Critics mostly hissed, but fans of the book wouldn’t dare miss ”Fifty Shades of Grey,” as the big-screen version whipped up a record amount of box-office green during Valentine’s Day weekend. Its three-day gross of $85 million ($94.4 million when President’s Day ticket sales are included) was enough to unseat the previous champ, 2004’s “Passion of the Christ,” as the biggest February opener ever. It also is the fourth-highest opening for a R-rated movie – nothing to blush at, either.
As an act of commerce, the cinematic interpretation of the erotic literary sensation has hit a sweet spot. Still, it remains to be seen if the first flush of desire to witness innocent college student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and kinky control-freak billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) get their freak on in the flesh continues to burn after the first weekend.
With boffo ticket sales in mind, just how did Universal chairman Donna Langley, author E.L. James and “The Social Network” producers Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca set out to satisfy the predominantly female following of the best-selling sensation that glossily explores the world of sadomasochistic sex from a woman’s point of view? First, they made the crucial decision to place women in such key behind-the-camera roles as director (Sam Taylor-Johnson, unlikely to return after clashes with James), screenwriter (Kelly Marcel) and editors (including Anne V. Coates of “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Unfaithful” fame) in terms of what ended up onscreen.
Thus they opted to skip the debate about “the male gaze” when it comes to how male directors such as Abdellatif Kechiche (“Blue Is the Warmest Color”) and Lars von Trier (“Nymphomania: Vol. 1 and 2”) depict female characters in sexually explicit situations onscreen. The word “objectify” is often mentioned, suggesting that women are portrayed in a way that will best serve a male fantasy.
But what about the female gaze? In other words, can you tell that a woman was calling the shots during the making of “Fifty Shades?”
In 2008, director Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen”) kicked off the “Twilight” franchise – another female-driven phenom written by a woman — by making the single most important decision in the series: casting Kristen Stewart and Rob Pattinson as schoolgirl Bella and vampire beau Edward, who boasted so much chemistry that they went on to become a real-life couple as well. The other four films ended up being helmed by men (Hardwicke balked at rushing to put out No. 2). But the first emphasized more of the romantic side of the gothic romance rather than the horror aspects while focusing on Bella’s point of view. Summit proceeded to ditch Hardwicke in favor of a succession of male directors more willing to chase young men.
Again, it’s not difficult to dig up at least 9 clues to prove that the gender of the director of “Fifty Shades” is female. Does that mean the the film is a women-power manifesto as it strokes female libido? Not in the least – as was also the case with the book. But Ana, as nervous and awkward as she can be, is no pushover, either.
1. Body fur. In the book, Christian’s submissive-dominant contract demands that his prey gets defoliated on a regular basis. Obviously, the whip wielder is not a fan of extraneous hair. But early in the film, there is a very sensual backlit shot that emphasizes if not glorifies the wisps of hair on Ana’s legs – a choice that probably only a woman director would make.
2. Male genitalia — not. Unlike actresses, who can easily fake an orgasm let alone an arousal, actors are less physically equipped to control such factors. There is also a sense that not every woman is turned on by the sight of the sexual apparatus of strange men on a movie screen. That is probably why Christian’s manhood is only fleetingly seen in an odd overhead shot, which at least offers proof that he has a penis. Otherwise, he could have been played by a Ken doll.
3. The pleasure is all hers. From the deflowering scene to the suggested bouts of oral sex – all female, none male, unlike the novel — the focus is on Ana’s satisfaction not on Christian’s. Her face is our gauge for how enjoyable each erotic encounter is, rarely the norm in male-directed explicit films such as Paul Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct” or “Showgirls.” Also her nipples reveal her emotional state as the only erect body parts onscreen. (Speaking of which … It is interesting that Ana’s nipples aren’t noticeable when she is dressed, even in a T-shirt or sheer dress though she rarely wears a bra. That’s definitely a female preference, at least when Ana is out in public.)
4. The couple bathes together, not showers. How many times have we seen shower scenes where the focus is on a man somehow contorting a woman so they can successfully have sex while vertical in a shower stall? “Fifty Shades,” instead, opts for an old-fashioned stand-alone tub, a womb-like vessel of warmth and security.
5. The wardrobe upgrade. Christian demands to be in control of nearly every aspect of Ana’s life before they engage in a bondage-and-discipline relationship. That includes the clothes she wears, which are selected by Christian’s near-silent male bodyguard. But instead of clingy, revealing apparel that screams sex, Ana ends up being garbed in flattering girlish outfits that often are in shades of red and pink. No thongs, either. Instead, practical yet pretty pastel undies decorated with lace are provided.
6. Body and hair type. Ana has slim hips and lovely if not overly abundant breasts. In other words, she doesn’t conform to the usual “Playboy” Playmate silhouette. Plus, she has reddish brown hair – not the typical blonde, unlike her female roommate. Also, Christian – who is even more obsessed with eating and food in the book – insists Ana consume regular meals. Men rarely are this concerned with female dietary habits, unless they are Mickey Rourke in “9 1/2 Weeks.”
7. Post-coital cooking. It is unusual to see a morning-after scene where our heroine is busy rustling up a big breakfast for her lover rather than being enticed to continue the boudoir activity from the night before. But there is Ana, dancing to music and whipping up batter so she can chirp proudly to Christian, “I’m making pancakes!” Definitely not a guy thing.
8. Birth control is dealt with. Most explicit movies from a male point of view would rather avoid considering the consequences of unprotected sex unless it becomes a plot point. But not only does Christian in the book and movie regularly use condoms (he is shown ripping a packet with his teeth), he arranges for Ana to visit a gynecologist so she go on the pill. Nothing like a considerate S&M enthusiast.
9. She, not he, has the upper hand. Christian keeps breaking his usual rules of conduct with his partners in pain when it comes to Ana. They sleep in the same bed. She meets his parents. He agrees to a date night. He allows for wriggle room in their contract. He reveals part of his past that has caused him to be such tortured soul. Most telling, it is Ana who gets the last word in the movie – definitely not a choice a man would most likely make.
Bonus detail: Look closely at the wallpaper in the bedroom set aside for Ana’s use in Christian’s sleek penthouse abode. You will spy a bird in a gilded cage with the door ajar. That sort of décor foreshadowing definitely reveals a woman’s touch.