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INTRODUCTION

1966 and 1967, Caution

I t was the artists. But it was also the audiences. In 1966, director John Huston picked the plum role of Noah for

himself and turned his movie The Bible into the highest-grossing film of the year. Also in 1966, most critics’ groups drank from the same pool of holy water and anointed A Man for All Seasons, the story of Sir Thomas More, a Roman Catholic saint, as that year’s best film. The Bible and A Man for All Seasons may have been highly re- spected efforts but they hardly generated the most heated talk or press. That distinction of high-profile controversy went to two very different films in 1966: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which erstwhile paramours Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton talked dirty to each other, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English- language picture, Blow-Up. Moviegoers who didn’t know L’avven- tura from L’eclisse would sit through nearly two hours of Blow-Up, a murder mystery in which the murder is never solved, to get a two- second glimpse of a young woman’s pubic hair, delivered in long shot, as she and a girlfriend frolic nude with star David Hemmings in a photographer’s studio. The audiences were, indeed, different then. They were curious because they had seen and heard so little with regard to graphic sex

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onscreen, and even more important, they were patient. And they were patient because they were hungry for what they hadn’t seen or heard. Somewhat less patient was an especially acerbic twenty-nine- year-old Texan émigré named Rex Reed, who had only recently been enlisted as a freelance writer at the New York Times. Despite his intense antipathy for Antonioni’s entire oeuvre, Reed had been

assigned the task of interviewing the esteemed Italian film director for the Sunday newspaper’s much-revered and feared Arts & Leisure section. Antonioni’s Blow-Up had recently turned into something of

a cause célèbre when the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency con-

demned it and the Motion Picture Production Code refused to bless

it with a seal of approval. Rather than snipping those two seconds

of pubic hair, MGM instead released Blow-Up through a corporate front, given the classy name of Premier Productions; then the studio aggressively pushed the film into Oscar competition, releasing it in the final two weeks of 1966. Reed, whose movie aesthetic had never really evolved beyond the pleasures of All About Eve, much pre- ferred the year’s front-runner for the Oscar, A Man for All Seasons, which, in its faithful mix of sainthood and knighthood, couldn’t get any classier. Or duller. In his Times profile of Antonioni, Reed emphasized his own total lack of appetite for the assignment at hand by openly complaining in print that watching an Antonioni film was surpassed in tedium only

by trying to conduct an Antonioni interview. The feeling was mutual. Antonioni actively resisted Reed’s ques- tions about “your favorite” this and that—until he finally just spat

it out.

“No American films,” he told Reed. “I go today to see Andy War- hol’s film The Chelsea Girls. I am told we make movies alike. I also think Scorpio Rising is lovely,” he added. “Lovely” is a word few people in the 1960s (or any other decade)

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“Lovely” is a word few people in the 1960s (or any other decade) Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 14 11/5/13
“Lovely” is a word few people in the 1960s (or any other decade) Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 14 11/5/13
“Lovely” is a word few people in the 1960s (or any other decade) Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 14 11/5/13

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ever applied to Kenneth Anger’s short experimental film about con- temporary Nazi homosexual bikers who wield S&M leather gear the way most kids play with their toys. Upon hearing Antonioni’s critique, Reed did not do what any mildly curious journalist would do; he didn’t ask follow-up ques- tions (anyway, none that made it into print) about The Chelsea Girls or Scorpio Rising, an underground film that had played (and been busted) at grungier basement venues around the world. The Chelsea Girls was also an underground film, and it also would run into trouble with the law here and there. But unlike Scor- pio Rising, The Chelsea Girls managed to graduate rather quickly from its lowly birthplace, the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque basement theater on West Forty-First Street, to the plush Cinema 57 Rendez- vous on the prime Manhattan moviegoing turf of West Fifty-Seventh

Street. The Chelsea Girls was, in fact, the first underground film to make the leap to the mainstream, and its upgrade thoroughly out- raged another writer at the New York Times, in this case, its chief film critic. “It was all right so long as these adventures in the realm of in- dependent cinema stayed in Greenwich Village or on the south side of 42nd Street,” wrote Bosley Crowther. “But now that their under- ground has surfaced on West 57th Street, and taken over a theater

it is time for permissive adults to stop winking

with real carpets

at their too-precocious pranks.” And the carpet at the Rendezvous was the least of it. Unaware of how lucrative really bad publicity can be, the Chelsea Hotel’s man- ager was threatening to sue Warhol! The Chelsea Girls. It wasn’t really so much a movie as it was a dozen short movies, projected side by side on a double screen; these short movies had little to do with each other but what Warhol and his codirector, Paul Morrissey, had dreamed up after the fact. Their idea of filmmaking was to load the camera’s magazine (limited to

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Their idea of filmmaking was to load the camera’s magazine (limited to Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 15 11/5/13 10:52
Their idea of filmmaking was to load the camera’s magazine (limited to Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 15 11/5/13 10:52

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Their idea of filmmaking was to load the camera’s magazine (limited to Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 15 11/5/13 10:52

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thirty minutes of film), point the lens at some of the more colorful denizens of Warhol’s entourage, and let them talk and carry on with all due extravagance. It took patience to follow The Chelsea Girls’ story line for the simple fact that there was no story line. Warhol and Morrissey never bothered with things like a script, but at some point Morrissey realized that whenever he and Warhol filmed their actors, whom they called superstars, “it was in someone’s bedroom,” he recalled, “and many times it was in the Chelsea Hotel.” So why not make it look like all the scenes were taking place simulta- neously in rooms at the Chelsea? Morrissey gave Warhol credit for the word “girls” in the title. “But it was my idea that it looked like a hotel movie. So we brought it to the Cinematheque and showed it.” If Scorpio Rising was about gay leather bikers, The Chelsea Girls was about hothouse flowers who seemingly never left their hotel rooms. They told wild and obscene stories, as if lifted from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl but without the poetry, and they swore more than Lenny Bruce at the Cafe Au Go Go; they also took drugs on camera, and rather than have sex—real or simulated—they occasionally exposed themselves. There was also Nico, who was a singer with the Velvet Underground. She did not sing in The Chelsea Girls but rather cut and combed her long blond hair for thirty minutes. In other words, it took patience to sit through the entire three and a half hours of Warhol and Morrissey’s film to get to the parts of it that would shock or titillate or simply not bore. An underground film like The Chelsea Girls might never have been mentioned in the same anticipatory breath as Blow-Up and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? if not for two very aboveground publications that alternately loved and loathed it. In his review titled “Underground in Hell,” Newsweek’s Jack Kroll called it “a fascinating and significant movie event. It is as if there had been cameras concealed in the fleshpots of Caligula’s Rome.”

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had been cameras concealed in the fleshpots of Caligula’s Rome.” Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 16 11/5/13 10:52 AM
had been cameras concealed in the fleshpots of Caligula’s Rome.” Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 16 11/5/13 10:52 AM
had been cameras concealed in the fleshpots of Caligula’s Rome.” Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 16 11/5/13 10:52 AM

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had been cameras concealed in the fleshpots of Caligula’s Rome.” Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 16 11/5/13 10:52 AM

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Even better for the movie’s box office, a reviewer from Time la- beled The Chelsea Girls “a very dirty and very dull peep show.” Never a stickler for accuracy, the newsweekly went on to complain that “the characters are all homosexuals and junkies,” despite the fact that Nico had sired a child by actor Alain Delon and committed other flagrant acts of heterosexuality. The review in Time fixated on what made its anonymous critic apparently nauseous: “A faggot who calls himself the Pope advises a lesbian to sneak into church and do something obscene to the figure on the cross. There is a place for this kind of thing, and it is definitely underground. Like in a sewer.” Whether or not he’d read those twin opinions, Michelangelo An- tonioni went to see the newly released Chelsea Girls, a trek to the Rendezvous that had already been made by many other notable di- rectors, writers, and producers, as well as more than a few socialites, including Honey Berlin. She was wife of Hearst Publications presi- dent Richard Berlin and mother of Brigid Berlin, whose performance as a lesbian in The Chelsea Girls required her to stick a hypodermic needle into her buttocks without first removing her trousers. Honey summed up her daughter’s performance in just one sentence: “I can’t believe you would lower your family like that.” Others were equally impressed, but in a good way—writers like Gore Vidal and directors like Tom O’Horgan and John Schlesinger and, perhaps most important, United Artists president David Picker, who felt The Chelsea Girls would open doors for artists due to the film’s frank language, nudity and subject matter. It signaled a new artistic freedom for the American cinema. The French, surprisingly, were a little less accepting of what Warhol and Morrissey had wrought. Invited to the Cannes Film Fes- tival, Warhol arrived there only to be told that the festival’s film board had second thoughts about The Chelsea Girls and would not be screening it at the Riviera movie confab as promised. That

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would not be screening it at the Riviera movie confab as promised. That Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 17 11/5/13
would not be screening it at the Riviera movie confab as promised. That Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 17 11/5/13
would not be screening it at the Riviera movie confab as promised. That Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 17 11/5/13

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would not be screening it at the Riviera movie confab as promised. That Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 17 11/5/13

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spring, A Man for All Seasons did, indeed, win the Oscar for best picture, beating Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which, for all its bold language, never let the word “fuck” cross the lips of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. That movie taboo was broken in 1967 by British actress Barbara Jefford when she essayed the role of Molly Bloom in Joseph Strick’s small-budget film adaptation of Ulysses, which carefully used the F-word only as a direct quote from James Joyce’s much-revered prose. The Cannes film board, which ultimately barred The Chelsea Girls from its festival, did go ahead that spring with its decision to screen Ulysses, but at the last minute, unbeknownst to Joseph Strick, they protected their French moviegoers by failing to provide several significant subtitles. Strick was not happy, and stormed the projec- tion room to try to bring an end to the screening. Compared to the movies, book publishing had pretty much sorted out its major censorship contretemps by the mid-1960s, thanks to court cases regarding the long-banned novels Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Fanny Hill, and Candy. The theater also had been something of a refuge for the more sexually provocative: In Tennessee Williams’s 1959 play Sweet Bird of Youth, Paul Newman’s hustler character ended up being castrated for having deflowered and im- pregnated his girlfriend Heavenly Finley, while in the movie version, made three years later, the Production Code saw to it that Newman’s Chance Wayne got to keep Heavenly, as well as his penis. With Blow-Up and Ulysses, however, the movies suddenly leapt ahead of Broadway, which had yet to permit full nudity or allow the ultimate four-letter word to be uttered there. Television, with its conservative sponsors and huge viewership, remained lit- erally stuck in the Eisenhower era. The most incendiary show in the mid-1960s was Peyton Place, ABC’s recycling of Grace Met- alious’s 1956 potboiler about people who conceived children out

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of wedlock in small-town America. The discovery of illegitimate children so shocked the public that the network had no choice but to air the nighttime soap opera three times a week. In 1967, Hollywood’s most cutting-edge films—major-studio films that many historians would later say signaled a New Hollywood—included Bonnie and Clyde, in which Warren Beat- ty’s Clyde went from being bisexual in the script’s original draft to merely impotent in the finished film, and The Graduate, in which director Mike Nichols, as he put it, had “to sneak in” a condom in long-shot for one bedroom scene. That kind of cautious approach to sex pretty much summed up 1967, the year that the U.S. Supreme Court finally got around to making interracial marriage legal in all fifty states, and the year that B-movie star Ronald Reagan took office as governor of California after promising to “clean up the mess in Berkeley.” Steps forward were met with steps backward. The following year, however, such timidity would be put aside for good, lost in a veritable sexual explosion that would rock not only the movies but the theater and publishing worlds as well. “I think this is a golden age for creative work of any kind,” Candy novelist Terry Southern said as he embarked on writing what he thought would be another groundbreaking book, Blue Movie. “The people who go all out will make it. We’ve only scratched the surface of our Freudian heritage. We are undertaking an exploration of the mind and we’re making some interesting discoveries. We have discovered the value of not being prejudiced. The assumption has always been that there have been limits. But we now know that there are no limits.” Until the courts, a corporate culture, arbiters of political correct- ness, a Silent Majority president, and the public’s ennui with the sexually exploitive coalesced to form new limits—or reimpose old ones—many writers, directors, and producers agreed with Southern.

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old ones—many writers, directors, and producers agreed with Southern. Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 19 11/5/13 10:52 AM
old ones—many writers, directors, and producers agreed with Southern. Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 19 11/5/13 10:52 AM
old ones—many writers, directors, and producers agreed with Southern. Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 19 11/5/13 10:52 AM

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old ones—many writers, directors, and producers agreed with Southern. Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 19 11/5/13 10:52 AM

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INTRODUCTION

These artists knew each other, often collaborated, and just as often competed to be first at discarding whatever the censors threw at them. In many cases, there is only one degree of separation between the novels, movies, TV shows, and plays that they created in the Sexplosion years. This is their story—a tale of the pop rebels who broke all the taboos.

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This is their story—a tale of the pop rebels who broke all the taboos. Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 20
This is their story—a tale of the pop rebels who broke all the taboos. Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 20
This is their story—a tale of the pop rebels who broke all the taboos. Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 20

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This is their story—a tale of the pop rebels who broke all the taboos. Sexplosion_i_xxii_1_344.indd 20

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