anderson requested adult entertainment legend, Nina Hartley, to play one of the porn stars. Perhaps this is the way forward. Want movie stunts? Hire a stuntman. Want movie sex? Hire a sexual athlete.

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I can’t tell if I’m heterosexual or a really shallow lesbian who only fancies Nina Hartley.

After a happy shoot the industry legend, renowned for her charismatic public speaking, was not invited to any press conferences with the rest of the cast. It’s not certain if an aspect of Hartley’s work (unapologetic women getting away with it again, perhaps?) was considered bad for business.

However, one thing that doesn’t make advertisers nervous is the that publicity machines, like clockwork, will present a young celebrity’s account of being distraught with her knickers down. I have never seen a pornographer use a performer’s fear of a certain scene (not fantasy fear) as a selling point, yet the mainstream film industry do it all the time. 

Imagine the hullabaloo if a porn star promoted her movie by echoing Kate Bosworth on the “incredibly violating and terrifying" Straw Dogs scene where “the panic you see flooding me in that rape scene is real.”

If a sex worker speaks out on slipping standards it is correct to condemn the appropriate parties but it is usually an entire industry that is maligned in the process. If a mainstream actor brings a drink on set in brown paper (keeping the latter to hyperventilate into later) we applaud her for her craft and possibly chuck an award her way.

Ok that’s a slight exaggeration but being mindful of what media we consume, in all its guises, helps us decide what works well with our values. It’s a mindfulness that can be informed by information but never aesthetics. How something looks, be it soft focus kissing or HD hardcore, can only inform our tastes. It's no indicator of who is having a good time.

Sarah can be found talking about herself more than she talks about naked ladies @Sarah_Woolley.

What do you think about actors pushing their boundaries on film? Part of the craft or unnecessary bother? Do you find certain films upsetting even if the cast are fairly happy?