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James Franco and Shia LaBeouf Flirt with Triple-X, But Do They Really Score?

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SHIA LABEOUF
Joel Ryan/Invision/AP

We're talking erections, penetration and ejaculation here. The big EPE, as it's known in the trade, is what turns an X-rated movie into triple-X fare. A few mainstream movies in recent months have begun to bridge the gap to offer hard-core moments in pictures that aren't considered pornographic.

Lars von Triers' Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1" just opened, but it's preceded by the LGBT-themed Stranger by the Lake, Blue Is the Warmest Color and Interior. Leather Bar.

Frankly, and I have to deliver a Spoiler Alert here, Nymphomaniac doesn't really delver into the triple-X until its last few minutes when star Shia LaBeouf is seen having sex with actress Stacy Martin's body double. Before making the film, LaBeouf claimed, "I'll have sex for real in Nymphomaniac."

Actually, he didn't. That shot of his erection going into costar Martin's body double is actually the penis of LaBeouf's body double, the star's face digitally placed over the face of the real sex performer. There are also some other incidents of penetration -- of the tongue-into-vagina variety -- but Martin has said in interviews that it's not her body, but rather the aforementioned body double. Also, her fellating a guy on the train involved not a real penis, but a kind of plastic lollipop, so to speak.

Body doubles were also used for the close-ups of erections and ejaculation in Alain Guiraudie's excellent Stranger by the Lake. But at least there's nothing plastic about it. And no doubt there's some real penetration going on between Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos in Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color. While lesbians have claimed the sex between the two hetero actresses is not authentic, critics have praised the French-language film. I'll take the lesbians' word for it on this one.

The erections, not to mention the semen, are definitely real in James Franco's Interior. Leather Bar, which attempts to imagine and reconstruct some footage cut from William Friedkin's 1979 film, Cruising. Interior. Leather Bar. is actually a documentary that re-creates the filming of those lost scenes and how difficult it is for straight actors, even nowadays, to play gay or perform a same-sex kiss or, for that matter, even watch gay sex. Franco draws the line at straight male actors actually doing it together. The triple-X material in Interior is performed by two gay actors who claim to be partners in real life. Whew, that makes it all right! And after these two guys do it, the straight actors get to lie on-camera to tell them they're such an amazingly great couple. Did Franco just ejaculate the word "patronizing"?

This moment in cinema history should have arrived decades ago, and almost did in the early 1970s after the back-to-back releases of A Clockwork Orange, Carnal Knowledge, Last Tango in Paris and Deep Throat, which had pundits predicting that major studios would start putting triple-X material into films featuring stars. Terry Southern of Candy and Dr. Strangelove fame even wrote a novel on the subject, Blue Movie, which Ringo Starr optioned and Mike Nichols, reportedly, showed some interest in directing. Then the deal unraveled. Southern wrote to Warners studio head John Calley, pleading that they not miss this opportunity to make "the porn to end all porn." It didn't depend on Nichols, in Southern's opinion. "What about Stanley? Or Coppola?" he pleaded. But Kubrick and Coppola were also suddenly not interested.

Even before the New York Times coined the term "porno chic" to describe the phenomenon of Johnny Carson, Truman Capote, Mike Nichols and housewives from Jersey going to see Deep Throat at a grungy 42nd Street, Melvin Van Peebles had performed un-simulated sex in his 1971 film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, in order to keep costs down. Union officials visited his set, and when they saw him shooting porn, they let him use non-union labor.

But shortly after Deep Throat and Last Tango tore up the box office ($45 million for Tango, over $600 million for Throat in 1970s dollars), the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled that Nichols's film Carnal Knowledge was obscene, and banned it. Then FBI agents in New York City arrested Deep Throat star Harry Reems on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute obscenity across state lines. The Carnal Knowledge decision went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before it was overturned, and Reems's conviction was later overturned after Hollywood donors ponied up to pay his legal fees. As Nichols recalled, "I found myself at all these fundraisers with that actor with the big dick."

No one in Hollywood saw the advantage of being the next sex martyr.

Except Gore Vidal.

Undaunted by the memory of having his Myra Breckinridge ruined by Twentieth Century Fox, Vidal continued to believe in his long-gestating screenplay about anarchic politics, insane extravagances and the sexual shenanigans of an ancient Roman ruler named Caligula. Since no motion picture studio -- major or minor -- would touch his script, Vidal found a complete film novice to produce it: Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse.

Gore Vidal's Caligula (that's the original title before the author had his name removed in exchange for forfeiting his profit points) delivered what Southern's Blue Movie novel had envisioned almost a decade earlier: graphic sex in a big-budget X-rated movie featuring major stars. With one caveat: Caligula's famous cast (Malcolm McDowell, Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud and Helen Mirren) left the full-penetration and ejaculation shots to anonymous extras. But it was porn nonetheless, a total embarrassment, and, worst of all, it lost money, despite Guccione's protestations to the contrary. Caligula buried the concept that graphic sex and art could successfully coexist in the movies, as well as turn a profit.

Here's hoping that Hollywood gives triple-X another shot.

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Robert Hofler is author of the new book Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos, published by It Books/HarperCollins. He also writes theater reviews for TheWrap.