Putting the Hard 'R' in Oscar
Nudity, graphic sex, make this year's contenders the most boundary-pushing in history
If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences really wants to boost the ratings for this year’s Oscar telecast, it should consider adopting a slogan like “Oscar Gets Frisky!” and then open the show with an envelope-pushing montage of all the scenes from the past year’s movies that ventured into R-verging-on-X-rated territory.
Just consider how the Motion Picture Association’s own Classification and Ratings Administration’s Film Ratings have described some of the movies that hope to make the cut when the Academy announces its nominations for the 96th Academy Awards tomorrow.
There’s the movie “rated R for strong and pervasive sexual content, graphic nudity, disturbing material, gore and language.” That, of course, would be Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things, a no holds-barred parable of female empowerment.
Then, there’s the movie “rated R for some sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language.” Let’s hear it for Todd Haynes’ May December, which revisits the seduction of an underage boy and its aftermath.
Or consider the movie “rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, some disturbing violent content, and drug use.” Enter Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn, which doesn’t avert its gaze as an unscrupulous pretender seduces and then overturns a family of unsuspecting bluebloods.
And there’s also the movie “rated R for sexual content, language and some drug use.” That’s Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers, in which a gay man confronts his past as he attempts to forge a new relationship in his present.
It all adds up to one of the most adult line-ups in Academy history, as mainstream Hollywood movies have more often tended to shy away from such forthright sexual displays.
Is there any accounting, beyond the coincidence of release dates, for the sudden outbreak of sexual candor? Historically, when it comes to sexual frankness, European movies have led the way — from Ecstasy, the 1933 Czech in which Hedy Lamarr took a scandalous naked swim, to Julia Ducournau’s 2021 Palm d’Or winner, Titane, in which Agathe Rousselle copulates with a car. So it is probably not surprising that it’s European directors like Greece’s Lanthimos and Great Britain’s Fennell who are leading the way in breaking down barriers. And it could also be argued that movies are simply trying to catch up with the streamers, and cable channels before them, where nudity has become commonplace on shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones and Euphoria and recent Netflix offerings like Sex/Life, Obliterated and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Of course, prestige nudity is nothing new. Way back in 1972, Pauline Kael famously hailed Bernardo Bertolucci’s sexually frank Last Tango in Paris as a groundbreaking masterpiece, proclaiming that “Bertolucci and [star Marlon] Brando have altered the face of an art form.” But the Academy recognized the film with just two nominations — best actor for Brando and best director for Bertolucci — but no wins. In the years that followed, Hollywood flirted with an adults-only NC-17 rating, first given to Philip Kaufman’s 1990 Henry & June, about sexual adventurer Henry Miller and his wife, and then resurrected briefly last year for Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, about Marilyn Monroe’s travails. But, mostly, Hollywood decided to steer clear of such provocations.
Revisiting Kael’s review of Last Tango in 2004, Roger Ebert wrote, “As it has turned out, Last Tango was not a breakthrough but more of an elegy for the kind of film she championed. In the years since, mass Hollywood entertainments have all but crushed art films, which were much more successful then than now. Although pornography documents the impersonal mechanics of sex, few serious films challenge actors to explore its human dimensions; isn't it remarkable that no film since 1972 has been more sexually intimate, revealing, honest and transgressive than Last Tango?”
It may have taken awhile but Poor Things does rise to that challenge. Emma Stone’s re-animated Bella Baxter, a full-grown woman with the mind of a rapidly-maturing child, doesn’t hold back as she discovers the joys of masturbation, engages in energetic sex — or as she calls it “furious jumping” — with Mark Ruffalo’s domineering, and equally unclothed, paramour and then explores the inner-workings of a Paris whorehouse.
Defending the movie’s sexual candor in an interview with the Academy’s digital magazine A.frame, Lanthimos explained, “In this film, we're focusing on a woman who doesn't judge. She doesn't judge herself or others when it comes to nudity or sex or her own body. She deals with everything with the same attitude, whether it be friendship, education, politics, traveling, poverty, or medicine. She approaches it all with the same attitude of curiosity. We needed to do the same thing, so that's what we did. It would have been disingenuous for us to all of a sudden be prudish about that particular aspect of not only her story, but also her personality and character.”
But that also makes the seemingly fearless Stone one of the rare A-list actresses willing to risk such exposure for her art.
This season, it’s actually the men who have been quicker to strip down. In addition to Ruffalo’s butt-baring sexual calisthenics, there’s Joaquin Phoenix in Beau Is Afraid, who, as the panicked title character, runs naked through the streets, and Charles Melton, who reveals his man-child’s vulnerability as he’s seduced by Natalie Portman’s character in May December. Even Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer takes time out from pondering the mysteries of the atom to bed his mistress, played by Florence Pugh, and then sit for a naked chat in the otherwise more cerebral Oppenheimer.
But it’s Barry Keoghan in the boundary-pushing Saltburn who goes to the greatest extremes: His character sucks up the cum-infused bathwater left behind by Jacob Elordi’s dreamboat — the resulting images immediately became the most notorious bathtub drain shot since Psycho. He copulates on a grave site. And then, fully naked, he dances triumphantly through the mansion that gives the movie its title. If nothing else, Keoghan deserves a Good Sport Award for gracefully enduring all the obligatory penis jokes that have been made at his expense at the awards shows that already have taken place.
A trio of films about homosexual relationships has also upped the ante on this season’s display of male nudity. Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal get intimate in All of Us Strangers, which includes one moment in which Mescal’s character licks semen off of Scott’s character’s chest. Haigh, the movie’s director, is more interested in their faces than their other body parts, though, so their sex never approaches that seen in the Showtime series Fellow Travelers, where the changing power dynamics between the men played by Matt Bomer and Critics Choice winner Jonathan Bailey are dramatized through their shifting sexual positions.
Similar power dynamics are also the subject of a couple of other movies that, while not expected to figure in the Academy’s noms, have been nominated for the Film Independent Spirit Awards, which will be announced Feb. 25.
In Ira Sachs’ Passages, a sexually voracious Franz Rogowski ping-pongs between his male lover, Ben Whishaw, and a female conquest, Adèle Exarchopoulos, leaving nothing to the imagination. And in Sebastian Silva’s Rotting in the Sun, Silva’s depressed artist encounters Jordan Firstman’s social media influencer in a meet-cute of sorts that takes place at a gay nude beach where no obfuscating camera angles are employed.
So how is the Academy likely to respond to what Chelsea Handler, as host of the recent Critics Choice Awards, proclaimed “was one of the horniest years for movies and TV”? When it comes to its top prize, it’s mostly steered clear of the most titillating titles: The major exception was 1969 best picture winner Midnight Cowboy, rated X when it was first released, although re-rated R in 1971. But that could be changing if the influx of new international members results in a more sophisticated and adventurous voting body. After all, last year’s best picture winner Everything Everywhere All At Once included a dildo battle, which is not something you see every day.
And let’s never forget: Oscar himself is already almost naked.