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How Feminism, Blockbusters Like ‘Jaws’ and ‘Star Wars,’ and the Ratings System Killed the Erotic Studio Film

Q&A: In the newest season of her "You Must Remember This" podcast, Karina Longworth looks back on two decades of Hollywood's obsession with erotic films.

AMERICAN GIGOLO, Nina Van Pallandt, Richard Gere, 1980, (c) Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

“American Gigolo”

©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Nearly 200 episodes and a dozen-plus seasons in, Karina Longworth’s indispensable film-centric podcast “You Must Remember This” only continues to excavate “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.” In her newest season, which kicked off with an informative introductory episode on Tuesday, Longworth aims to explore a particular subset of films from the ’80s and ’90s: the kind of “erotic” offerings that most studios stopped churning out years ago.

And while most people might be thinking “erotic thrillers,” Longworth’s insightful podcast reaches far beyond that particular sub-genre. Set to be released in two parts — “Erotic ’80s” this spring, with “Erotic ’90s” to follow in the fall, though Longworth said she considers the entire run to be one complete season — most episodes will focus on a single year at the movies, with a particular focus on a key film released that year.

The first three episodes, which were made available to press before this season’s official premiere, provide deep dives into films like “10” and “American Gigolo,” with episodes about everything from “Flashdance” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to arrive in the coming weeks.

They will all lead up to Longworth’s planned final episode of this scintillating season: the 1999 edition, which chronicles a film that would most certainly not be made today. As Longworth explained to IndieWire, “As I was doing the research and thinking about these things, it just became clear to me that it made sense structurally to do one episode per year, and that led me to this understanding that this season is basically about the 20 years leading up to ‘Eyes Wide Shut.'”

Before that, however, Longworth digs into a wealth of iconic stories and personalities, reevaluating some of Hollywood’s most fascinating films in the process, along with some compelling reasons why the genre has gone out of fashion…and how it might hope to return.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

IndieWire: What surprised you most as you started your research on the erotic films of the ’80s and ’90s?

Karina Longworth: The extent to which some of the censorship forces about the depiction of sex in a variety of media were coming from feminists. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and I was definitely indoctrinated [into thinking] that feminists hate sex and did not know or hear of anything different or any different type of feminist until probably the early aughts, really. That’s how prevalent this idea was that feminists hate sex.

Once you realize that things are more nuanced than that, you think that this “feminist hates sex” [idea] is fake news, but this research made me aware of the fact that there were feminists who were saying that all heterosexual sex is equivalent to rape, and that was an influential argument when it came to censorship. It’s going to be sort of a theme throughout the season, the ratings board and these sort of shifting ideas of what ratings mean and what is considered acceptable for a mainstream Hollywood movie.

10, from left: Bo Derek, Dudley Moore, 1979. © Orion Pictures Corp./ courtesy Everett Collection

“10”

©Orion Pictures Corp/Courtesy Everett Collection

In the first episode, you lay out what are essentially ground rules for explaining not only the films you chose to focus on, but how these films might be thought of if they were released today. You note that many of them would be “canceled.” Do you think that fear of cancellation is keeping those movies from being made today?

I think that maybe fear of cancellation has had an impact on what gets made over the past two or three years. But it really hasn’t been that long that I think that’s a factor. I talk in the second episode about how, once Hollywood sees that these movies that are not really made for adults or don’t have any interest in sex, like “Jaws” or the “Star Wars” movies, [and] those movies make more money than any movies have ever made, what’s the point of trying to do something else?

Hollywood is in this phase right now where it’s thinking about the global marketplace and it’s thinking about making as much money as possible. I think on some level, in terms of people who are making films for adults and films about relationships — which is very few — maybe those people do have a bit of pause [when coming up with ideas for films] because it certainly feels like you can’t make movies that center heterosexual, white male desire anymore, and that is so much of the history of cinema.

You also note in the podcast this idea that what we know as more traditional blockbusters replaced these films in a way. Do you think the modern blockbuster killed the erotic film genre? 

Well, I don’t know. I want to stress that, in 1993, “Indecent Proposal” is the sixth highest-grossing film of the year. There’s a reason why the erotic thriller proliferated as a blockbuster, and quite a few of them made a lot of money during a short period of time. “Fatal Attraction,” “Basic Instinct,” these were sort of culture-defining hits. But I do think that the priorities of Hollywood shift based on what is working at the box office, and it becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy or even worse than that. I mean, it’s like some kind of anxiety disorder where you see what’s working and you become increasingly afraid to try anything else.

FATAL ATTRACTION, Glenn Close, Michael Douglas, 1987. © Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Fatal Attraction”

©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

In the first episode, you talk about X-rated films enjoying a run in the ’70s where they were also giant box office hits. Could that ever happen again? 

Well, it hasn’t happened since 1973. The last one was “The Devil in Miss Jones” in 1973. So time will tell, never say never. But certainly I think that there was, throughout the period that I’m discussing and even when these movies were not as commercially said successful, there was a desire to try to figure out ways in which you could make alterations to the conditions of the marketplace so that filmmakers could make movies about sex or including sex and not have a stigma around them. That’s one of the reasons why in 1990, the X rating is changed to the NC-17 rating, but that didn’t work.

There’s never been an NC-17–rated film that was a mega blockbuster on the order of “Deep Throat” or “Last Tango in Paris” or “Midnight Cowboy.”

Do you think the rating system, as it stands now, should be changed in some way?

If you’re talking about 2022, I think that the whole industry is in so much flux right now. Maybe it would’ve happened whether the pandemic had happened or not, but certainly that was an accelerant to really changing what seems to be viable in terms of the theatrical experience, and the movie ratings are designed for the theatrical experience. If a movie is only being seen at home, then do you rate it based on these ratings that were designed for the theatrical experience or do you find some other way of categorizing content based for television or streaming or whatever it is?

When I see that something like Andrew Dominik’s Netflix film “Blonde” gets an NC-17 rating, and we have no idea if Netflix is going to put that movie in movie theaters in any significant way or not, I don’t really know what that means.

I just think there’s so many things that are going to be changing and that we’re going to have to figure out how to adapt, and that’s just one of them. But, really, what does it matter if there’s one movie every five years getting made that merits an NC-17 rating?

FLASHDANCE, Jennifer Beals, 1983, (c) Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

“Flashdance”

©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

A number of the films you talk about are now getting modern revivals, like the “Flashdance” series and the “Fatal Attraction” series at Paramount+, or Showtime’s “American Gigolo” series with Jon Bernthal. What does that signal to you?

Even at the time, there was a lot of caterwauling that this idea of high concept was going to be the death of movies. But there is something really satisfying when a movie is high concept in the sense that you can describe what it is in one sentence: “A beautiful 18-year-old girl is both a welder and a stripper, but wants to be a ballet dancer.” There is something really exciting when a movie like that ends up feeling like it’s more than that.

I have to say, I don’t know enough about any of these projects to know if they’re going to be period pieces, but as I think the season will show, and you’ve heard the “American Gigolo” episode, these movies are really products of their time, so I don’t necessarily know what it means to do “American Gigolo” in 2022.

Is there a way forward for these sorts of movies to come back into the culture?

I think that people who want to discuss adult sexuality [in films] need to sort of figure out a new way forward. You do see movies like “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which become these arthouse hits and cultural phenomenon to some extent, but I don’t know that the time is necessarily right for movies that are dealing with heterosexual desire with the same level of seriousness.

You see something like “Deep Water,” and it is determined that it doesn’t deserve a theatrical release, when that certainly would not have been the case 20 years ago.

Ana de Armas, "Deep Water"

“Deep Water”

Courtesy of 20th Century Studio

That brings up the inevitable question: What did you think of “Deep Water”?

So as somebody who is very deep into the movies of Adrian Lyne right now, I found it a little disappointing as an Adrian Lyne film, it doesn’t really have the sort of classic Adrian Lyne charge. It is not erotic in the sense that his greatest hits are erotic. And it’s missing an engagement with popular culture that I think the best of his movies have as well.

At the same time, I loved watching it. I think that Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas are great in it. I just found it so exciting to see a film that was about adult relationships. I don’t think it’s an entirely superficial film either. I mean, it’s about the decadence of a war profiteer!

What’s your personal favorite film from this time period?

Oh, that’s really hard to say, because I like a lot of them and I like a lot of them for different reasons. I think that right now it’s probably “American Gigolo.” Somehow Paul Schrader has become my favorite filmmaker. But I also think “9 1/2 Weeks” is pretty great and way more complicated than I think people have a memory of it being. It’s considered sort of the quintessential soft-core movie, but there’s a lot more going on there.

New episodes of the “You Must Remember This” podcast are released each Tuesday.

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