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Hollywood sex and violence: we've seen it all before.

Those who claim today's films dwell too much on life's darker side obviously haven't watched any old movies lately.

"They don't make movies like they used to" has been the clarion call of close-minded critics throughout the century. Consider the following well-known and well-received features that have illuminated the silver screen over the last 10 decades:

* A gang of masked desperados hold up a train with guns blazing. A posse then hunts down the bandits and wipes them out in the first classic western gunfight scene ever captured on film. This movie will serve as the prototype "good guys always get the bad guys" for years to come (Edwin S. Porter's "The Great Train Robbery," 1903).

* The epic story of the Civil War and Reconstruction is told in the most politically incorrect manner imaginable. The Ku Klux Klan is glorified as the protector of beleaguered white womanhood, and blacks are portrayed as subhuman, bestial darkies complete with all the familiar stereotypes: a shuffling gait, large white teeth, and rolling eyes (D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," 1915).

* This heavy-breathing silent melodrama has one of the world's most famous actresses playing an alluring femme fatale who ends up as an impoverished Parisian prostitute (Greta Garbo in 1926's "The Temptress").

* A mad scientist obsessed with immortality takes to grave-robbing so he can build a man from dead body parts. His experiment works, but the creature accidently is given a "criminal" brain. The monster goes on a murder spree throughout the countryside before finally being destroyed - or so everyone thinks (Boris Karloff in 1931's "Frankenstein").

* A drifter gets a job at a roadside restaurant and commits adultery with the young, beautiful wife of his fat, middle-aged immigrant boss. The lovers eventually kill the husband, but beat the rap, only to have her die in a car accident and him sent to the electric chair for murdering her - although he didn't (John Garfield and Lana Turner in 1946's "The Postman Always Rings Twice").

* A Hollywood director discovers a talented dancer in a Spanish cafe. She becomes an internationally acclaimed movie star who goes through a succession of lovers before marrying a nobleman who fails to tell her he was rendered impotent in a war-related injury. She cheats on him, gets pregnant, and eventually is shot to death by her no-good spouse (Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner in 1954's "The Barefoot Contessa").

* A secretary steals a bundle of cash from the company where she works. While making her getaway, she stops at a motel run by a psychopath who never accepted his mother's death. The secretary is stabbed to death in the shower by the motel clerk (dressed as his mom) in one of the most famous murder scenes in cinema history (Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins in the 1960 Hitchcock thriller, "Psycho").

* A group of screwball, but enormously talented doctors try to keep their sanity amidst the ravages of the Korean War. There is plenty of drinking, sex, comedy, and, of course, blood and guts (Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould in 1970's "M*A*S*H").

* In what has to be the most brutally graphic boxing film ever made, the life of former middleweight champion Jake La Motta is detailed from a very personal perspective. The language - but especially the fight scenes - will make even the most hardened viewer wilt (Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci in 1980's "Raging Bull").

* The old West is revisited in this Academy Award-winning effort when a Civil War hero comes to sympathize with the Indian way of life, but the cold-blooded US. Cavalry would rather massacre the Native Americans than coexist with them (Kevin Costner in 1991's "Dances with Wolves").

Now if all that is trash, it sure goes back a long way. Why be shocked by movies? Art indeed imitates life. Doubters are instructed to pick up any newspaper or listen to any nightly news broadcast for the fodder that leads to tomorrow's big blockbuster.

Are the ruthless drug dealers of the 1990s that much different from the rum-running gangsters of the 1930s? Are the coke-snorting bimbos of the 1980s that much different from the drunken floozies of the Roaring Twenties? Are the cigar-chomping politicians and big-bellied capitalists of the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" era that much different from the corruption-plagued government officials and double-dealing corporate raiders of the "Wall Street" regime? Are the recession-racked 1990s that much different from the Depression-saddled 1930s? Have the horrors of armed conflict - and the cinematic tributes they engender - become any more palatable through World Wars I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Cold War, Operation Desert Storm, or what's going on right now in Somalia and Bosnia?

"Oh sure," the nostalgic romantics will say, "but in the old days, movie violence wasn't so graphic and gratuitous, and neither was the sex. So much used to be left to the imagination. " Not so. In the 1920s, actress Hedy Lamarr was shown frolicking nude in the film "Ecstasy" - and there was no tall grass hiding anything. Moreover, silent screen siren Clara Bow wasn't called the "It" girl because of her refined manners.

During Hollywood's Golden Age of the 1930s came the birth of the blonde bombshell. Clara Bow's "It" soon would be replaced by a succession of sex goddesses from Jean Harlow to Joan Crawford, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Carole Lombard. The Depression may have been ravaging America at the time, but the uplifting - and revealing - outfits and dialogue of the 1930s' cinema were quite explicit. In the movies, as in real life, gangsters terrorized the country, and their gumchewing, quick-tongued, easily bedded molls were the envy of many an ordinary Joe. Some family entertainment. Eventually, the rigid Hays Code clamped down on the fun, and movies lost some of their "earthy" quality.

Hollywood retained its murky side through the 1940s, however, thanks to film noir - those shady detective mysteries filled with murder, intrigue, and, of course, beautiful dames. The movie industry muddled through the 1950s and early 1960s on the strength of wide-screen epics. To survive, though, Hollywood went "back to the future," so to speak. The gritty realism of the 1930s had to be re-invented so that filmmakers could tackle stronger themes than viewers enjoyed on TV, and in a more candid fashion. Enter Jack Valenti. Named president of the Motion Picture Association in 1966, Valenti was instrumental in the creation of the ratings system (G, PG, PG-13, R, X) that still is in use today, 25 years after its debut, though NC-17 replaced X a few years ago to differentiate commercial films from blatant pornographic movies. This neutralized community censorship and maximized Hollywood profits by keeping patrons happy and movies out of court. A succession of ground-breaking classics followed in which the unthinkable was flickering larger-than-life in theaters all across America.

"Soon," wrote Newsday's Jack Mathews, "the board members were viewing public nudity in the documentar[y] |Woodstock' ..., staged public nudity in |Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,' public copulation in |Zabriskie Point' and something you don't often see in a major studio movie, a male lead (Jon Voight) being fellated by another man in |Midnight Cowboy.' ... Members of the movie-ratings board saw real people die in Vietnam (|Hearts and Minds') and at rock concerts (|Gimme Shelter'). They saw sex simulated by major stars (in too many movies to count), performed by professionals (in art-house porn movies), and imagined by animators (in |Fritz the Cat'). ... They saw intestines spill out of a soldier's belly (|Catch-22'), a head explode like a ripe melon (|Scanners') and a gang stomp an elderly man and rape his wife while crooning |Singin' in the Rain' (|A Clockwork Orange').... Americans were deciding for themselves how much was too much, and market-sensitive Hollywood was finding little resistance out there. Only a handful of films - Mike Nichols' |Carnal Knowledge,' Peter Bogdanovich's |The Last Picture Show,' William Friedkin's |The Exorcist,' and Bertolucci's |Last Tango [in Paris]' - were taken to court by local officials, and they all won their cases."

The price of artistic

freedom

Freedom - and exploitation - comes with a price: The vigilante movies, the slasher pictures, even the Amy Fisher made-for-TV epics, are inevitable. And if you don't like these trademarks of American culture, just don't watch them. The trouble is, there's so much to like, whether it be reel to reel or animation. The old-time classic cartoons - "Bugs Bunny," "The Roadrunner," "Bullwinkle," "Tom and Jerry" - are rife with violence; some contain adult humor. Yet, they remain cinematic treasures, as the creations of modern animators. Setting aside today's politically correct cartoon fare on Saturday mornings, there are the irreplaceable "Simpsons" (and its brilliantly bloody offshoot, "The Itchy and Scratchy Show"), "The Ren and Stimpy Show," and "Rug Rats."

Also be aware that Disney's contemporary animation efforts ("Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid") as well as its past features ("101 Dalmations," "Cinderella," "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs") deal with death, deceit, damnation, misogyny, bestiality, etc.

Maybe modern technology is to blame for all the uproar. Watching James Cagney, or Humphrey Bogart wiped out by a tommy gun certainly is less graphic than, say, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty meeting their end in " Bonnie and Clyde, " which in turn is tame compared to many of the shootout scenes in the "Godfather" series. When John Wayne or Tyrone Power died in an old war movie, audiences didn't have to turn away their heads the way they might if viewing "Apocalypse Now" or "Platoon." And surely, no one is about to claim that the hilarious hijinks of the Bowery Boys (who, after all, were a street gang) are anywhere near as disturbing as "Colors," with cops Robert Duvall and Sean Penn battling Los Angeles teen gangs.

Still, how much has changed - really? Dicey scenes previously deleted to allow a movie to earn an R" rating have been reinstated for the home rental video market. Then there is the couple next door making their own sex video, and you can buy or rent it, often at the same place that displays "Mary Poppins" and "The Sound of Music." Is there truly a discernible difference between that practice and yesterday's stag films? Years ago, guys fantasized about Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe. Today, men lust for Sharon Stone and Madonna. Tomorrow, there will be somebody else. So what?

Art, as always, retains the power to evoke passion. For all their wonderful movies and touching love scenes, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon's most stirring onscreen sexual encounter may have been with each other in 1983's "The Hunger," a film that pays little heed to the 1931 Bela Lugosi "Dracula" and instead gives a lesbian twist to the ancient vampire theme.

So next time the prudish critics of contemporary cinema scream that the sky is falling, just recite the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" - and don't forget the climax where the beast shreds and devours the young shepherd - coming soon to a theater near you.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Advancement of Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Barrett, Wayne M.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:1830
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