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How They Broke Media Taboos



Rob Hardy


For better or worse, we are not surprised to see nudity or sexual activity on the screen or even in the theater now. Such things had been forbidden, and then in the 1960s, when there was tumult about so much else, things changed. I was growing up at the time and was crazy about movies, and I found Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange - How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos (It Books), by Robert Hofler, full of memories of how the screen got liberated. For those who are younger, this will seem like a history from some distant time and some bizarre culture. Hofler is a senior editor at Variety, and so plenty of his stories involve Hollywood, but Broadway and Off-Broadway are here, as well as liberating blows from England; he has also covered the books with sexual themes that were bestsellers, and even has a little to say about television. For those who can get all the porn they want by pressing a few buttons, or can join with millions of readers in Fifty Shades of Gray or are more offended by the way capitalism is corrupted in The Wolf of Wall Street than in the orgy scenes, Sexplosion will provide an entertaining chronicle of the years around 1968 to 1973 when the walls got busted down. The leaders in the movement, in Hofler's view, may have been motivated by artistic expression, but there was also a strong motivation of rebellion. Gore Vidal remembered about writing his transsexual extravaganza Myra Breckinridge, "I hadn't even made up my mind about the sex change at that point. I heard this voice in my head. Absolutely like Joan of Arc, telling me to liberate my native land." 




Other leaders included Gerome Ragni and James Rado, lovers who wrote the musical Hair that got its premiere off Broadway in 1967. Joseph Papp, well known at the time as a liberal iconoclast, actually censored the original performance which he produced. For instance, he cut the song "Sodomy" which celebrated not only the title act but also other sexual activities, commonplace ones enough but not the subject of show tunes. Rado said, "We thought people should know these words, that it was a gift to the people to know these words about human sexual practices." Papp also cut the famous ensemble nude scene. When Hair transferred to Broadway with a more adventurous director (Tom O'Horgan, known as "the Busby Berkeley of the acid set"), the cuts were restored, although the nude scene followed the law that nudity was allowed if the actors remained still, and it was so dimly lighted that it was unintimidating. The show did raise enough issues that about a dozen lawyers were on retainer to keep it going in its different national venues, and the Supreme Court had eventually to declare that it must go on. There have been many revivals of the show, which has plenty of springy tunes but must be now pretty quaint with its promotion of free love and draft card burning. Nonetheless, our country has changed enough that the stage of a recent Broadway revival was the site of weddings for same-sex couples. 




The other Broadway work covered here at length is Oh! Calcutta!, a nude review in which the actors did not stand still. Kenneth Tynan dreamed up the idea of putting frank sexuality on the boards, and requested that famous authors contribute a sketch to his avant-garde review. Tynan was a British drama critic, a fetishist, and an ardent proponent of heterosexuality. He would not allow homosexual themes to be part of his review, saying, "There's been enough of that around." The show eventually included contributions by John Lennon and Samuel Beckett, which implied that it was more art than porn. Gore Vidal bowed out, after realizing that his ideas for Myra Breckinridge would be better served in print, and Jules Feiffer considered contributing his half-finished play about friends at college who stumble through unsatisfactory affairs because they don't very much like women. Instead, it became the film Carnal Knowledge, which broke new ground in on-screen language. 




A play that transitioned with relative smoothness to the screen was the drama The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley. It was the first play to be written by a homosexual about openly homosexual characters, some of whom fit stereotypes that offended other homosexuals at the time. Many of the actors transferred from the play to the movie, including Cliff Gorman, who played the mincingly effeminate Emory, and was offended that people were surprised that in real life he was a heterosexual with a wife and kids who was merely playing a role. The actors were in a hit, but found that their performances in the show were a liability, as they were dropped from doing advertisements for products that didn't want a homosexual connection. One of them considered suing after he lost a shaving cream ad for just that reason, "but when he and his new agent checked into his legal standing they found he had none, since there were no antidiscrimination laws protecting homosexuals in the workplace or, for that matter, laws protecting heterosexuals who played homosexuals onstage."  




When Ken Russell's faithful adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love came out in 1969, people tut-tutted over its depictions of forced sex and especially the spectacular scene of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed performing nude wrestling in front of a fireplace. Lots of people saw the movie, however, which was not the case for Russell's 1971 The Devils, his adaptation of Aldous Huxley's novel about the scandals in a seventeenth-century French convent. Not only was it sexually frank, but it was considered blasphemous. Americans got to see a movie that had so much cut out it was incomprehensible, and DVD copies of the movie are still unreliable. John Schlesinger's 1971 Sunday Bloody Sunday was the follow-up to his equally ground-breaking Midnight Cowboy and was based on an episode in his own life, involving an older man and a woman who are both in love with the same young man. It got good reviews but not from Princess Margaret, who at the premiere exclaimed (within earshot of the director), "I thought it was horrific. Men in bed kissing!" This got the rejoinder from her husband: "Oh Margaret, shut up." The Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow) whose posters carried the tagline, "See the movie the Supreme Court made famous," was attended by Jacqueline Onassis and her husband Ari, who arrived in separate cars. Mrs. Onassis was photographed leaving midway through, leaving Ari behind. 




Television of the time, relying on broadcast networks, made fewer waves. However, All in the Family had an episode in which Archie and Edith returned early from church only to find that their daughter and son-in-law were upstairs having sex. Archie dealt with that, but in another episode could not stomach that an old friend, a seemingly macho ex-professional linebacker, was a homosexual. Moralist-in-Chief Richard Nixon couldn't take it, either, and said, "I turned the goddamned thing off." In a little story that Hofler enjoys telling because it shows how far we have come, President Barack Obama was happy to meet Jesse Tyler Ferguson who plays a homosexual father on Modern Family, telling him, "Michelle and my daughters love that show." The influence of the taboo-breakers of forty years ago has been undeniable, and this history of the turbulence is vivid, funny, and thorough. 




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