My sordid affair with movies began because I fell in love with a dead movie star. To my 13-year-old self, all the colour, romance and tragedy of classical Hollywood rested on the skinny shoulders of a young man with movie-blue eyes and a red windbreaker, who spoke in staccato poetry and shuffled his feet and whose slouch couldn’t conceal his outrageous beauty. And by only 24 years old, an age that seemed young even to me at the time, he was dead. How could that be?
I didn’t casually fancy James Dean, because I didn’t (and still don’t) do anything casually; I was head over heels. He was my gateway drug to becoming a cinephile, an honest-to-goodness movie geek. I avidly watched 50s melodramas and Marlon Brando films. I learned the names of directors such as Elia Kazan and Nicholas Ray. I’ll always owe Dean – and maybe my adolescent hormones – a debt for it. There are greater stars, better actors, arguably sexier men; his juvenilia and overt anguish don’t do it for me now as they did then. It doesn’t matter. I still love him. What this instilled in me, as a moviegoer and eventually as a professional film critic, is just how much male beauty – and frankly, sex – is inextricable from my relationship to some of the movies I love best. What I would come to learn is that it wasn’t only me who felt this way.
Although I’m at some pains to quote the faux-profundity of Jim Morrison, he once wrote that "film spectators are quiet vampires". He makes a good point. We seem innocent sitting there in the audience slurping our soft drinks or curled up with our laptops in bed – but our minds are ticking over. We’re searching for sustenance, for the most potent elements, and we discard the rest when it doesn’t suit us. Films are a dream space, allowing room for elaborate sexual fantasia neither as blunt nor as frowned upon as pornography. Voyeurism is the cornerstone of moviegoing. To stare in the safety of the dark is to forget your own hang-ups, your own vulnerability, as many a movie buff will attest to.
After a century of mainstream cinema, with few exceptions, the representation of female desire on screen has been fraught. We see women who are the objects of desire but rarely do we see an actively desirous or promiscuous woman character in a film that gives her agency and respect. We are ogled, objectified and dominated. Even women characters who are ostensibly sexually liberated, like Fatal Attraction’s bunny-boiling home-wrecker Glenn Close, are often punished or treated with thinly veiled disdain. Our sexuality has been seen as the territory of ridiculous man-eaters and psychotic connivers. It’s been so easy to turn us into archetypes: the femme fatale, the manic pixie dream girl, the girl next door, the cool girl and countless other iterations of womanhood borne from male fantasy rather than reality.
At the moment, many people are discussing women, sex and the film industry, but these topics have been central in all the worst ways. The #MeToo movement, which gained momentum following the 2017 sexual assault and rape allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein, is only a more widespread permutation of decades-long abuses in the film and entertainment world. Even the golden-age dream factory of MGM in the Wizard of Oz era essentially pimped out contracted starlets to executives – as depicted in the documentary Girl 27 (2007). Women in the film industry have historically been victims, collateral damage, casting couch survivors – underpaid and discarded after a perceived sell-by date.
Drowning as we are in the grim litany of sex abuse scandals and draconian shutdowns of women’s reproductive rights, it’s naïve to assume art can save us. But it can allow us to have difficult conversations – ones made less awkward through the thin veil of fiction. Other lives and possibilities are made accessible through the collective viewing experience of the movies.
It’s true that cinema is changing for the better in some corners. Today, more women are writing and directing films than ever before, and telling stories that represent a broad range of female experiences. Everything from Hollywood comedies like Girls Trip (2017) to South American indie films like A Fantastic Woman (2017) are becoming more inclusive. The former focuses on female friendship and joyous, consequence-free casual sex; both things black women have been denied in cultural representation. The latter, about a transgender woman grieving the death of her older lover, treats sex and love between trans people with the utmost tenderness.
As much as we’re starting to make room for hungrily, even joyously yearning woman (see: Carol, Magic Mike XXL, Blue is the Warmest Colour, or Diary of a Teenage Girl, all films that have hit the screen since 2010), we’re also starting to discuss it openly as film critics. This has been demonstrated by a small but significant shift, particularly in online spaces where culture is discussed. Podcasts such as Thirst Aid Kit, hosted by Nichole Perkins and Bim Adewumni, picks through the relative merits of men such as Chris Evans and John Cho, allowing for elusive lusting in a public sphere (with unsurprising amounts of online backlash over “horny women” in the hyper-serious, traditionally male world of cultural commentary).
Throughout She Found It At The Movies, the writers answer the questions critics and audiences are asking in 2020. How do we smuggle secret sexy things out of the most innocent of movies? Is it a form of perhaps unhelpful escapism to do so? What does it mean, for example, to be turned on by onscreen abusers and psychopaths, even when in real life you might not touch them with a bargepole? How much room is there in sexual fantasy for political reality? In spite of a relatively recent surge in feminist pornography, made by and for women in ethical circumstances, so much masturbatory fodder remains in one way or another “problematic”. Should representation be taken literally, or is it folly to always try to reconcile one’s politics with one’s sexual pleasures and tastes? Or is choosing to submit to a certain level of domination – and therefore actively picking our fantasy – a feminist act in itself?
In 1965, film critic Pauline Kael published an early collection of reviews that soon became a major text for film bus and serious cinema devotees. She called it I Lost it At the Movies, and in one essay on the juvenile delinquent craze in American cinema she wrote about heartthrob du jour – and my personal favourite – James Dean. She described him in evocative, sensual language, harnessing her prowess as a critic to (yes) gawk at him. I can relate. Kael offered spot-on insights into the physicality, sexual chemistry and romantic qualities of the leading men she wrote about – from Cary Grant to Sylvester Stallone. She knew that actors could be both canvasses and tools, that the placement of their bodies in space was meaningful, that a gesture or glance could be everything. To ignore this is to ignore the lifeblood of movies.
At her best, Pauline Kael could combine the knowledge of the finest cinema scholar with the simmering passion of a woman who understood the more voluptuous pleasures of the art. She may have lost something at the movies, but she found something, too. Something rich and full of vitality, fiercely sexy and uncomfortably tender; something it was safe to carry around on repeat in the real estate of your head.
For me it was Dean, that insolent blue-eyed man-child. For you, someone else entirely. No matter. It’s not about what you find, it’s about finding it.
‘She Found It At The Movies: Women Writers on Sex, Desire and Cinema’ is out on 31st March 2020. Pre-order it now from Hive, who home deliver from your nearest independent book store.