A strange controversy emerged recently over the film Licorice Pizza. Paul Thomas Anderson’s charming coming-of-age 70s story between a teenage child actor and older woman he finds attractive got some flack over the technicality that it’s an improper relationship. He is 15, she is 25, and the age of consent in California is 18. First off, I don’t want to take things too literally, but this isn’t a sexual relationship being depicted. Flashing boobs (off-screen) doesn’t count. I never saw anything in which Alana Haim’s character is being a predator/groomer in the relationship – it’s Cooper Hoffman’s character that is pursuing her – and certainly is far from being “pedophiliac” as some would claim.
This is the same argument some had with Call Me By Your Name with characters aged 23 and 17. Those characters were within the age of consent in its Italian setting as in more than half of the United States, but that really seemed to be based on homophobia by its detractors. Then, there is Red Rocket, also from last year, in which a sexually charged, fortysomething man lures in and seduces a seventeen-year-old multiple times. He’s an ASSHOLE in all caps, as I just wrote it as. Or in A Teacher, where the woman abuses her power to seduce her student, so I can’t buy the predator argument over Alana Haim and Licorice Pizza. Odd relationships are not new in cinema.
There are other films in the past that are (in)famous for depicting sex and nudity in a similar context. This piece however isn’t only about discretionary relationships between legal adults and those considered to be minors. The depictions of scandalous affairs have always been shown on screen and every one was always a step further into breaking taboos. What is normal now was something of a hot subject decades ago in terms of social norms and conservative values people, in general, kept before the winds of change blew through.
All That Heaven Allows (1955)
One of Douglas Sirk’s best films told the socially disapproving tale of an affluent widow (Jane Wyman) who falls in love with a younger man (Rock Hudson) who is a laborer with compassion and charm towards her. The disparity in age, plus the differences in class and lifestyle, puts a damper on the relationship as the widow’s adult children show their disapproval. It’s a beautiful melodrama in rich Technicolor that gives the perfect look of America in that period as well as what social norms were considered unacceptable back then, which looks ridiculous today. Rainer Werner Fassbinder also made a remake of it nearly twenty years later with a more realistic tone featuring a widowed white woman and a younger Moroccan immigrant.
Stanley Kubrick adapted Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous novel about a professor (James Mason) who becomes obsessed with a teenage girl (Sue Lyon) while staying at the girl’s home owned by her depressed, widowed mother (Shelley Winters). Numerous changes were made to get approval by the MPAA such as raising the girl’s age from 12 to 14 and cutting out the professor’s previous relationships with other prepubescent girls to not portray him as a predator. However, as much as Kubrick tried to downplay the sexual component of the relationship to keep it only obsessive, the subject was too obvious to not realize this and Kubrick later said he wouldn’t have made it had he known the difficulty of appeasing the censors by rewriting and altering things that made the movie less faithful to the book.
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967)
The film got a special retrospective following the passing of Sidney Poitier this year, fifty-five years after the release of Poitier’s two screen-changing movies, the other being In The Heat Of The Night. In Stanley Kramer’s socially conscious drama, Poitier and Katherine Houghton are cast as a couple who surprisingly go to her parents’ home to announce their engagement. The parents (Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy) are liberal, but they are taken aback by their daughter’s immediate love for a Black man. Under the banner, “A love story of today,” interracial marriage was still illegal in numerous states (the South mostly) when filming began and were ruled unconstitutional during post-production, timely releasing the movie in the aftermath of the landmark ruling. Obviously, a lot has changed since the social radicalization of the 1960s.
Harold And Maude (1971)
Talk about an age gap. He’s 19, she’s 79, and they are in a romantic relationship??? Where’s the double standard here??? Somehow, the Hal Ashby-directed dark comedy starring Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort had a heart to the story about living life like it’s your last every day, even though your life can go on for another forty years. But with Harold, his dark, twisted fantasies about death are against Maude’s bright outlook on living in the now and she helps him get to her point of view. It has since become a cult favorite, even though Cat Stevens, who composed the movie’s wonderful score, recently said the movie would probably not be made today.
Murmur Of The Heart (1971)/Pretty Baby (1978)
Louis Malle’s coming-of-age tale about a teenage boy’s sexual awakening led to an unexpected experience that is a shot at post-war bourgeoise life in France. That experience, which I won’t spoil, is not played as normal, but a moment that should be privately seen as an experience of bonding. If that wasn’t boundary pushing enough, when Malle came to Hollywood seven years later, he made a period piece in 1917 New Orleans about a young girl (Brooke Shields) who is groomed to be a child prostitute in a brothel featuring her mother (Susan Sarandon). Soon, she is infatuated and falls for a photographer (Keith Carradine), seeking to be treated like an adult with him. The movie received a huge amount of controversy over Shields’ nude scenes, as she was twelve during filming and was considered by some as child porn. The juvenile sexuality in both of Malle’s films are more frank than how American directors would depict it, but it shows Malle’s sensibilities and knowledge on how far to push it and not step over that line into exploitation.
A Fantastic Woman (2017)
The T in LGBT certainly stands for “tough road ahead.” I’m not saying this relationship is scandalous, but to the transphobic crowd, it very much is. Trans people and relationships between trans and cisgendered people are often misunderstood or even simply rejected outright as degenerate to society. But in Sebastian Lelio’s Oscar-winning drama, a trans woman (Daniela Vega) is in a relationship with an older cisgender man who dies suddenly and she must deal with her lover’s family, who are disgusted by the relationship and with her. It humanizes trans women as equal people and realistically depicts the transphobia to trans people in general. The film is brave and Vega’s performance is brave.
When you see that Paul Verhoeven is the director, you know you will get something salacious and violent. The most recent film on the list was protested heavily in front of theaters by fundamentalist Catholic groups because of what they saw as a direct assault on the church; nuns having a lesbian relationship. It is based on a true story of a nun, a claimed mystic, whose behavior was investigated during the 17th century for what some saw as heretical beliefs, as well as accusations that she seduced another young nun into a sexual relationship. In the film, there are no allegations but that there was one and the depiction of sex acts, including the use of a phallus-like object, really offended conservative groups who denounced the film as blasphemic. Judith C. Brown, whose book was the basis of the film, approved of the story as one that “explores the intersection of religion, sexuality, and human ambition in an age of plague and faith.”
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