William Heise, 1896
1896’s The Kiss (also known as The May Irwin Kiss) is acknowledged to be the first kiss shown on film. Infamous for causing an uproar in its day, it’s a context-free 47 seconds of an older couple canoodling before the man plants one square on the woman’s lips. It might surprise modern viewers to learn that the moment was a recreation of the finale of The Widow Jones, a hit play of the day, and the filmed moment was screened in order to publicize the show. (Does that also make it the first spoiler in film history?) What’s most fascinating about the event is that the uproar wasn’t so much over the onscreen kiss as it was over the fact that the people engaged in the snogging were deemed too ugly. Sure, a clergyman or two harumphed (one particular man of God called the film “a lyric of the stockyard”), but the only complaint that really seems to have taken root is by a critic named Herbert Stone, who wrote that “...neither participant is physically attractive and the spectacle of their prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was hard to beat when only life size. Magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over is absolutely disgusting!” For all the controversy this film apparently caused, this is the quote you will find repeated over and over in any historical account of the the public’s outcry. Nearly 120 years later, criticism of women’s sexuality in mass media still seems to center around how attractive the female is or isn’t. (Phil Nobile, Jr.)
Elia Kazan, 1956
Elia Kazan’s adaptation from a Tennessee Williams play caused an absolute shitstorm when it was released. Given the film’s billboard -- featuring a nubile blonde in a crib, wearing a revealing nightgown while sucking her thumb -- the uproar was perhaps to be expected? The film’s plot, about a 19-year-old bride nicknamed Baby Doll (Carroll Baker) who won’t fuck her husband (Karl Malden) until she turns 20, probably didn't quell anyone’s outrage. And a scene in which her husband’s business rival (Eli Wallach, in his first film role) seduces her, and may or may not have his hands under her skirt while doing so, caused religious leaders, particularly Cardinal Francis J. Spellman, to flip. So when the Catholic League Of Decency gave Baby Doll a “C” rating (for “Condemned”!) the film was pulled from most theaters, and the Catholic Church forbade its parishioners from seeing the film “under pain of sin.”
But shortly after Cardinal Spellman's tantrum, the Rev. Dr. James A. Pike, a Protestant Episcopal religious leader, came out in support of the film! Denouncing Spellman’s condemnation, Pike wrote a long response in The Los Angeles Times, stating “the church's duty is not to prevent adults from having the experience of this picture, but to give them a wholesome basis for interpretation and serious answers to questions that were asked with seriousness.” Certainly a more measured reaction than one would have expected from a religious leader in 2014, much less 1956. Even more surprisingly, other Catholic leaders (in Paris and Britain) came out and publicly disagreed with Spellman, and actually praised the film! The ACLU sided with Baby Doll, charging the Catholic church with violating the First Amendment. Time Magazine, curiously, sided with Spellman. Baby Dollmade less than two and a half million dollars at the box office; it did not turn a profit.
It’s unclear how much the controversy hurt Baby Doll’s legacy, but the film never gained the same level of historical traction as Kazan’s other films of the era. It’s possible the furor might have kept it out of the television rerun cycle that's so important in cementing the legacy of older films, and a generation of people who know the “I coulda been a contender” speech by heart have been denied the pleasures of Baby Doll. A shame, as it’s an excellent film, with performances and dialogue that are frequently more fun to watch than the revered, safer bets from Kazan’s filmography that are taught in film history classes. Thankfully, Warner Archive reissued the film in recent years and it’s now available to stream or buy on Amazon. Nice try, Cardinal Spellman! (Phil Nobile, Jr.)
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST
Martin Scorsese, 1988
You can see how Jesus Christ having sex (and children!) with Mary Magdalene might raise a hackle or two, but the response to The Last Temptation of Christ was outrageously oversized. A guy drove a school bus into a theater showing the movie. French theaters were bombed. Death threats were made. And everybody who got mad about the scene -- where the Devil shows Jesus a vision of what his life could be if he simply got down off the cross and denied his Messianic destiny -- missed out on a truly beautiful movie about the emotional weight of Christ’s sacrifice. Martin Scorsese shows us not just that Christ gave up his life, but the possibility of a happy, fulfilling life. (Devin Faraci)
Larry Clark, 1995
Director Larry Clark’s cinema verite approach inspires immediate feelings of uneasy voyeurism, particularly in the opening scene, which features 17 year-old “Virgin Surgeon” Telly taking the virginity of a 12 year-old girl -- a moment he’ll later describe in graphic detail to a friend. Clark maintained that the actress was of age at the time of filming, but her impossibly youthful features make the opening scene feel particularly grimy -- a feeling and tone commonly associated with Clark’s films. This opening sex scene is appropriately jarring for our introduction to this world of rowdy and troubled kids, a world that’s inspired by the real-life experiences of writer Harmony Korine, who was just 19 when he penned the script. Kids takes an honest and often disquieting look at the realm of teens in the ‘90s, and the truth is that it sadly wasn’t (and sadly still isn’t) uncommon for 12- or 13-year-old girls to hook up with 17-year-old boys. This scandalous sex scene challenges us from the outset to face the stark reality of youth culture. (Britt Hayes)
EYES WIDE SHUT
Stanley Kubrick, 1999
When Warner Bros. announced that Stanley Kubrick was returning to the filmmaking fold in 1996, there was much rejoicing. And when it became clear that Eyes Wide Shut (the director's first movie in over a decade) would be an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's sexually-charged 1926 novella Traumnovelle, rejoicing quickly turned into feverish rumormongering: websites claimed Kubrick was filming the world's first mega-budget XXX-rated movie with stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman; that one of the film's original co-stars, Harvey Keitel, was fired from the production after ejaculating on Nicole Kidman during filming; that the film's explicitness all but guaranteed it would be unreleasable.
Virtually all of these rumors turned out to be bullshit, save for one: the version of Eyes Wide Shut Kubrick turned into Warner Bros. days before his death in 1999 was, in a sense, unreleasable -- the MPAA slapped that cut with an NC-17, restricting the film's chances at wide release. Kubrick was contractually obligated to have final cut on the film, but he was also contractually obligated to deliver an R-rating. The studio's solution? Digital obstructions (CGI potted plants, faux-spectators and the like) were added into the film's infamous "orgy scene" to obscure some of the scene's more risqué goings-on. Kubrick purists were outraged -- and the Kubrick estate was surely not amused -- but the solution worked, and Eyes Wide Shut received its R-rating.
The original, unedited cut was eventually released in 2007. It's definitely the less silly version. (Scott Wampler)
THE BROWN BUNNY
Vincent Gallo, 2003
Rarely has the controversy over a single moment from a film eclipsed the whole as totally and as completely as the onscreen blowjob in 2004’s The Brown Bunny. Occurring late in the film, the scene in which Chloe Sevigny fellates Vincent Gallo’s character on camera has, ten years later, effectively transformed the word combination “brown bunny” into “Chloe Sevigny blowjob.” Is it simply because it’s an unsimulated sex act? Is it because it’s a well-known actress performing that sex act, in perhaps the last year before streaming video (and the accompanying sex tapes) took over the web, negating the naughty exclusivity of such a moment? Is it because the penis belonged to a willfully reprehensible public figure (who wished cancer upon Roger Ebert, following the critic’s negative review of the film)? Who knows. It’s a moment that might have been taken a little more in stride in a European arthouse film of the ‘70s. But in the perfect storm described above, that blowjob scene both sank the film and vaulted it into the annals of legend. But the real shame of the event is that the actual film was lost to the controversy. The Brown Bunny is a film you might hate, but there IS a film to hate underneath all the scandal and hand-wringing. Gallo’s film, following a somber individual on a cross-country drive, speaks in a visual language of regret and loss, filled with endless scenes of tedious repetition -- driving, staring, driving, more driving. The images stay up on the screen for so long they burn into your mind’s eye for days afterward. What Gallo created is not a particularly pleasant film to sit through, but it’s so much more than its reputation conveys, and the experience of having seen it is a singular, resonant one. Sadly, it’s an experience most will never bother to know. Why watch “the Chloe Sevigny blowjob movie” when you can just find the scene on Google? (Phil Nobile, Jr.)
Ang Lee, 2005
Substantially, Brokeback Mountain’s “big sex scene” is no more graphic than the average PG-13 sex scene. Granted, there’s no romantic music. Its cramped physicality evokes awkward first-time sex more than choreographed Hollywood sex. Bucking another convention, it isn’t treated as a reward for courtship. But in terms of skin shown, it’s pretty chaste. In most movies, this scene wouldn’t merit a double-take.
But for the first time in a major motion picture, the participants happened to both be male, sullying the all-American cowboy archetype with dirty ol’ homosexuality, so of course Jack and Ennis’ lovemaking sparked a furor in the religious Right. The usual conservative pundits -- Fox News, Focus on the Family, Rush Limbaugh -- spouted everything from slur-infused jokes to invocations of the Hollywood gay agenda boogeyman. Cinema chains, cities and countries outright refused to screen it. If you believed everything you read, you’d think Brokeback Mountain was singlehandedly responsible for the downfall of modern society.
Unsurprisingly, the controversy extended into awards season. Despite winning nearly every other award around (and making bank at the box office), Brokeback lost the Oscar to Crash, an altogether safer choice. Even Best Picture presenter Jack Nicholson was visibly surprised. (Andrew Todd)