Sex in Screenwriting (1)

Let’s skip the introductions and go straight to the sex, shall we?

Because I have a few questions for all you virgin screenwriters out there.

How should we view sex in our specs? Can sex be crucial to a story?

It seems to me that in films, as in life, sex complicates things. People get all confused and distracted when breasts, butts, and bushes flash across the screen. So let’s see if we can unveil a few secrets about sex in screenwriting. To do that, we first look to the past.

People get all confused and distracted
when breasts, butts, and bushes flash across the screen.

Starting in the 1920s until the mid-60’s, the rather prudish Hays Production Code overshadowed every creative writing decision in every production of every film. If your film didn’t get a Seal of Approval from the Production Code, you were in trouble. Some tried to distribute their films without a Seal, just as Otto Preminger and United Artists did with their 1953 film, The Moon is Blue. The Code denied the Seal because the script contained the words seduce, pregnant, and virgin.

Not only that, a film distributed without a Seal into the heartland of America ran the risk of prosecution for breaking local obscenity laws. Otto’s film was banned in Kansas, which got challenged, and went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court who reversed the decision.

During World War I, Americans were concerned about something called “social hygiene,” umm, you know, venereal diseases, and filmmakers like Ivan Abramson put together little movies, like Enlighten Thy Daughter from 1917, which explained the “facts of life.” This, if you can believe it, evolved into underground sexploitation films of the ‘30s – ‘60s, which were showcased in tents or run-down theaters called grind houses. Even then, the celluloid gypsies of the ‘30s and ‘40s had to come up with reasons to include all of that envelope-pushing sexuality in their films in case they got hit with a lawsuit. Their reasoning? “Education.” Or it was a “morality tale.”

Americans were concerned about
something called “social hygiene.”

They’d have lurid titles like Sins of Love (1932), Road to Ruin (1934), Slaves in Bondage (1937), Mad Youth (1939), Secrets of a Model (1940), and Confessions of a Vice Baron (1943). The posters would scream “Open Your Eyes! Protect Your Daughters!” “Girls Enslaved Into Lives of Shame!” “A Throbbing Drama of Shackled Youth!”

The stories, of course, always ended badly for those who, uhh, misbehaved so that there would be an acceptable “balance” of moral condemnation. The narrative might be a policeman investigating a seedy party that went wrong or we’d have a man sitting in jail telling a story with regret about the things he’d done.

The stories, of course, always ended badly
for those who, uhh, misbehaved.

By the 60’s, they’d have voice overs literally condemning what you were seeing on screen or they’d speak passages from great works of literature or play the music of Bach to make it more difficult for prosecutors to convince jurors that a particular film had no redeeming value.

Fascinating to me, however, was a haunting film from 1965 by Sidney Lumet called The Pawnbroker, which helped bring some change and revision of the Production Code. The film, following many heated confrontations, was released with a Seal and with nudity because the fleeting shots of breasts were actually crucial to the story.

the fleeting shots of breasts were actually
crucial to the story.

In one scene, a prostitute visits Sol Nazerman, a pawnbroker and Holocaust survivor. She says, “I’m good pawnbroker. I’m real good. I’ve done things you haven’t even dreamed about before. Just twenty dollars more. I’ll make you happy, like you never know.” She takes off her top. “I gotta get me some money. Look… Look… Look…” And her breasts trigger Nazerman’s memory of the tragic fate of his wife at the hands of Nazi rapists. We’re given flashbacks via French New Wave quick cuts of his wife (topless) in a cell, men looking in, a Nazi guard entering, and then back to Nazerman throwing his hands onto his face.

There’s also a lengthy flashback in the concentration camp. A German soldier asks, “Willst du was sehen?” meaning, “Do you want to see?” He’s cruelly forced to witness heinous acts, and the soldier’s “want to see” question parallels the prostitute’s “look” commands. For Nazerman, sex has become a source of trauma. Nazerman snaps back, covers the girl with a raincoat, and gives her twenty dollars.


– Mystery Man

In his own words, Mystery Man was “famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. A homebody jetsetting around the world. Brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.”

MM blogged for nearly 4 years and tweeted for only 4 months, then disappeared – mysteriously.

The Story Department continues to republish his best articles on Monday.

Here, you’ll also be informed about the release of his screenwriting book.

1 thought on “Sex in Screenwriting (1)”

  1. The Pawnbroker, which you mention in your post, is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Its individual performances are all poignant and memorable. Yet, it was banned by the Catholic Church’s “Legion of Decency” because of a woman baring her breasts, totally ignoring the context and meaning of the scene and the movie itself.


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