We needed signed permission slips from our parents for the field-trip screening of Franco Zeffirelli’s "Romeo and Juliet" in 1976 – all that potentially traumatizing passion, after all. My friends and I were dying to go; we’d read the play in our 7th grade Drama class, our teacher emoting the text for us, offering an exegesis of Queen Mab’s dream and the more arcane metaphors, but really, it was all about the poster: two naked teenagers gazing affectionately at each other in rumpled sheets, unencumbered by any literary or historical context. And rumor had it there was (more) nudity and sex in the movie, this was Shakespeare made really hot, and that guy playing Romeo looked really cute. And he was, that tousle-haired Leonard Whiting, in his Renaissance Faire tights and blousy shirt. Olivia Hussey was a total babe as Juliet, too, all rosebud mouth and wide-set olive eyes, a river of silken black hair; at seventeen and fifteen, they were an improvement – and a controversial one – on the thirty- or forty-something Romeos and Juliets of film versions past, the appropriately seasoned Norma Shearers and Leslie Howards, who, to our eyes, made passion look so boringly, uninterestingly adult: an old-movie, ancient-history, irrelevant kind of love.
But now, on a Saturday afternoon with my classmates at the Nuart Theatre for this educational screening of the most recent incarnation of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, Leonard and Olivia, in their wide-screen, English-accented glory, are far far beyond cute; their beauty is unearthly, gasp-inducing, almost painful to look at. And their physical desire for each other is revelatory; we were expecting a love story, sure, but are surprised to feel the awakening of our own nascent, adolescent lust.
I have a rudimentary understanding of the biological basics of sex and reproduction, of course; when I was six or seven my mother read through the unprurient "How Babies Are Made" book with me, chapters sequencing in greater sophistication from flowers to chickens to dogs to humans, all illustrated with cartoony paper cutouts; I understand, in theory, about the egg-and-seed workings of fertilization, that Penis A inserts into Vagina B. By now I have been taken to the occasional movie rated R for sexual content, watched late-night TV soap operas, and cringed my eyes away from the gross sex scenes – who wants to see grown-ups behaving like that? And I am, at twelve, a veteran of playtime doctor’s appointments with pantsless and hairless neighborhood boys, of bottle-spinning kissy games and those awkward and giggly few minutes “in Heaven” at lights-out rumpus room parties, everyone’s nervous breath both sweetened and soured by candy and punch, many of us secretly hoping indignant parents would snap on the lights and put a stop to all that fun. I have discovered the hand-held shower massager and the perfectly-placed Jacuzzi jet in our pool, and my own clever, dexterous fingers, although these early explorations, while successful, were blank-minded and unimaginative – I didn’t yet have a bank of visual imagery to draw on, could only rely on the instinctive, if uninspired, physio...
But I have never really experienced, or even seen, true adolescent arousal before – and now, watching this Romeo and Juliet’s unhinged passion, I am aroused, too, to see these dewy-skinned children feeling a mutual lust, seeking out sex. They fling themselves at each other, they pant and heave and moan with longing, and my popcorn breath is quickening, too. Watching these turned-on sixteenth-century teens, I am made dizzy by a sudden flushing heat. I am both stimulated and a little embarrassed; I glance at my friend Marie – is she feeling this, too? This curious, enflaming, quivering thing?
But there is no actual sex. Spotting each other at the Capulet’s masked ball, Romeo and Juliet briefly touch their virginal lips: “Then have my lips the sin that they have took?” she asks. “O, trespass sweetly urged,” he says, “Give me my sin again!” If this is sin, they, and we, couldn’t care less – and how could anything these rhapsodically beautiful creatures do together be a sin? Passion ignited, they continue making out until interruption by that busybody Nurse. In the balcony scene, piqued by the danger they risk, they kiss full-mouthed and ravenously, as if to swallow each other whole. Their shared desire is consuming, and so is mine; by now I am past the initial shock of their exquisiteness and am impatiently, breathlessly awaiting something more. Oh, wouldst thou leave me so unsatisfied? For perhaps the first time I realize the story of sexual love does not end with a kiss, as all those G-rated fairy tale romances with their chaste, happy-ending pecks wanted me to believe; it only begins with one.
And finally, finally, what we have been waiting the whole movie to see, what our parents signed those permission slips for: a sleeping Romeo, lying face down but breathtakingly peach-skin naked, draped across a sleeping Juliet, whose long hair is arranged artfully across her uncovered, surprisingly full breasts – is that a nipple? I am hoping so; I am as hungry to see Juliet’s naked flesh as I am to see Romeo’s; give me my sin again. Yesterday they secretly married, last night was the wedding night, but Zeffirelli has passed over depicting an off-text deflowering consummation in favor of this quiet morning-after scene, which is simultaneously less frightening, thanks to the absence of any penetrative explicitness, and more astonishing, more disconcertingly alluring in its intimacy; they have shared a vow, have shared a bed, are sharing breath, bodies, and hearts, are fully naked together in the full creamy light of a Verona dawn, and that experience has until now been unimaginable to me. Romeo stands, strolls to the window, and I am overwhelmed by the perfection of his unself-conscious, rear-view nudity. Juliet pulls the sheet over her breasts – audible groans of disappointment from the boys in the theatre, and I stifle mine. But there is more; while they lovingly, iambically debate whether it is the nightingale or the lark they hear outside the window – is it still benevolent night or cruel, discordant day? — Romeo returns to the bed, throws back the sheet, and throws his graceful naked body full-length upon Juliet’s, and I imagine the impact of this embrace, the pressing of my naked back into the mattress with someone’s weight, my some-day breasts in someone’s mouth.
But it is so far away from me, up there onscreen; I want this, for absolute real, and I am not even sure what this means. I want to be crushed this way, by a beautiful boy and his gleaming limbs and insistent physical love, I want to be a naked-flesh body pressed against the length of another person’s love-damp heat, a lyrical fusion of both skin and soul. The scene’s innocent eroticism is safe for me to enter in to, and also tantalizingly adult; it strikes a match, triggers a longing, begins a craving for an experience I do not know how, at twelve years old, to find or have or make happen. Wherefore art thou, Romeo?
I’m not alone in this; “I envy Juliet,” fifteen-year-old Ferris (Tatum O’Neal) breathes in romantic longing to her camp counselor Gary (Armand Assante, in his Euro-gorgeous, heavy-lidded heyday). In "Little Darlings" (screenplay by Kimi Peck and Dalene Young), Ferris is the spoiled rich girl stuck at summer camp with scrappy, street-wise Angel (Kristy McNichol) and a cabin of bored sister-campers led by Mean Girl Dana, who takes pleasure in taunting Ferris and Angel about their sexual inexperience: are they “women, or little girls”? They’re both, of course, with their coltish womanly bodies; they are in the precise, blurry moment of transition, trying to balance their confusion and fear with their needful craving, their cool self-defensive posturing with their emotional vulnerability. I am the exact same age as these girls; I am equally virginal, equally yearning and afraid. I have recently had my first grown-up date, with a cologne-drenched eighteen-year-old guy, who took me to a comedy club, encouraged me to slurp at his rum-and-coke (fake ID – he was posturing, too), and, after an agonizingly stilted drive home in his Camaro, walked me to my front door and thrust his tongue in my mouth until I mumbled a dismissive Thanks, goodnight! and escaped into the house. For every second of that kiss I was equal parts repulsed and thrilled —- I felt violated and objectified (not that I knew that word or concept), grossed-out by the sloppy invading tongue; but I also felt let down he did not press me for something more, something else, that he did not overpower me all night with his naked insistent desire and poetic pentameter until the arrival of the lark, the herald of the morn. I was so relieved he never called me again; I was bitterly wounded to be so rejected.
Dana proposes a Ferris v. Angel contest: which of them will “become a woman by the end of the summer”? Whoever loses their virginity first, wins. Ferris selects counselor Gary, seeks to seduce him with mature overtures – a late-night visit to his cabin in her nightgown, suggesting she needs an understanding ear for her problems, How about a glass of wine, she proposes, How about that Shakespeare? – until he bemusedly, but kindly, shuts her down. There is no question, for him, that she is still a child – although, he reassures, if she were twenty-one, he’d probably fall madly in love with her. And she prances away across the lawn in her embroidered nightgown, validated and relieved, happy to linger a while longer in the sexless safety of her star-crossed-lovers dreams.
But this is really Angel’s story; she sets her sights on Randy (Matt Dillon), a kid from the boys’ camp across the lake – and “sets her sights on” is the right phrase, for "Little Darlings" is the rare film to delight in the female gaze; when Angel meets Randy, the camera lingers, from her point-of view, on his alabaster skin and pomegranate lips, the slope of his sculpted muscles, the snug fit of his jeans. He is much prettier than she is, and she is perfectly happy to gaze upon him with us, to share the visual feast of this lovely boy. But their first “date,” an illicit hook-up in some kind of barn, shakes her composure. She wants to desire, and to be desired, and she is terrified at the unfamiliar reality of both. She cannot bring herself to undress; she picks a fight until he – confused himself, he is also only fifteen – tells her off, snaps she is not even his type, “a kid your age!” She feels wounded, in spite of her anxiety. “I’m not sexy to you, am I?” she asks, again seeking the paradox of a safe rejection and a validation of sexual allure, all at once.
Their second date begins with more promise; Randy feels terrible for having been unkind, he is all sincere boyish patience, is authentically tender and sweet. Even the barn seems romantic now, a hidden love nest in the darkling rain. When Angel, trembling, confesses she is scared, he tells her he is, too.
Don’t laugh … right now, do you care about me, a little?
And in answer he kisses her, tenderly and sweetly, and Yes, we think, this is perfect, the perfect moment, perfect boy – did you see those lips? — this is it, go for it! We are all Team Angel; win that contest!
But we skip ahead, to the painful aftermath. For all the tender sweetness, this was not a good thing. Angel and Randy are not curled up like Veronese lovers in a newfound physical intimacy, to a melodic Nino Rota score; they are on opposite sides of the barn, pulling their clothes back on in stunned silence, and Angel’s face — Kristy McNichol is heartbreaking in this scene – is profoundly sad.
It wasn’t what I thought it would be…. God, it was so personal. Like you could see right through me…. Making love is…it’s different from what I thought it was going to be like….
He finally guesses it was her first time. “Christ, why didn’t you tell me?” he asks.
I thought it would turn you off. Virgins are weird, right?
He tells her she’s beautiful, that he thinks he loves her. But she is the wise one: “You don’t have to,” she tells him. Love won’t change what just happened between them – or what didn’t happen.
God, I feel so lonesome…,
she says, although he is standing right next to her, fully present, trying to understand her feelings. A beautiful, sensitive boy, a romantic summer night in a barn, an experience she wanted to find, have, make happen – and still. She has misjudged the power of sex, not just to pleasure, fulfill, create intimacy, but its equally powerful opposite: sex as pathway to a lonely emotional emptiness. Back with her cabinmates, Angel lies, tells them nothing happened, willingly loses that contest; it is so personal, it isn’t something to trade in for a victor’s sash and tiara, a false-god title, a cheap trophy to display on the mantel. “Oh, it was nothing, still is nothing,” her mother had told her earlier, in response to Angel’s tentative inquiry about sex, what it’s like and what it all means. But now, at the end of the film, wise Angel confronts her: “What’s this crap about sex being nothing?” she lectures; it is something, or at least has the possibility to be something, and she knows that now. She has lost the contest but won that insight.
"Little Darlings" is also unusual in its focus on the female experience of sexual awakening. Most loss-of-innocence movies are all about the boys, the ill-timed and indiscriminate hard-ons, the premature ejaculations and locker room ribbing played for snickery comedy. But the experience of allowing another human being to enter your body is an especially vulnerable one, and "Little Darlings" is the only movie I had seen, to date – or perhaps have ever seen – that is willing to treat that with the respect it deserves. (While still being hilariously funny – food fight! Stealing a condom dispenser from a gas station bathroom! Cynthia Nixon as a flower child!) The movie is not anti-sex – it simply asks that we appreciate its power and potential.
And it is hugely impactful on me. A summer later, at sixteen, I find myself with my first real boyfriend, my own beautiful and sensitive boy I feel I could gaze upon forever. He is more man than boy, actually, he has hit six feet and shaves every day, has a torso that widens to a glorious peach-skin capital V; he is the one in our group we all – boys and girls, gay and straight alike – turn to for erotic leadership in our pack-wolf craving for a whiff of actual grown-up Sex. My friends and I have begun obsessing over who will lose her virginity first, have created a de facto contest of our own, an unofficial Virginity Sweepstakes. And here this sexy, delicious boy has turned his gaze upon me. I cannot believe my good fortune. Surely he is the one, right? The guy I will lose it to? (A phrase I dislike – I don’t want to lose anything, I want to find something, a transcendently new thing to value, about boys, about bodies, about life, about myself.)
The first time he kisses me – sitting alone on the floor together at one of those rumpus-room parties, but with higher stakes, now, with beer replacing fruit punch and no one’s parents even bothering to be home to watch over us anymore, and Bread singing “I Want To Make It With You” on the stereo – I feel my first jolt of desire at another person’s touch, my first startling crotch-throb, the first time I ever feel myself go swollen and heated and wet. And that begins a long summer, at the beach, in our cars, in our own homes undisturbed by absent or distracted parents (or any busybody Nurse), in ongoing battle over jean zippers and shirt buttons and hormonal irreconcilability. I spend the summer panting and moaning with lust, but also squirming away at the last second from his curious hands and mouth, his eager hips. I am terrified, and I do not know why, or of what. What am I waiting for, I wonder, someone sweeter, cuter, sexier, more popular? I have grabbed the brass-ring boyfriend, and this is a good guy who will, I’m pretty sure, tell me afterward I am beautiful, that he thinks he might love me, even if only out of good manners. But…does he care about me, a little…? Do I even care about him? I can’t really know, and he probably doesn’t know, either. We are sixteen, and our emotions are obscured by that swollen wet heat.
But I can’t do it. Some instinct – or the memory of Angel’s stricken face, her bewildered loneliness in the aftermath of sex – says Wait: this is an important something, and you do not have to make this important something happen right now. There is no contest, no race to a finish line. And as sweet and tender as this man-boy of mine is, he only tussles and pleads so respectfully so far – a kid your age! – and by September he gives up, and it is over.
I am torn between relief and devastation; I dramatically take to my bed for several days, an abandoned, rejected Juliet, pretending I have the flu. I feel so very alone, and yet – thank you, Angel! – I know it is better to feel lonesome without him than feel lonesome with him. I am ready for the longing, yes, but not the consummation; I am not ready to be possessed – or to possess – because I am not yet in possession of myself. I am not ready to be seen-through; I need my invulnerable opacity, the virginal embroidered nightgown, just a little while longer.
Excerpted from "Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love and Die at the Movies" by Tara Ison. Published by Soft Skull Books. Copyright 2015. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.