10/03/2007 05:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Graphic Sex in Movies and Media: Is More Actually Less?

I'd say the short answer is "yes," and here's why: suspense films and those portraying sexual situations share one crucial quality: those that work best know what to put forward, but more important, what to hold back. As Hitchcock said:"It's not the 'bang', it's the anticipation of it." (No pun intended, I'm sure.)

I just screened the unrated version of the film Shortbus, which came out last year in theatres and just recently on DVD, to considerable critical praise. Going by the snippets on the DVD cover, I note Peter Travers referred to it as "an erotic hot-button of a movie," while Manohla Dargis pronounced it an "ode to the joy and sweet release of sex."

But as Mr. Travers and Ms. Darghis seem to ignore (and Mr. Hitchcock affirms), sex -- like suspense -- isn't merely the culminating act, but all that heart-pounding stuff preceding it.

Though crammed with explicit boinking and other acts I barely knew existed, the plain fact is, I didn't find Shortbus sexy, and for the simplest of reasons: it left absolutely nothing to my imagination.

The coupling was certainly convincing, but I had no idea how it came to be that these bodies were writhing about together. And in a rather abrupt concluding scene, the whole motley, nubile ensemble of sex-starved, angst-laden 20-somethings (straight and gay) transforms from being variously insecure, isolated, and in one case, suicidal, to meeting for a reunion love-in, all exchanging fond, knowing grins. Now how did that happen? Maybe I got distracted. It wouldn't have been hard.

I am neither prude nor proselytizer -- ask my friends. But I view this trend toward in-your-face, graphic sex as another outgrowth of current Hollywood's "hot fudge sundae" approach: the soda-jerk behind the counter gives you a bowl of ice cream, asks if you want hot fudge, you nod and he gives you a scoop. When he asks if you'd like more fudge, you say "no," but he gives it to you anyway, because he doesn't quite trust you'll appreciate his creation without that extra spoonful or two. It's as if to say: hey, if you can't deliver fundamental quality, at least deliver a lot of...well, quantity.

And thus is lost the subtle art of restraint.

I love the very term "sexy" because it covers such a range of possibilities: the mysterious condition that is chemistry, manifested in eye contact, the brush of a hand, caressing, kissing, and maybe -- down the line, love-making with a capital "L".

Ironically, in the far-off days of Hollywood censorship and the Hays office, directors and writers found inventive ways to bypass some truly idiotic moral strictures, and still create sexy characters and situations that get my juices flowing more than 10 viewings of Shortbus ever could.

My favorite example again springs from Hitchcock. On Notorious (1946), he found himself hemmed in by censors on the precise duration of a kiss between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Hitch devised a solution: the stars would kiss very softly and quickly, in close up, about 20 times. That idea produced a sequence that satisfied the censors and (personally speaking) endures today as a major turn-on moment in cinema.

From an inevitably male point of view, here are 10 such films spanning 70 years, along with my choice on which scene or element makes them sizzle most. Please note the selection criteria here: first and foremost, these are great movies that have glorious sexy elements. So don't look for 9 1/2 Weeks, or even The Seven Year Itch, Basic Instinct, and Unfaithful, the last three certainly good films, but just flawed enough to fall short of the mark.

Also, you'll find no Mae West here either. She was certainly a very talented performer (she wrote her own material), and blatantly sexy -- in truth, sexual. But candidly, she always frightened me. I always felt that if "I came up and saw her sometime," I might never make it out.


The Blue Angel" (1930) -- This early German sound masterpiece concerns lonely, aging Professor Rath (Emil Jannings), who's shocked to overhear his students talking about a beautiful showgirl, Lola (Marlene Dietrich). Planning to catch his charges in their debauchery, Rath goes to the Berlin nightclub where Lola performs, and becomes bewitched by the sexy siren, with tragic results. Josef Von Sternberg's breakthrough vehicle for Dietrich was a smoldering drama in the dissolute Weimar era, and still packs heat now (especially in the superior German version). Dietrich simply mesmerizes. She looks a shade darker and plumper than in later roles, but both a luminescent star quality and potent sex appeal shine through. Sexy highlight: Lola's incredible gaze, and that first rendition of "Falling In Love Again"

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) -- Drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) rolls into a roadside diner and meets portly owner Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), who offers him a job. Frank's not too interested until he gets a look at Nick's white-hot younger wife, Cora (Lana Turner). Almost immediately, they become lovers, and matter-of-factly plan to get rid of Nick. This sizzling suspenser concerns fate, temptation, and those irrational urges that drive people to murder. A gorgeous Turner takes your breath away as the femme fatale, and the enigmatic Garfield delivers as a regular, red-blooded Joe who falls into her clutches. Tay Garnett's direction is tantalizingly suggestive, as when Frank spots a lipstick rolling across the floor moments before he lays eyes on Cora. Sexy highlight: Lana, Lana, and more Lana -- period.

Baby Doll (1956) -- Glum cotton-gin proprietor Archie (Karl Malden) is married to dim-witted teenage nymph Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), who sleeps in a crib, sucks her thumb, and refuses to yield her virginity to her husband until her 20th birthday. When wily Sicilian rival Silva Vaccaro (Eli Wallach) arrives with plans to take over Archie's business -- and young wife -- Archie's insecurities turn into desperate acts of jealousy. Widely banned on release, this depraved black comedy from the poison pen of Tennessee Williams was helmed by the great Elia Kazan. Malden's disturbing portrayal of cuckold-to-be Archie resonates, but see this for a sleazy Wallach (in his film debut) along with the Oscar-nominated Baker, who combines feigned innocence with an innate mastery of sexual manipulation. Sexy highlight: that porch-swing scene with lusty Silva.

Tom Jones (1962) -- Based on Henry Fielding's book, Tom Jones (Albert Finney) is an orphan adopted by a wealthy squire in 18th century Britain. In young adulthood, Tom's good looks and lusty nature fuel an irresistible attraction to the opposite sex .With various parties set against him due to his humble birth and shaky morality, our hero can't win the approval of Squire Western (Hugh Griffith) to marry beautiful daughter Sophie (Susannah York). Soon Tom must leave to seek his fortune, and a host of bawdy adventures ensue. Will he ever be found worthy? Oscar winner for Best Picture, Tony Richardson's rousing entry boasts a literate screenplay by playwright John Osborne, swift pacing fueled by a zippy harpsichord score, and colorful performances from a powerhouse British cast. And the young, handsome Finney carries off the central role with charm and gusto. Sexy highlight: Tom and his wench share a meal.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) -- After suave tycoon Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) executes a bank robbery just for fun, insurance investigator Vicky Anderson (Faye Dunaway) catches the case. As Crown and Anderson circle each other, suspicion mingles with the laws of attraction. Will romance or justice win? This sleek movie's chic trappings and star chemistry still comprise a winning formula. It's fun to see the usually scruffy McQueen dressed to the nines in the title role, but Dunaway's the revelation here. She seems fully McQueen's equal in this simmering little cat-and-mouse game. Innovative split screen cinematography from Haskell Wexler and a romantic Michel Legrand soundtrack supply icing on this scrumptious cinematic cake. Sexy highlight: playing chess.

Last Tango In Paris (1972) -- While apartment-hunting in Paris, sultry 20-year-old Jeanne (Maria Schneider) meets Paul (Marlon Brando), a brooding middle-aged American whose wife has recently committed suicide. Within minutes, they make love in the empty flat -- their temple of carnality, but with strict rules set by Paul. Bernardo Bertolucci's bizarre psychodrama depicts sex not as a union of two people, but a reflection of their alienation from each other. Brando is astonishing: watch closely, and you catch a glimpse of the fiery young man in a ripped tee-shirt, railing against the world's injustices, down but not out, and utterly, brilliantly alive. Sexy highlight: butter.

Body Heat (1981) -- Set in a humid Florida town, the ill-fated Ned Racine (William Hurt), a naive attorney gets ensnared by the alluring Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) -- first in a passionate affair, then in a scheme to murder her husband Edmund (Richard Crenna) and conceal their crime using his legal smarts. But murder, of course, is anything but simple. Recalling Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity and Postman, Lawrence Kasdan's directorial debut is still remembered for its sweat-drenched sex scenes. Hurt clicks as Ned, and Turner (in her first role) scorches the screen as a husky-voiced man-eater in the Lauren Bacall mold. Taut and titillating, Body Heat will raise your body temperature and your pulse. Sexy highlight: first sighting of the lady in a white dress.

The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (1988) -- Set prior to the Prague Spring in 1968, this sexually-charged drama concerns womanizing Czech surgeon Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis), who marries shy Tereza (Juliette Binoche), while continuing heated liasons with libertine Sabina (Lena Olin). Tomas hates politics, but must reassess his position, and philosophy of love, when the Soviets invade and start examining his past. Philip Kaufman's film about a doctor who wants to live without commitments was an art-house favorite, with its distinguished cast, including the phenomenal Day-Lewis and Binoche, intoxicating scenes of passionate coupling featuring the stunning Olin au naturel, and a tense setting all contributing to its potent effect. Today, Being remains a vivid rumination on eros and existence. Sexy highlight: Lena in the corset and bowler (hat).

Bound (1996) -- After locking eyes on an elevator, lesbian ex-con Corky ( Gina Gershon) and sultry moll Violet (Jennifer Tilly), who lives next to the apartment Corky's renovating, embark on a girl/girl tryst right under the nose of Violet's mobster boyfriend, Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). But things really heat up when the ladies scheme to steal $2 million and leave Caesar holding the bag. Before they wrote and directed The Matrix, the Wachowski brothers concocted this highly entertaining sex thriller-cum-mob caper. Gershon and Tilly heat up the screen with lusty, playful abandon. Pantoliano is also superb, and the script, tight and twisty. Sexy highlight: Corky and Vi play "spoons".

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) -- When their girlfriends leave for the summer, Mexican teens Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gabriel Garcia Bernal) gear up for some uninhibited fun. At a wedding, they meet spirited Luisa (Maribel Verdu), 10 years their senior. The boys invite her on a trip to a beach, thinking she'll decline. Surprise -- she accepts, and the threesome embark on a journey marked by sexual shenanigans and jealousy. Alfonso Cuaron's very human story is a guaranteed turn-on, not in its initial jarring scene of two young people having it at it full-throttle, but more as Luisa flirts and starts to get frisky with her two escorts. The film also portrays the class divide in Mexico, epitomized by the contretemps between upper-class Tenoch and the less-privileged Julio for Luisa's affections. Cuaron's Mama dazzles with terrific acting and a stirring storyline that's lighthearted, soulful, and red-hot. Sexy highlight: all three together.

Please let me know your own favorites. It's difficult to limit such a list to ten movies. I'm sure I could think of a few more myself. Instead, I think I'll take a cold shower.