Sign up for the
and get $50 off Final Draft 12
By Martin Keady · July 6, 2023
The history of cinema is also the history of human sexuality, showing how ideas about sex have radically changed and, in some cases, remained completely unchanged. Here are 10 films from the last century of film that collectively constitute a brief history of sex in cinema. And each one is, to quote the immortal Prince, a sexy M.F., or, to quote the equally libidinous Peaches, a sexy F.F. These are the sexiest films ever made.
Read More: Sex! Tips on Writing a Great Love Scene
Nearly a hundred years on, it is almost impossible for 21st-century viewers to understand the truly seismic effect that Morocco had on cinema; indeed, it may seem completely tame to them. And yet, Morocco marked the arrival of arguably the first great sex symbol of cinema, or at least the first great sex symbol of cinema whose fame still endures to this day (unlike that of so many of her Silent-era predecessors) – Marlene Dietrich.
Dietrich had sprung to international fame earlier in 1930 in The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel), the first feature-length German sound film, in which she played Lola Lola, a cabaret performer who was obviously so good at her job that she was named twice. Such was the global success of The Blue Angel that its star (Dietrich) and director (von Sternberg) decamped to Hollywood where they effectively remade it as Morocco, in which Gary Cooper’s French Legionnaire becomes infatuated with Dietrich’s nightclub singer. However, it is almost completely forgotten that Cooper was in the film because Dietrich steals it so completely, first by dressing as a man (complete with top hat and tails) and then by kissing another woman. The woman in question is embarrassed (or purported to be), but everyone else – male and female – was captivated.
Hollywood imported most of its sin from Europe in the 1930s, especially after the Motion Picture Association of America set a standard of industry production guidelines known as “The Hays Code.” It clamped down on homegrown “sinema” from 1934 onwards, in response to growing concern among religious groups about the increasing sexualization of movie-making. But a year earlier, Hedy Lamarr had effectively replaced Marlene Dietrich as the go-to girl of sexual cinema by going further than Dietrich had ever gone. Lamarr did not just appear nude on screen but was portrayed having sex and, worse still (in the eyes of many conservatives), appeared to enjoy it.
Pornographic or “stag” films (so-called because they were often shown at stag nights) had existed for as long as cinema itself had existed, but Ecstasy was not porn. Instead, it was a serious examination of sexuality, first repressed and then liberated, as Lamarr’s character leaves her loveless (and sexless) marriage and eventually finds sexual satisfaction with a young construction worker who encounters her after she has gone skinny-dipping.
Ecstasy was almost certainly the first film to show sexual ecstasy, especially for a woman, which even porn or stag films had been completely uninterested in. And yet for all the furore over Lamarr’s naked body, her sexual ecstasy is only shown by close-ups of her face. In this way, Ecstasy proves that, with cinematic sex, often it is what is not shown that is most arousing.
The Age of Noir (which extended for about a decade after WW2) is one of the most fascinating in film history for many reasons. Most importantly, it was the one era in Hollywood when unhappy endings were not just allowed but actively encouraged, largely in response to the horrors of the war, which had left so many people, even in America, mourning loved ones and lost hopes. In a period of almost universal suffering, “happy endings” were widely regarded as lies and darker, harder truths were sought.
However, noir also saw the first great flowering of American cinematic sexuality since the Hays Code. That was summed up by the famous dictum (attributed to various noir masters) that a classic noir was “a dame with no past and a hero with no future”, as was demonstrated in so many great film noirs, such as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946).
However, the single sexiest noir is probably The Postman Always Knocks Twice, in which the luminous Lana Turner ensnares John Garfield’s drifter and persuades him to murder her husband so that they can inherit the diner he owns. Turner was not only one of the most beautiful of all screen goddesses but arguably the sexiest, never more so than when she appears dressed all in white, from turban to shoes, with a cropped top and shorts beautifully accentuating her figure – a figure that is not so much hourglass as 24-hourglass.
Read More: Explore the Golden Age of Hollywood
Because of the almost universal censorship of cinema that existed until the late 1960s, it was virtually impossible to show actual sexual intercourse or even hint at it. So, pre-1960s filmmakers went to extraordinarily imaginative lengths to depict or even suggest sex. But arguably the greatest cinematic clinch of all, and with it the suggestion of the sex that would inevitably follow, came in 1953’s From Here to Eternity.
The subject matter of From Here To Eternity could hardly have been less sexy, as it was a film about Pearl Harbor, the December 1941 attack by Japan on a military base in Hawaii that eventually led to the U.S. entering WW2. However, amid all the mounting personal and geopolitical tension, there is the most remarkable cinematic love – and sex – affair.
The scene in which Burt Lancaster’s sergeant and Deborah Kerr’s officer’s wife kiss passionately while lying down together amid the surging Hawaiian surf is rightly acknowledged as one of the most stunning, cinematic and sexually suggestive moments in film history. In effect, it represented the coming tide of the more explicit sexuality that would eventually completely overwhelm cinema from the 1960s onwards to the extent that most of the sexiest films in history come from before that point when the mind’s eye (and not just the actual eye) had to be appealed to.
Some Like It Hot might be the most underrated great film ever made. It is certainly the greatest film ever made that is rarely, if ever, included in any serious consideration of the greatest films ever made, largely because of the traditional cinematic bias towards drama and away from comedy. And yet it is undeniably the greatest screen comedy ever, still making viewers laugh more than 60 years after its release, which is a huge achievement given how quickly comedy (even great comedy, such as that of Shakespeare) dates. Similarly, it is also easy to overlook that it is one of the sexiest films ever made.
There are two main reasons why Hot is so, well, hot. The first is obvious: Marilyn. Even today, there’s no need to add her surname, as everyone still knows who she is, even when so many other golden-age Hollywood stars (indeed, sadly, most of them) are largely forgotten. In that respect, she is the greatest movie star ever, of either gender. Unfortunately, however, she rarely received the scripts to justify her status, talent and sex appeal, but Some Like It Hot is the glorious exception to that rule. She is not only stunningly attractive in a series of what might be called undresses rather than dresses (her outfit for the finale is not so much sheer as positively vertiginous), but also superbly witty and self-deprecating as she sends up her supposed “dumb blonde” persona.
The second reason Some Like It Hot is so sexy is less obvious but equally important. In its still-revelatory analysis of sexual identity and even sexual fluidity, it is the classic 20th-century Hollywood film that has the most to say about the 21st century, an age of apparently ever-increasing sexual fluidity. It is not so much a story about cross-dressing and the eradication of binary identity as a story that embodies those ideas, more fully than any film before or since. Some Like It Hot famously concludes that “Nobody’s perfect,” but some films are, and it might be the most perfect film of all.
Read More: Some Like It Hot: Mother of All Comedies
Jules et Jim ought to have been called Jules, Jim et Catherine, because it features the greatest love triangle in film history. The French nouvelle vague (or new wave) might have exploded two years earlier with Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless), but it was Truffaut’s own masterpiece that really explored the dark and often contradictory nature of desire, in which friendship is so often sacrificed for love, or more precisely sexual attraction.
Another reason why Jules et Jim should be renamed is in tribute to its most enduring star, Jeanne Moreau. Oskar Werner and Henri Sarre may have played the title characters, but it was Moreau who stole the film as the object of their mutual affection. In effect, Moreau replaced Monroe, who died in the same year that Jules et Jim was released, as the greatest sexual icon in cinema. She may not have had the obvious sex appeal of Marilyn but she more than compensated with her sultry sensuality. Brigitte Bardot may have been the original French “sex-bomb,” the European equivalent of Marilyn, but it was Jeanne Moreau who was slower-burning and ultimately far bigger-blasting.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was the film that transplanted the violence and iconoclasm of the nouvelle vague to American cinema, thus kick-starting the second great golden age of Hollywood. However, a few months later it was The Graduate that finally captured the nouvelle vague’s sexual allure, at a time when the term “foreign films” was almost cinematic shorthand for “sex films.”
Thus, it is possible to regard Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson, who seduces Dustin Hoffman’s titular college-leaver, as an American version of Jeanne Moreau: the languorously sexy older woman who captivates a younger male naïf. And Bancroft, or rather her long and bestockinged leg, captures the film as easily as she captures Benjamin’s heart (and other parts of his anatomy), at least until he encounters her much younger and infinitely less jaded daughter.
Read More: 5 Plot Points: The Graduate
Teorema (Theorem) is sexually explicit, not in the sense of being pornographic but in its examination of the importance of sex to human beings. The idea that sex is fundamentally liberating, which had been growing in popularity throughout the 1960s, is the concept or theorem that is tested in Teorema.
So many of the sexiest stars in cinema history have been women, bearing testimony to the hegemony of the “male gaze” and male occupation of the director’s chair. Perhaps that is why it took an openly homosexual director in Pier Paolo Pasolini to put a man’s sexuality front and square, as Terence Stamp’s unnamed “Visitor” effectively seduces every member, female and male, of a bourgeois Italian family, first seemingly freeing them, before darker and more twisted desires begin to take them over.
From Dietrich to Monroe, most of the greatest sex symbols in cinema history have been female, but in Teorema, Pasolini wrote and photographed Terrence Stamp’s character in such a way that he joined the more exclusive list of male cinematic sex-bombs, from Valentino (the original great screen lover) to James Dean to Paul Newman, arguably the most beautiful human being of either gender ever to appear on screen.
As with From Here to Eternity, Don’t Look Now may appear an unusual entry in a list of the sexiest films ever made. And yet that is to ignore the dark truth of human desire, which is (literally) intimately bound up with an awareness of our corporality and ultimately even our mortality. So, just as war can be if not sexy then certainly sex-inducing (just look at the baby boom that followed WW2), so too can grief, even the profound grief of losing a child, produce the deepest longing for sexual release.
Don’t Look Now is, of course, a horror story, examining how a married couple try to cope with the tragic loss of their young daughter, which eventually leads them on the most maniacal of wild goose chases through Venice. However, at the heart of it is, according to cinematic legend, the most sexually explicit scene in any mainstream movie ever, when Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s bereaved couple finally find some solace in each other after their devastating loss.
Ultimately, it does not matter whether Sutherland and Christie actually made love on camera; what matters is that they portrayed lovemaking so truthfully that everyone believed that they did.
Read More: 101 Romance Story Prompts
And so, we come full circle, because Blue Is the Warmest Colour, arguably the sexiest and probably the most sexually explicit film of the 21st century so far, was based on a graphic novel that was originally called Blue Angel, the same name as the nightclub in which Marlene Dietrich first scandalized (and aroused) the movie-watching world. That is pleasingly appropriate because Blue Is The Warmest Colour almost represents the fulfillment of every idea, hint and provocative look first portrayed in The Blue Angel and, soon afterward, Morocco.
Before considering Blue Is The Warmest Colour any further, however, it is vital to acknowledge the controversy that has enveloped it since its release a decade ago. In recent years, the two co-stars of this lesbian love story, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, have claimed that they were uneasy, to say the least, about some of the sex scenes that they played together but were pressured into them by the director, Abdellatif Kechiche.
In that respect, Blue Is the Warmest Colour is possibly another addition to a much more controversial list of “sex films”, in which some of the actors (invariably female actors) claim afterward that they were pressured into performing for the camera. The most uncelebrated example, as it were, is Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), whose co-star, Maria Schneider, maintained afterward that she had been forced to perform some of the film’s controversial sex scenes against her will.
Nevertheless, in Blue Is The Warmest Colour, the most explicit element is not the sex itself but the emotional truthfulness. It shows how homosexual couples can be just as irrationally possessive and self-defeating as heterosexual couples. And even more importantly, it shows how ultimately even the best (and sexiest) sex is only ever a gateway to the most important human experience of all – love.