In America, sex is always on the mind. There is a superficial skittishness when it comes to acknowledging this, but the politics of sex are everywhere — especially in film and television. In the last year alone, various writers have considered the subject: They have debated about the death of the sex scene and exalted the pleasure of watching female orgasms. The internet has fought and agreed to disagree on the male gaze, the female gaze and other arguments about the sex scene’s intended audience.
Lurking in the margins of these investigations and dialogues are questions of simple mechanics: What goes into conjuring an erotic mood? What gives a film its sensual aura? How does a sex scene get made? The gift of Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s Body Parts is that it, at least partially, gives us some answers to these questions.
More from The Hollywood Reporter
At its best, Body Parts pulls back the curtain on sex-scene-making. Interviews with body doubles, visual effects specialists and intimacy coordinators reveal the nuts and bolts behind the sultriest movie moments. But the film doesn’t, unfortunately, stay in this realm. It zigs and zags through a dizzying number of topics, folding its findings into the politics of pleasure, the #MeToo movement and an unearned triumphant narrative of women’s empowerment.
The film opens with Linda Williams, film scholar and author of Screening Sex, talking about the role media plays in shaping our relationship to sex. How movies depict libidinous activities, of course, directly informs mainstream understanding of and conversations around desire and pleasure. She gives an overview of the sexiest period in cinema (the 1920s and 30s) and charts how the introduction of the Hays Code in 1934 dramatically changed that. Suddenly, there were guidelines for what was considered appropriate for the public, and sex was depicted as a fatal — instead of pleasurable — act. Williams’ sharp testimony and analysis structures the film, allowing it to move from broader ideas about sex to dissecting specific scenes.
Interviews with actors — like Rose McGowan and Jane Fonda — and several directors and screenwriters anchor these scholarly bits in more contemporary anecdotes. Fonda’s testimony proves to be the most useful and interesting for understanding how Hollywood has treated sex throughout the decades. The star speaks candidly about moments early in her career when she felt pressure to get naked, lest she risk curtailing her career. Other actors share similar stories of coercion. Many discuss troubling stories of disassociating to endure doing a sex scene.
These distressing testimonies and experiences aren’t limited to white, non-disabled, cisgender, heterosexual women. Body Parts takes care to examine depictions of sex — or lack thereof — for people across racial, ethnic, gender and disability spectrums. Media scholar Stephane Dunn walks viewers through the Blaxploitation film era, explaining how it pushed representations of Black sex and sexuality, and director Angela Robinson briefly touches on the dearth of queer depictions of desire. There’s a blink-and-you-might-miss-it quality to some of this analysis, which I think has to do with the unwieldy nature of the topic.
Money is an unarticulated through-line in Body Parts. Guevara-Flanagan gives viewers a tour of the sex-scene industry, speaking with the various participants. Body doubles are a group of usually non-unionized actors who stand in for performers during sex scenes. Shelley Michelle, one of the body doubles interviewed, describes the profession in stark terms, likening one audition to a “cattle call.” Your individual body parts are assessed with clinical precision, and if chosen to be in a film there’s little chance you receive credit. One visual effects specialist talks about the cut-and-paste process — putting the head of an actress on an anonymous body — used for some scenes and describes in relative detail how many requests he gets from performers to airbrush their faces and bodies. The doc mostly offers a look at intimacy coordinators at work, showing how a sex scene is constructed (or, more accurately, fudged). A couple of directors and cinematographers talk about how they shoot these scenes.
Body Parts wobbles when it treads into the #MeToo movement and the issue of consent in Hollywood. From its opening moment, the doc telegraphs an upbeat ending, which ultimately makes its foray into this territory feel unrealistically optimistic. The allegations against men like James Franco and Harvey Weinstein are given substantial consideration, as is the fact that these two men are merely the tip of the iceberg in an industry deeply rooted in white supremacy and misogyny. So it’s strange when the latter third of the doc pivots to the notion that all of this will change if more women are hired.
It’s a peculiar point to land on after presenting all of the information that precedes it. If there is anything we’ve learned in the last few years, it’s that an uncritical call for more representation will not heal industries plagued by extensive structural issues. While Body Parts is a smart film and a useful primer on big questions about filmic representations of sex and desire, one wishes its conclusions were more nuanced.
Best of The Hollywood Reporter