"Genuinely oversexed": How "Carnal Knowledge," "Deep Throat" and '70s rebels led to "Wolf of Wall Street"

Judges didn't understand orgasms, and the New Yorker said no. But these pop revolutionaries pushed ahead anyway


Robert Hofler
February 16, 2014 1:00AM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange -- How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos"

If the 1980s were greedy and the 1920s actually roared, then the 1970s were genuinely oversexed. Movie-wise, it was true. The decade kicked off with a number of films that rocked the moral status quo, titles like “A Clockwork Orange,” “Performance,” “Last Tango in Paris,” “The Devils,” “Fritz the Cat,” “Straw Dogs,” “Carnal Knowledge” and, yes, the infamous “Deep Throat.” Love them or loathe them, those films opened several cinematic doors regarding nudity and language that led the way for such recent award-winning films as “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” as well as the upcoming “Nymphomaniac.”

Anthony Burgess, author of “A Clockwork Orange,” harbored doubts about Stanley Kubrick’s screen adaptation of his 1962 novel. Despite having much admired the director’s “Dr. Strangelove” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Burgess was not a fan of Kubrick’s “Lolita,” and he feared what would happen to his “A Clockwork Orange” novel when all the sex and violence had to be visualized on the big screen. “‘Lolita’ could not work well,” Burgess had written, “because Kubrick had found no cinematic equivalent to Nabokov’s literary extravagance. Nabokov’s script, I knew, had been rejected; all the scripts for ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ above all my own, had been rejected too, and I feared that the cutting to the narrative bone which harmed the filmed ‘Lolita’ would turn the filmed ‘A Clockwork Orange’ into a complimentary pornograph.”

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Initially, Burgess liked what he saw – or, at least, he said he liked what he saw – when Kubrick eventually deigned to meet and give him a private screening of the completed film in autumn 1971. Burgess didn’t hold it against the film when his wife, repulsed by its choreographed sex and violence, asked to leave the screening room after a mere ten minutes. Initially, he even managed to tell the press, “This is one of the great books that has been made into a great film.”

Maybe he meant what he said. Or maybe he simply wanted to persuade Kubrick to direct his screenplay “Napoleon Symphony.” In the following weeks, Burgess would radically reassess his opinion of “A Clockwork Orange” the movie.

In January 1972, Burgess even consented to join McDowell for a one-week publicity tour of New York City to promote the film. The travel-phobic Kubrick remained behind in England, “controlling everything,” said McDowell. The two men’s press day began with a limousine pickup, which invariably kicked off with Burgess asking McDowell, “Have you shit today?” McDowell told him yes, at which Burgess launched into a scatological dissertation until their first interview of the morning. That was Monday.

By Wednesday, however, McDowell noticed a distinct change in his publicity date’s attitude toward Kubrick and the film. “Burgess realized he’d been cheated because he wasn’t paid anything for ‘A Clockwork Orange’,” said the actor. Years earlier, Burgess had sold the film rights “for a few hundred dollars,” he groused. Regardless of how the film version performed at the box office, Burgess would see no profit points. Worse, “Kubrick went on paring his nails in Borehamwood,” complained Burgess, leaving the publicity chores to McDowell and the novelist, who was even called upon to attend the New York Film Critics’ Circle Awards on Kubrick’s behalf. There at Sardi’s restaurant, Burgess got his revenge, since he quickly won the hearts and laughter of the assembled film reviewers when he declared, “I have been sent by God – Stanley Kubrick – to accept his award!”

It had been, by all accounts, a very rough few days of interviews for Burgess and McDowell. On the “Today” show, Barbara Walters took yet another ride on her moral high horse and attacked the film’s graphic sex and violence. Four teenagers had recently raped a nun in Poughkeepsie, New York, and it was inaccurately reported that they were dressed à la the droogs. Unbeknownst to Walters, the Poughkeepsie culprits hadn’t even seen “A Clockwork Orange.” Burgess recalled, “I was not quite sure what I was defending – the book that had been called ‘a nasty little shock’ or the film about which Kubrick remained silent. I realized, not for the first time, how little impact even a shocking book can make in comparison with a film. Kubrick’s achievement swallowed mine, whole, and yet I was responsible for what some called its malign influence on the young.”

Even so, he defended the film, the novel, and himself. In between interviews, he wrote a defense of the film: “Neither cinema nor literature can be blamed for original sin. A man who kills his uncle cannot justifiably blame a performance of ‘Hamlet.’ On the other hand, if literature is to be held responsible for mayhem and murder, then the most damnable book of them all is the Bible, the most vindictive piece of literature in existence.”

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From England, Kubrick said pretty much the same thing when the MPAA and the BBFC gave the film their respective X ratings, which in America had provoked a boycott. The one-two punch of “A Clockwork Orange” and “Straw Dogs,” which later cut a few seconds of footage to be reclassified R, alarmed several newspaper editors, who instituted a policy of refusing to carry advertisements for X-rated films. The “Detroit News” declared, “In our view, a sick motion picture industry is using pornography and an appeal to prurience to bolster theater attendance: quite simply, we do not want to assist them in the process.”

Kubrick wrote back, quoting Adolf Hitler’s response to a Munich art exhibition in 1937: “Works of art which cannot be understood and need a set of instructions to justify their existence, and which find their way to neurotics receptive to such harmful rubbish, will no longer reach the public. Let us have no illusions: we have set out to rid the nation and our people of all those influences threatening its existence and character.”

The Bible and Hitler. Burgess and Kubrick didn’t shy away from the big targets.

That January, Bernardo Bertolucci was having his own problems just trying to shoot United Artists’s “Last Tango in Paris,” much less release it. For one thing, his star’s first nude scene in the film hit a nearly freezing wall of resistance. When the director asked Marlon Brando to take off his clothes, Brando took off his clothes. “But it was such a cold day that my penis shrank to the size of a peanut,” the actor reported. “It simply withered.”

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Instead of turning up the thermostat, Bertolucci let his star suffer. Brando confessed, “I asked Bernardo to be patient and told the crew that I wasn’t giving up. But after an hour I could tell from their faces that they had given up on me.”

Bertolucci, for his part, wanted Brando to go all the way. “The sexual scenes as Bertolucci described them were even more candid than in the actual film,” said David Chasman, head of United Artists in London. “He didn’t talk about butt-fucking, but he conveyed that it would be very explicit. From what he said, I thought we were going to get a look at Brando’s balls.”

Indeed, the director’s original vision was to have his two actors, Brando and Maria Schneider, perform, not simulate, sexual intercourse. “Bernardo wanted me to fuck Maria,” said Brando. “But I told him that was impossible. If that happens, our sex organs become the centerpiece of the film. He didn’t agree with me.”

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Ultimately, the director did insist that Brando get naked, even if there wouldn’t be any full-frontal shots. Traumatized, Brando confided his nudity phobia to his longtime secretary. Alice Marchak gave him a very sympathetic ear; she deplored the sexual explicitness of the “Last Tango” script and advised her boss to leave the project. “I can’t,” Brando replied. “The picture is half-done. They’ll sue for millions.”

Maria Schneider could only laugh at Brando’s reluctance, and she often rolled her eyes at his habit of disrobing behind drawn curtains. But her nonchalance was tested when it came to the soon-to-be infamous sodomy scene. It was not in the original script. Brando conceived it over café au laits with Bertolucci when the two men were having a script consultation at a café near the Arc de Triomphe. The director embellished on the idea, giving it a novel twist: The lubricant would be a stick of butter than Brando grabs just before entry.

Schneider claimed not to have been told about the buttery sodomy scene—until they shot it. “And I was so angry,” she later said. “I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can’t force somebody to do something that isn’t in the script, but at the time, I didn’t know that.”

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At the time, Brando tried to calm her. “Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie,” he said.

But when they acted the scene, which was simulated, “I was crying real tears,” said Schneider. “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Brando and by Bertolucci.”

The year’s other most controversial film began shooting almost to the day that production started on “Last Tango.” But it was an ocean away, in Florida, and no one in Hollywood had heard of its director, Gerard Damiano, or its star, Linda Lovelace. And less than six months after principal photography had completed, “Deep Throat” opened in Times Square at the New World theater on June 12, 1972.

The theater took in thirty-three thousand dollars in the movie’s first week. A manager at the New World thought he could improve those phenomenal grosses by charging three dollars instead of five, but soon learned that aficionados of hard-core think they’re getting soft-core if the admission isn’t at least twice that of a normal movie. “Deep Throat” soon cost five dollars a pop again, and the box office bonanza continued.  And it wasn’t just dirty old men paying five dollars. Gossip columnists began giving tallies of the many celebs who came to West 42nd Street to see “Deep Throat,” whether it be Johnny Carson, Sandy Dennis, Ben Gazzara, or Jack Nicholson. “Mike Nichols told me I just had to see it!” said Truman Capote, who deemed Linda Lovelace “charming.”

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Pauline Kael wanted to review “Deep Throat” for “The New Yorker.” She’d paid to see the film with her friend Charles Simmons, an editor at the “New York Times Book Review,” who told her he’d never seen a porn film before. “You lost your cherry on a good one,” Kael told him. Her good opinion of “Deep Throat,” however, never made it into print. The prudish editor-in-chief William Shawn refused to have pornography reviewed in his magazine.

Then the NYPD raided “Deep Throat,” and Criminal Court Judge Ernst Rosenberger had the film seized on August 18. It was all part of Mayor John Lindsay’s  “Clean Up Times Square” campaign. But since the good judge had failed to give the theater owner a hearing, “Deep Throat” quickly returned home to the New World, where its fame only grew, fueled by reports like the one in “New York” magazine, which held forth that “the whole issue is now before the United States Supreme Court, which must decide whether a judge alone can see a film and decide it is obscene without giving the theater owner a hearing.”

No, said the Supreme Court, giving thousands of other moviegoers time to jam the New World to make up their own mind before the case moved to that higher court. The brouhaha played into United Artists’ unusual release of its new sex-saturated film. As critic Andrew Sarris observed, “Adding to the [‘Deep Throat’]  ferment was the almost simultaneous furor around Bernardo Bertolucci’s ‘Last Tango in Paris’ in which Marlon Brando simulated forcing a buttery substance down the anus of the writing Maria Schneider.”

UA’s president, David Picker, knew he couldn’t open a film like “Last Tango” in Italy, Bertolucci’s home country, where it would almost certainly run into censorship problems. Instead, the studio decided to brand “Last Tango” as an “art film” by holding just one screening at the prestigious New York Film Festival on October 14. It was there that Andrew Sarris sat a few rows behind Pauline Kael. “I could hear her gasping—in shock or ecstasy. I couldn’t tell,” he reported. Bertolucci fans yelled bravo, prudes left in a huff, and Kael let everyone within earshot know that she’d just witnessed a movie “breakthrough.”

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The film did suffer a legal scare in Bologna, Italy, but Bertolucci, Brando and Schneider were ultimately acquitted of obscenity charges. That court case, however, delayed the official New York City opening until February 1, 1973, at which time everybody had an opinion about “Last Tango.” Besides Kael’s rave in “The New Yorker,” William F. Buckley and Harry Reasoner condemned the film as being pornography without their having actually seen it. Norman Mailer thought the film didn’t go far enough, offering, “Brando’s cock up Schneider’s real vagina would have brought the history of cinema one huge march closer to the ultimate experience it has promised since its inception—that is, to embody life.”

There were also rumors that Bertolucci had originally conceived the film as a love story between two men; no less a movie personage than Ingmar Bergman gave those stories oxygen when he speculated that Bertolucci “got worried about taboos” and so turned “Last Tango” into a hetero love story. “There is much hatred of women in this film, but if you see it as being about a man who loves a boy, you can understand it,” opined the Swede.

Same sex or different sex, “Last Tango” did very well for its participants. It cost $1.4 million and grossed more than $45 million, with Brando’s taking being about $4 million.

Finally, “Deep Throat” also got its day—ten days, to be exact—in court that winter. The prosecutor, William Purcell, argued that the film had no social redeeming value. The defense, Herbert Kassner, argued, “It indicates that women have the right to a sex life.”

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On the contrary, Purcell countered: “Deep Throat” could be injurious to a person’s health, especially if that person happened to be female. “A woman seeing this film may think that it is perfectly healthy, perfectly moral to have a clitoral orgasm that is all she needs. She is wrong. She is wrong. And this film will strengthen her in her ignorance,” Purcell said with a straight face.

The words “clitoral orgasm” baffled the judge for the simple reason that the Honorable Joel J. Tyler had never heard of such a thing. Not a good sign for the defense. Judge Tyler then mulled over more than one thousand pages of expert testimony regarding “Deep Throat” before he ruled, “This is one throat that deserves to be cut.”

The next day, the New World theater, fined for $3 million, put up a few new letters on its marquee: “Judge Cuts Throat, World Mourns.”

From the book "Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange -- How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All The Taboos" by Robert Hofler. Copyright 2014 by Robert Hofler. Reprinted by permission of It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Robert Hofler

Robert Hofler is the author of "Money, Murder and Dominick Dunne: A Life In Several Acts" (April 18, 2017; University of Wisconsin Press); "Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos" (2014); "Party Animals" (2010); "The Movie That Change My Life: 120 Celebrities Pick the Films that Made a Difference (for Better or Worse)" (2009); and "The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson" (2005). Hofler has served as entertainment editor at Life, executive editor at Us, managing editor at Buzz, and a senior editor and theater reporter at Variety. He’s currently the lead theater critic at The Wrap. He lives in New York City.

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