What defines sex appeal on the big screen? This is a question that has been pondered in countless essays, sometimes with extensive scholarship attached, sometimes not, but the answer remains elusive, as it should. When watching Lauren Bacall in her early films, it is impossible not to think of “sexy” as one of the adjectives to describe her, and yet where is that sexiness coming from? In part, it comes from a sort of conversational fear, a sense that she, or rather one of the characters she plays, might say something barbed, or worse, at any turn, and that if she doesn’t, she’s choosing not to. There’s a “nothing ventured, nothing gained” quality in the act of watching her; unless there’s some risk involved in any experience–in this case, the risk of shock–there’s no point in having the experience, or so the platitude goes. There’s her voice, of course, the deep-toned, husky, “bedroom” voice, which is, in its own way, permissive; it sends a mood of acceptance, as well as engagement. I first saw Bacall in The Big Sleep when I was quite young, almost too young to understand her, or the importance of the film, or Bogart’s presence in it–but I did understand that she represented a comfort with, and an embodiment of, specifically adult sexuality, for grown-ups, a quality I still consider somewhat removed or Parnassian, even at my current, seemingly mature age. She seemed then, and she seems in retrospect, like a pinnacle, evidence of a time when on-screen sex appeal might emanate from other sources than it does currently.
For now, what we consider sexy has a not-so-subtle price tag attached to it. Many viewers only consider the star or starlet a sex symbol if their image has appeared a certain number of times, on a certain number of billboards, in a certain number of high-profile films. The quality of that appearance is a factor, as well. Viewers know how much money is invested in the films in which the Symbol appears. They know how much money the Symbol is paid for each film. They know who the highest paid stars are. They know what the most expensive films are. Or they can easily find out. They know that technology can easily modify a star’s appearance to make it look however a filmmaker might want it to look. We know that this equipment is highly costly. They know that the said Symbol eats expensive food, gets exercise through an expensive trainer, and wears more expensive clothes than are imaginable to us–or if they’re imaginable, they aren’t within financial reach. All of this ultimately enters, oddly enough, into popular conceptions of sex appeal–and because of the integration of star culture into the larger body of cultural or even news reporting, one might begin to take a matter-of-fact attitude towards this appeal itself. Is the set of reactions, subtle and not-so-subtle, physical and otherwise, to sexiness, lessened with this development? Somewhat. It’s not so much that the stars of yesterday were better, or sexier, it’s that they may have been playing by a slightly different set of rules.
Which brings me to Bacall’s face. When she was introduced to me as a classic sex symbol as a child, my very first thought was Her? Really? She looks so . . . normal. And then I caught on. There is an approachability in her features that doesn’t bear much similarity with the Pitts, the Jolies, the Greens, the Stones, or even the Geres, the Fondas, or the Dickinsons. As theatrical as her movements, her carriage, and her phrasings might be, there’s a sense of the human being beneath it, there, as well; as she herself said, “the look” began because she was lowering her head to keep from shaking too much. In the right light, watching Lauren Bacall could be a powerful reminder of the difference between being an actor and being a human being, and how the best actors show viewers both experiences. Sex appeal at present is more likely to be measured in near-mathematical terms: are the proportions correct? How perfect are the features? If we compare the Symbol to other Symbols, how does this Symbol match up? The simplest way of saying it is that viewers have gotten colder, and the simplest question about a star—sexy? or not sexy?—is filtered through a set of criteria that have little to do with lust and more with what makes a good screensaver. It would be difficult to trace the series of cultural seismic shifts that have led to this attitude, but one thing remains certain. To say Bacall represents another era in moviemaking is unquestionable, and to say that era is bygone is an understatement.–Max Winter
Serena Bramble is a film editor whose
montage skills are an end result of accumulated years of movie-watching
and loving. Serena is a graduate from the Teledramatic Arts and
Technology department at Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing,
she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.