Cinema's most pivotal gay sex scenes

As "The Kids are All Right's" refreshing love scene hits theaters, a look back at the hook-ups that got us there

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    ‘My Beautiful Laundrette,’ 1985

    There are too many good things to say about Stephen Frears’ 1985 love story set in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Gordon Warnecke’s Pakistani Omar and Daniel Day-Lewis’ thuggish Johnny should hate each other; Johnny’s pals did, after all, attack Omar, but the two men have an erotic history and can’t resist falling back into one another’s arms. Though perhaps too saccharine to be considered a “sexy” movie, “My Beautiful Laundrette” does offer viewers one particularly alluring scene of Warnecke and Day-Lewis getting vertical, and sweaty, in the titular laundrette’s backroom, where they swig champagne and snog for a remarkable two minutes before being interrupted by Omar’s uncle.The scene only shows waist-up action, but it’s not hard to imagine what’s going on below. “My Beautiful Laundrette’s” earnest treatment of race, sex and class turned fearsome gay sex into something far more complex, and admirable.

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    “Personal Best,” 1982

    Not many people have heard of “Personal Best,” and that’s a shame, because director Robert Towne, the man who wrote “Chinatown,” gave the world one of the first film examinations of bisexual love. Though there’s plenty of straight sex in “Best,” Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly steal the show as competing track stars who run into bed together. There’s loads of skin, and plenty of steam room action, but perhaps the most important scene was the most tame: the women arm-wrestling and Donnelly leaning in for a kiss with the defeated Hemingway, a tender showing of two women coming to terms with their latent sexualities. The film helped turn Mariel Hemingway into a lesbian icon, sparked the actress’ Playboy spread, and remains one of the most important, least recognized works in the lesbian cinematic canon.

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    “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” 1975

    Oh, Rocky! “Picture Show” qualifies as more queer than squarely gay. In case you don’t remember, the story revolves around young lovers Brad and Janet, played by the traditionally handsome Brad Bostwick and the quietly sumptuous Susan Sarandon, who want to celebrate their new engagement by visiting an old science professor. Yes, these people are pretty straight-edge. Well, they are until their car breaks down and they seek refuge in a nearby castle, where they meet Dr. Frank N. Furter, portrayed by Tim Curry. Frank N. Furter and his merry gang of hedonists enjoy gender-bending, free love and breaking boundaries, for good and ill. After sending the couple to separate quarters, the good doctor dresses as Janet, sneaks into Brad’s bed and begins his seduction. It doesn’t take long for Brad to see that his “fiancee” has some extra equipment. Shocked — and even appalled — at first, Brad ultimately gives himself over to pleasure. The action happens in shadow, behind a lace curtain — but the scene paved the way to the movie’s orgiastic climax, in which most of the main characters, three guys and two girls, cavort in a swimming pool. Though now a cult classic — and staple of midnight singalongs — one should never underestimate how sexually transgressive the movie was for its time.

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    “Brokeback Mountain,” 2005

    I’d be remiss not to include “Brokeback.” The Oscar-winning film, with A-list stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger and respected director Ang Lee at the helm, was pivotal in bringing gay male love into mainstream popular culture. Its pivotal sex scene is hard to forget: Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar and Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist are sheepherders on the mountain, sharing a tent; the sexual tension becomes too taut to bear, and, at one point, Ennis turns Twist over, spits in his hand, applies some pressure and the two have sex. The men’s moment isn’t particularly sexy or glamorous, nor do we see much skin, but it did go further than any other mainstream movie when it came to conveying gay male sex. Finally, anal sex was driving a love story, rather than being tossed in for simple gratuity, a gross-out moment or the impetus for a violent encounter. The cowboys’ love wasn’t simply carnal: It was a romance, and one that proved once and for all that gay men aren’t always in it for the happy ending.

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    “Bound,” 1996

    Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon let loose in their infamous sex scene in the Wachowski brothers’ “Bound.” To achieve a realistic quality, the Wachowskis brought in feminist and sex expert Susie Bright, who gave everyone points on how best to portray the girl-on-girl action. Always looking to satisfy, Bright sent the directors some old-school lesbian sex scenes, like one from Robert McCallum’s “3 A.M.,” and recommended that they focus on the subtext of the sex scene. “‘Bound’ is about getting inside someone very fast, trusting them with everything — these women had to be fucking each other,” Bright later wrote. “Penetration was the act we wanted to imply.” And implied it was: Who could forget Tilly on top of a writhing Gershon, her hand obscured by a sweaty thigh and each limb vibrating. It was scorchingly hot, and remarkably believable. As with “Brokeback,” “Bound” put gay sex in the context of a real romantic relationship, and helped set a new standard for same-sex cinematic love.

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    “Cruising,” 1980

    “Pivotal” doesn’t always mean “positive,” a fact made clear in the 1980 William Friedkin film “Cruising,” which stars Al Pacino as a New York police officer who goes undercover in the gay leather scene to catch a serial killer. Gay activists protested the movie from the get-go, and regularly disrupted production on a movie they feared would paint them in a negative, violent light. Friedkin ended up including a disclaimer, “This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world, which is not meant to be representative of the whole.” Still, there’s endless debate about whether the movie’s infamous fisting scene, among many others, crossed the line. Though not visually explicit, the scene itself is remarkably graphic for its time, and proves to be a turning point for Pacino’s characer, who goes further and further down the gay rabbit hole. Many people argue that Friedkin included the sex scenes intentionally to shock straight viewers, and perhaps did want to smear gay people by portraying them as a debaucherous, dangerous breed. Others celebrate it as an unapologetic look at New York’s pre-AIDS leather scene, or perhaps even as a warning. Regardless of where one stands on “Cruising,” this 30-year-old film still surprises, if for nothing else than its boldness.

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    “Mulholland Drive,” 2001

    Leave it to David Lynch to bring audiences one of the sexiest, most mind-boggling gay (ish) movies in recent memory. In case you’ve forgotten, Laura Elena Harring plays an amnesiac, Rita, who gets down with Betty, an aspiring actress played by Naomi Watts. It all begins as an innocent good-night kiss for the women, who are sleeping in the same bed, but rapidly evolves into both Watts and Harring bare-chested, and Harring asking, “Have you ever done this before?” Watts replies, “I want to do it with you. I’m in love with you.” And so they do. As with all things Lynch, the movie — and its lesbian content — are awfully hard to decipher. Are the women really who we think they are? Are they even really lesbians? Even Harring herself doesn’t know the latter, and once remarked, “I kiss her and then there’s just an energy that takes us. Of course I have amnesia so I don’t know if I’ve done it before, but I don’t think we’re really lesbians.”

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    “Threesome,” 1994

    While some of the entries on this list are known for their shock value, “Threesome” is distinguished by its honest, perhaps self-indulgent portrayal of three college kids, Lara Flynn Boyle, Stephen Baldwin and Josh Charles, whose convoluted attractions are realized in the titular M

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    “Wild Things,” 1998

    “Wild Things” sure was scandalous even before its release — and the excitement wasn’t over the movie’s murder scenes. The film’s hype revolved around Denise Richards and Neve Campbell lip-locking as part of a bisexual plotline (the film centered around two students accusing their teacher of rape for the sake of money). The women’s girl-on-girl show didn’t disappoint: Poisoned by greed, Campbell and Richards’ characters resort to catfighting in a pool, but, overcome by passion, and dripping wet, they end up making out, taking off their tops and having a regrettably short romp. No doubt writer Stephen Peters threw the scene in simply to bring in straight men, but it seemingly managed to ignite a new trend toward girl-on-girl kissing in mainstream movies: Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair would swap spit one year later in “Cruel Intentions.”