Happy Valentine’s Day! It’s the most romantic day of the year (at least, if you’ve been listening to the endless advertising), and we hope you’ve made your plans, movie-related or otherwise (we’d argue that nothing says Valentine’s Day like the twists and sexual politics of "Side Effects," but other options are available…). Now, February 14th is about many things: wining, dining, flowers, cards, chocolate, declarations of undying love. But all being well, it’s about something else too: knocking boots.
Yep, sex is as much part of Valentine’s Day as love and romance, even if Hallmark aren’t quite so keen to push that side of things. The history of the cinematic sex scene is a decidedly spotty one; just as it’s tricky to write a convincing literary coupling, it’s easy for movies to descend into cliche and unintentional comedy when it’s time for their characters to make the beast with two backs. So, in honor of all those getting laid tonight — and to give those of you who are single something to do — we present a brief history of the movie sex scene, with a somewhat random selection of ten of our favorites, and ten of what we consider to be the very worst. Let us know your own favorites (and not-so-favorites) in the comments section below. Oh, and everything that follows is pretty much NSFW, obviously.
“Don’t Look Now”
Unquestionably one of the single greatest ever committed to film, "Don’t Look Now" somehow managed to reinvent the sex scene in a way that only few have dared try (Steven Soderbergh being one of them, but more on that in a minute). What makes the "Don’t Look Now" sex scene so hot and so damn brilliant, is that director Nicolas Roeg cuts up the action, and this chronological unmooring actually adds to the sensuality and emotional weight of the moment. Yes, we get to see Donald Sutherland (and his argyle socks) and a lithe Julie Christie getting to know each other in the biblical sense, but interspersed with that we also see them getting ready to leave their apartment, so while they’re writhing around naked they’re also putting on their jewelry and adjusting their blazers. The sequence is disorienting and amazing, with sexiness to spare. It was so sexy, in fact, that several seconds had to be clipped from the domestic release to secure an R rating. Those cuts have been reinstated for the now out-of-print DVD release, which for some reason still carries the R. Rumors have persisted that the scene was not simulated, and watching it now, you can understand why many thought it was the real deal.
You could argue, in a way, that David Lynch‘s "Mulholland Drive" is almost entirely a sex scene — a fevered, guilt-ridden masturbation fantasy as Naomi Watts‘ failed actress Diana mourns the woman that she’s in love with, who she’s hired a hitman to murder. But regardless of your interpretation of the film, there’s one rather more straightforward sex scene that marks among the most memorable of recent years. It takes place as Watts’ Betty and the amnesiac Rita, hiding out in the apartment of a dead woman, finally consummate their passion. It’s unashamedly titillating stuff (though chaste in comparison to some similar scenes), but, as with so much about the film, it’s Watts that elevates it. Her nervousness and uncertainty ("Have you ever done this before?"), and almost unwillingness to believe her own luck, makes it not just sexy, but downright romantic. And by the time they’ve gone through the rabbit hole at Club Silencio, there’s a retrospective pain to the scene, knowing that Betty/Diana is remembering, or fantasizing about, better times with the woman she’s just had murdered.
"A History Of Violence"
Few filmmakers in contemporary cinema know how to use sex more effectively than David Cronenberg, and few actresses have mastered the form like Maria Bello (her scene with William H. Macy in "The Cooler" is another classic). So it’s no surprise that the two scenes in "A History Of Violence" are textbook examples of how to use sex scenes to show character and tell story, rather than to stop audiences from falling asleep. Early in the film, Bello’s Edie Stall dresses up as a cheerleader for her husband Tom (Viggo Mortensen), and the two make out like hungry teenagers, culminating in what must be the first mainstream cinema depiction of a 69. It’s an important scene (and a strangely charming one; see the bug-eyed excitement in Mortensen’s eyes, and the way Bello laughs as she pulls off her belt) in that it shows how deeply in love the pair are. But it also serves as a contrast to the later scene. Tom has confessed to his wife that he’s really mobster-on-the-run Joey Cusack, and the pair fight in the staircase of their home, an argument that turns violent, and suddenly sexual, as it appears that Tom/Joey, now off the chain, is going to rape his wife. Suddenly, he stops, but then she urges him to continue, the two desperately fucking on the stairs with a passion that is markedly different from the comfortable, romantic sex of the earlier scene. A sequence such as this is always going to require walking a fine line (see: "Straw Dogs"), but the performances are so perfect, and the direction so finely judged, that Cronenberg pulls it off.
Sex and disability have been back in the headlines of late thanks to "The Sessions," but for all the strengths of that film, it’s never quite as memorable as this classic scene from Hal Ashby‘s 1978 Oscar-winner "Coming Home." After a certain amount of dancing around each other, as it were, conservative military wife Sally (Jane Fonda) and paraplegic vet Luke (Jon Voight) finally go to bed together. He’s been consigned to a wheelchair after being wounded in ‘Nam, but they work it out, Luke giving Sally her first ever orgasm by going down on her (which, if it’s a rarity in cinematic sex scenes now, was even more so then). Haskell Wexler’s camera lingers on the intimate touches between the pair, and on Fonda’s face as she comes, giving it a real tenderness, while refusing to ignore the scars on Voigt’s back. It’s just about as sexy as anything that’s ever been put on screen, and one of the more memorable scenes in a tremendous film (released, coincidentally, thirty-five years ago tomorrow).
“Out Of Sight”
Borrowing from Nicolas Roeg‘s uncanny "Don’t Look Now" sex scene (see above), director Steven Soderbergh rearranges the order of this sex scene between George Clooney (as an escaped bank robber) and Jennifer Lopez (as the federal agent tasked with chasing him down). We seem them getting to know each other at a cheesy hotel bar, in a kind of elaborate role-playing game, and at the same time we see them getting frisky, with both stars getting down to their skivvies. Even if it is a riff on something else, it’s clever and supernaturally sexy, aided by the slinky electronic score by David Holmes and the lush cinematography (the snow falling outside their hotel room window is a nice flourish). The sequence works so well because Soderbergh has an academic understanding of what made the Roeg sequence so powerful; it isn’t just a lazy photocopy, it’s its own thing – a living, breathing, totally sexy thing. The fact that it features two giant movie stars at the peak of their respective handsomeness is just an added bonus. This is an homage that has just as much of an impact as the original.
Regardless of the orientation and gender of its protagonists (and, indeed the viewer), "Brokeback Mountain" stands as one of the most searing and effective films about forbidden and semi-requited love out there, and it all starts with one night in a tent. Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) have been hired to tend sheep over a Wyoming summer, and one cold night, after they’ve both been drinking, Jack invites Ennis into his tent. There’s a sense of inevitability in the moments beforehand, and even as they realize what’s happening, the pair are almost trying to fight each other, each instigating, then pushing back violently. But finally, it happens; without even a kiss, Jack takes his jeans down, and the pair have sex. There are more romantic scenes on this list, and ones that are more arousing, certainly, but thanks to Ang Lee (who also contributed some equally memorable, if more explicit scenes in "Lust, Caution"), there’s a sensuality to go with the almost businesslike manner of the duo.
"Y Tu Mamá Tambien"
Fittingly for a film that focuses on two adolescent boys who think with their dicks much more than they do with their brains, Alfonso Cuarón‘s coming-of-age road movie "Y Tu Mamá Tambien" is pretty much obsessed with sex from the get-go, with the earliest scenes finding Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) both having sex with their girlfriends, and masturbating together by the pool. But their sexual competition becomes more pronounced when they head off on a road trip with Luisa (Maribel Verdú), the wife of Tenoch’s cousin, who, unbeknownst to Julio or Tenoch, has a terminal illness. She beds first Tenoch, then Julio, each proving awkward and less than skilled in the sack. But the film’s most memorable sex scene comes near the end, when the trio all go to bed together, drunkenly, Luisa going down on the boys while they kiss, passionately. It’s less panicked and awkward than previous encounters, Luisa’s demonstration of the boy’s latent attraction to each seemingly proving a release for the pair, even as they worship her (and to an extent, she them). It’s a touching and deeply sexy scene, even if it’s one of the unlikelier precursors to a ‘Harry Potter‘ movie you can imagine (Cuarón’s next film was the third Potter film, "The Prisoner of Azkaban.")
Long after the then-shocking subject matter has been absorbed into the mainstream (hence the enormous success of "Fifty Shades Of Grey"), Steven Shainberg‘s "Secretary" has settled into its place in film history as a smart, rich and beautifully acted romantic comedy, albeit one with lashings of BDSM. Shainberg was setting out to help to normalize such non-vanilla relationships in the eyes of audiences, inspired by films like "My Beautiful Launderette," and certainly succeeded, with his tale of the relationship between self-harming secretary Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and her employer, attorney E. Edward Grey (everyone’s favorite cinematic perv, James Spader). He’s initially infuriated by her incompetence at work, but the two gradually work out that her submissiveness, and his dominance, go hand in hand, and they tentatively fall in love. Bar the spanking et al, it’s a reasonably traditional love triangle — Edward the emotionally unavailable Mr. Darcy type, her boyfriend (Jeremy Davies) the harmless, hapless Bill Pullman figure. But even without all that much actual intercourse going on, at least in the more memorable moments, the sex scenes are almost revelatory, Shainberg letting them unfold slowly, placing Lee’s gradual awakening, and Edward’s emotional thawing, front and center. The director’s now prepping a film about a foot fetishist, so let’s see if lightning can strike twice…
"Team America: World Police"
Well, they can’t all be sexy, can they? Having featured a sex scene between Saddam Hussein and Satan in their previous movie, "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," Trey Parker and Matt Stone had a job on their hands topping it, but managed it in "Team America: World Police" by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. After a disastrous mission in Cairo, Broadway actor turned anti-terrorist agent Gary (Parker), and psychologist team-mate Lisa (Kristen Miller) share their feelings, and sleep together. Although, really, there’s very little sleeping involved; at least in the extended, uncensored version (it was cut in half to avoid an NC-17). The two puppets go through almost every imaginable sexual position and act you can manage to do with two people, from good ‘ol missionary to pissing and shitting on each other, and everything in between. It’s not exactly a turn-on, but it’s pretty damn hilarious. And perhaps more importantly, the scene gets to the heart of a more profound point; sex is pretty ridiculous, from the outside at least, and if you can’t laugh during it, you’re probably doing it wrong.
"The Postman Always Rings Twice"
Whether Bob Rafelson‘s 1981 remake (or, if you prefer, second adaptation of James M. Cain‘s novel) is preferable to the 1946 original is up for debate, but one thing’s for certain; the more recent film is a lot more explicit. As with previous takes, the film sees Frank Chambers (Jack Nicholson) come into rural California, where he begins an affair with Cora (Jessica Lange), the wife of a Greek immigrant (John Colicos). Together, they plot to kill the husband, and the usual noirish complications ensue. But one of the major differences from the Lana Turner-starring original (besides a sharp script from David Mamet, his first screen credit) is the initial sex scene between the pair. Frank and Cora go at it hammer-and-tongs in the kitchen, tearing their clothes off, and there’s a desperate, lustful intensity to their coupling that has been rarely matched on screen. Indeed, as with "Don’t Look Now," rumors have persisted that the two actors did it for real, and you can judge for yourself below.
Much of Zack Snyder‘s "Watchmen" adaptation (based on the classic comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons) is tone-deaf and wildly misguided, as is the case with this unintentionally goofy sex scene between two rubber-suited superheroes – the Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and the Night Owl (Patrick Wilson). Everything about the scene is clumsy and awkward, including the faux "Batman & Robin" costumes that have to be fumbled off with all the grace of a middle school boy unhooking his first bra. There’s also the fact that they are attempting to have passionate sex while trapped inside a giant, hovering Owl-shaped space ship. Hot! The unintentionally funny cherry on top of this awful sex scene sundae though has got to be Snyder’s music choice – Leonard Cohen‘s mournful "Hallelujah." Not only has it been overused in everything (especially the Jeff Buckley version) but that song has got to be one of the all-time boner killers. The "Hallelujah" choice took a laughably bad sex scene into "painfully sad" territory, which is where no sex scene outside of a Todd Solondz movie should ever go.
Like any musical number worth its salt, sex scenes should also serve the narrative – either advancing the plot forward or delivering a key bit of information about a character. In the case of "Showgirls," the sex scene between Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan, which takes place in the Las Vegas porno version of a Disney World swimming pool (complete with "lifelike" waterfall), gave us the insight that Berkley’s character was epileptic and suffered from violent seizures. How else to explain the "caught in an electrical fence" writhing that goes on while she straddles future Portland Mayor McLaughlin, with every muscle in her body seeming to spasm in a different direction. A lot of what "Showgirls" director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas thought was "hot" was, in fact, laughably ludicrous. By the end of it you don’t know whether Berkley has reached orgasm or if she should be rushed to the nearest emergency room. Kyle MacLachlan, for his part, just looks sort of bewildered, although his upper body strength is impressive and his amazing hair never seems to falter.
"The Matrix Reloaded"
There are many, many sins in "The Matrix Reloaded," the wildly disappointing 2003 sequel to The Wachowskis‘ game-changing sci-fi actioner. It buries the film in nonsensical philosophy, introduces a host of dull new characters, and has to sideline its central character because he’s become too powerful (though it is, at least, better than the even-worse threequel, "The Matrix Revolutions"). But among the worst individual moments is the centerpiece sex scene, which sees Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie Anne-Moss) chastely copping off in a side room while some kind of ludicrous techno rave/orgy kicks off among the people of Zion. The Wachowskis’ commitment to the more transgressive side of progressive is admirable, and can lead to some pretty effective results (see their debut, "Bound"), but here it just feels like an extended and expensive shampoo commercial.
"Killing Me Softly"
"Secretary" might have legitimized the more bondage-y side of on-screen sex in the middle of the ’00s, but a few years later, the same thing had been attempted with the disastrous "erotic thriller" (and honestly, not enough inverted commas have been invented for this film) "Killing Me Softly." Not to be confused with Andrew Dominik‘s excellent crime thriller of last year ("Killing Them Softly"), it’s the ill-advised English-language debut of "Farewell My Concubine" director Chen Kaige, and makes the fatal (but not uncommon, at the turn of the 21st century) mistake of assuming that Heather Graham is able to act. The "Boogie Nights" star plays an American woman who begins an affair with, and soon marries, a mysterious mountain climber (Joseph Fiennes), who may or may not be a murderer. The only thing more ridiculous in the film than the acting, the characters and the plot, are the "erotic moments," which start with Fiennes and Graham banging their way across an apartment floor, watched by a cat, and which peak with Graham trussed up with silk ropes like a marionette. Not a bad idea in theory, but completely ridiculous in execution, as you’ll see below. Still, as one of the stupidest films in history, there’s still a degree of car-crash appeal to be found.
So yeah, picking on "The Room," a film that’s become a cult favorite thanks to its sheer awfulness and incompetence at every single level (and, if it was only 10% less irredeemably shitty, would never have been heard of), might seem slightly unfair. And indeed, we were tempted not to include them, but then we watched them again, and decided we really had no option. Director/star Tommy Wiseau shoots and blocks every sex scene in exactly the same manner — like an excerpt from an early 1990s Lover’s Guide-type tape. Awful R&B soundtracks it, the guys all have the same moves, the girls pretty much just lay there, and Wiseau never saw a silk curtain that he couldn’t stick in front of his camera. And then it’s all topped by the extraordinary expressions of the guy in the second clip below, who 1) appears to be reacting before the act itself actually takes place, and 2) has the single most off-putting orgasm face in history. Ah, what would we do without "The Room"?
As with "The Room," laying into "Gigli" makes us feel bad; it’s a legendary disaster of a film that came close to ending the careers of its two leads, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez (then still a real life couple; the former’s bounced back in a huge way thanks to his directing work, the latter… not so much), and did end the career of its writer-director, Martin Brest, who hasn’t worked since. But again, there is a reason for that, not least in its notorious and interminable sex scene. Affleck plays a junior mobster, who kidnaps the mentally-challenged younger brother (Justin Bartha) of a prosecutor in order to gain leverage for his boss, only to find that his employer has also hired a woman, Ricki (Lopez), to aid him with the task. About two-thirds of the way through, the pair sleep together, and it’s awful and offensive as an idea on its own. Why? You see, Lopez’s character is a lesbian, "turned" by Affleck’s dim-witted charms, and only a few moments after her girlfriend has attempted suicide, no less. And between Brest’s endless, sub-Tarantino dialogue, the complete lack of chemistry between the pair, and Lopez’s command "It’s turkey time, gobble gobble," it’s hard to imagine how the execution could be any worse.
"The Man Who Fell To Earth"
Nicolas Roeg might have been responsible for arguably the best sex scene in screen history with "Don’t Look Now" (along with other memorable moments in "Performance" and "Walkabout," among others), but the director couldn’t pull it off every time. His otherwise strong sci-fi "The Man Who Fell To Earth," starring David Bowie at his most Tilda Swinton-ish, features a number of questionable romps between Bowie’s visitor from another world, Newton, and hotel employee Mary-Lou ("American Graffiti" star Candy Clark). It doesn’t help that Clark is miscast, and Roeg shoots her in a way that feels ickily exploitative, but it reaches its nadir as Newton reveals his alien form to her, complete with dissolves/intercuts to what appears to be a bukkake-like alien mating ritual. It’s a film from a different time, obviously, and one has to forgive it a certain amount, and for much of the film, it’s less of a problem. But there’s a limit, and we can’t imagine these scenes being particularly involving even at the time.
Chances are some of you probably think the lesbian/pool/make-out scene in John McNaughton‘s maybe-satirical erotic
comedy thriller "Wild Things" is pretty hot given that it’s two chicks playing tonsil hockey in a pool all wet and wild. But it is really the frattiest of fratboy sex scenes, and borderline repulsive for several reasons. For one, since the two actors (Denise Richards and Neve Campbell) can’t act for shit, it’s in no way believable and therefore isn’t sexy — Campbell kisses as if Richards tastes like an ashtray full of beer and buttholes, and her wincing face makes the scene all the more grotesque (the fact that Campbell out-acts Richards at being horrible is another feat therein). And Denise Richards is all shallow, empty "hotness" with pretty obviously fake boobs. The scene is the height of manufactured hotness, a cheap male fantasy that is so artificial that it’s just superficially sexy at best (tone wise, the scuzzy movie is just this side of "Showgirls," which doesn’t help). The same goes for the three-way sex scene in the film with Matt Dillon later on, which makes us totally queasy every time because of Campbell’s face, which looks like she’s going to hurl whenever her hands go near Richards’ rubbery Barbie chest. We’re all for on-screen sapphism, but for more effective results try "Bound," "Henry And June," "Mulholland Drive" and many many more.
Louis Malle‘s penultimate film sounds good and hot on paper. It stars Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche as a pair that breaks their vows to have a torrid love affair with one another. Malle, Binoche, Irons, adulterous lovers. What’s not to lust? The problem is that every sex scene is like a SNL parody sketch of two lovers that want each other so bad they’ll break the imagined glass between them to fuck. Imagine serious thesps Binoche and Irons butt naked and licking, pawing and whimpering like wild oversexed hyenas in heat and you’ll get an idea of how overwrought and overdone each sex scene is. I had the ignominy of watching this movie with my Dad when I was a teenager (these were the days you went to the video store and picked up a VHS without knowing much more than the actors that starred) and as much as there were painful, uncomfortable silences, they were often broken by loud laughs of recognition that we were watching some of the most absurd and silly sex scenes we had ever seen.
Steven Spielberg‘s brilliant "Munich" is nothing if not ballsy. From the opening sequence recounting the hostage scenario at the Munich Olympic Games to the revenge plot hatched by the Israel government to seek out those that were responsible and systematically eliminate them, the film is Spielberg at his most fearless and virtuosic. Except, at a key juncture, when it all goes to shit. It’s towards the end of the film when we’re watching our main spy (Eric Bana) have sex with his lovely wife (Ayelet Zurer), and while he’s on top of her, thrusting away, he has violent flashbacks to the Munich hostage situation. This is weird for a number of reasons: one, when you fantasize while having sex with your wife, aren’t you supposed to think about…well, anything but the Munich Olympic Games? Two, why would he be having sweaty sex flashbacks to an event that he was never actually at? We get it: the trauma of the mission has infected every part of his life, leaving him to drown in a swampy, morally gray soup. But Jesus. Spielberg shot and edited the scene with the kind of no-holds-barred approach he applied to the rest of the movie, which means glistening beads of sweat dripping off Bana’s body in slow motion, but it tips the movie into dangerously silly territory, and both times we saw it theatrically it elicited nervous giggles from the paying audience. Sometimes bold moves result in equally bold miscalculations.
Thoughts? You must have your own favorites, and we assume you can’t always agree with us. — Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez