Love It or Hate It, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Is One of the Most Important Movies of the Year
Before he officially commences their affair, Christian Gray tells Anastasia Steele she must agree to two things. First, she must sign a non-disclosure agreement to ensure she will never discuss any of the things she says or does with him. “And the second thing?” Anastasia asks. “Come,” Christian replies, as he extends his hand and leads her through his apartment to the “playroom” where he keeps all his sexual toys.
At the Fifty Shades of Grey screening I attended earlier this week, the audience tittered at the double entendre. They did that a lot; pretty much any time someone in the film said something suggestive — or, even something incredibly blunt, like Christian’s assertion “I don’t make love. I f--- ... hard.” They chuckled at the early scene when he lists his hobbies (“I enjoy various physical pursuits”). They giggled when Christian helpfully pointed out the flogger among the many racks of leather whips and chains. And I’ve never heard more people audibly shift in their seats simultaneously as the moment when Ana and Christian negotiate the terms of their sex contract (What? You don’t make sex contracts?) and she asks him to explain butt plugs.
These reactions caught me off guard. Surely the predominantly young and female audience knew what they were getting into with this adaptation of E.L. James’ notoriously risqué romance novel. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott noted the reaction as well, and mentioned it in his review of the film:
The source of that laughter continues to puzzle and intrigue me, perhaps more than the actual movie did. Was it delight? Derision? Embarrassment? Surprise? All of the above? ... I’m no expert, but I can venture a guess: for fun. They seem to be the kind of books you can simultaneously have fun with, make fun of, trash and cherish and adapt to the pursuit of your own pleasures.
Scott’s theory sounds valid, but listening to the men and women around me audibly gasp at each flogging and glimpse of Jamie Dornan’s peen suggested an alternate possibility: genuine and sincere shock. Not that Fifty Shades’ content is all that shocking in the grand scheme of things; the sex scenes are pretty tame even by the standards of softcore pornography. Compared with the content in Basic Instinct or its legion of sleazy erotic thriller ripoffs 20 years ago, it’s practically wholesome. But that’s part of the reason Fifty Shades is important: Hollywood has grown so prudish — if not downright puritanical — in recent years that moviegoers are now genuinely stunned to see sex on the big screen in any form or context at all. That’s why, love it or hate it (and I certainly wasn’t a big fan), Fifty Shades of Grey is an important film — maybe the most important film Hollywood will release in 2015.
Before Fifty Shades, what was the last Hollywood movie about two people frankly discussing their sex lives? The only recent ones I can think of are Seth Rogen comedies, so what was the last one that approached the topic seriously? Or the last that didn’t just use the tease of it as a means to juice its box office returns? Hell, what was the last Hollywood movie that didn’t involve at least one superhero, robot, explosion, car chase, Liam Neeson, or Liam Neeson playing a robot superhero who gets into lots of explosive car chases? By and large, Hollywood circa 2015 is about as sexual as a freshly neutered puppy. Compared to the stuff the American film industry releases every other weekend of the year, Fifty Shades of Grey is practically Salo.
Time Out recently compiled a list of the “100 Best Sex Scenes of All Time,” and the lack of big Hollywood productions was noticeable and alarming. Of those 100 movies, just three were distributed by a major American studio in the last ten years, and just one — 2005’s Brokeback Mountain — received wide release on more than 500 screens around the country. If you’re spending a Friday night at the multiplex, you’re more likely to see a man fly than engage in any form of healthy sexual activity. Many, many times more likely.
Nothing in Fifty Shades of Grey is worthy of inclusion on Time Out’s list. That is a shame, and almost completely irrelevant. That the film exists at all, and that it’s opening on over 3,600 screens around the country, where it’s expected to gross $60 million in one weekend — almost as much as the last Liam Neeson (non-robot) superhero movie earned in its entire theatrical run — is huge. Hollywood follows the money, and if Fifty Shades of Grey is a hit, the studios will make more films like it; sequels first, but then others of a similar ilk. Many will be terrible, but some could be great. Even at their worst, they’ll still be something different than the endless stream of CGI-heavy action pictures that have become not only Hollywood’s bread and butter but every item on their menu. Imagine eating at a restaurant that only served prime rib. Prime rib appetizers, prime rib entrée, prime rib ice cream for dessert. If you’re not in the mood for beef, you’re flat out of luck.
Don’t get me wrong, I love superheroes (and prime rib). But I don’t just love those movies. Every once in a while, I dig a nice plate of pasta too. It seems like the American film industry is increasingly content to cede all forms of adult storytelling to television (where shows like The Americans use sexuality as a way to tell stories and build characters) and to focus entirely on superheroic spectacle. And, sure, they’re very good at that. But as those giggles and titters during Fifty Shades of Grey indicated, movies have a unique power to thrill and provoke — and that power is largely going to waste. Even at its worst, Fifty Shades is a reminder of that power, to audiences who’ve forgotten what it feels like and to producers who’ve chosen not to exploit it. For frank, open, sex-positive movies in Hollywood, it’s a foot in the door (if not some other body part).