Sex in Screenwriting (3)

Sex can gauge the health and stability of a relationship. The great Peter Ustinov, Mr. Hercule Poirot himself, once said, “Sex is a conversation carried out by other means. If you get on well out of bed, half the problems in bed are solved.” Exactly.


  1. Social hygiene and the Seal of Approval
  2. A sex scene is only as good as its characters


When there are problems in the bedroom, when there’s passionless, perfunctory sex on display, we know something’s wrong.

Annie Hall gave us scenes filled with problems in the bedroom (usually bad timing, mood-killing mishaps, or lowered romantic interests) all of which satirized the idea that sex was the foundation upon which all contemporary relationships were built. Here, if the sex was dead, so was the relationship.

when there’s passionless, perfunctory sex on display,
we know something’s wrong.

You may recall the sequence where Annie and Alvy are seeing their respective therapists and revealing their differing perceptions about the same question of “How often do you have sex?” Alvy: “Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.” Annie: “Constantly! I’d say three times a week.” Hehehe… Those two seemed fated to always be searching for a love that lasts but never find it, which was punctuated by Allen’s non-linear structure.

Shampoo boldly proclaimed that those who concealed conflicting desires were hypocrites, not that those conflicting desires did the characters any good. Robert Towne incorporated a motif of interruptions during sex, which implied unsatisfied desires.

The interruptions always happened to the lustful rake by the name of George played by a young Warren Beatty.

His affair with Felicia in the opening sequence was interrupted by a phone call from another woman named Jackie. George’s affair with Jackie was twice interrupted by a man named Lester from whom George was trying to secure money and who was also married to Felicia while having Jackie as a mistress.

Is your head spinning yet? George is so self-obsessed that when his wife, Jill, tries to communicate with him and achieve greater intimacy, George ignores her or interrupts her.

I have to mention 9 Songs, which was written and directed by Micheal Winterbottom. This is the only film to be on the Independent Film Channel’s online lists of both the 50 Greatest and 50 Worst Sex Scenes in Cinema History. While not a masterpiece, I think it had some interesting ideas, which were explained best by Mr. Roger Ebert:

“What Winterbottom is charting is the progress of sex in the absence of fascination; if two people are not excited by who they are outside of sex, there’s a law of diminishing returns in bed. Yes, they try to inspire themselves with blindfolds and bondage, but the more you’re playing games, the less you’re playing with each other. Their first few sexual encounters have the intricacy and mystery of great tabletop magic; by the end, they’re making elephants disappear but they know it’s just a trick.”


A sex scene can also be about manipulation, a means to an end. In James Bond films, it’s usually a way of coaxing information out of a female spy. In Film Noirs, femme fatales are notorious for using sex to convince men to do things that are not very nice, like murder. Film Noir is the only genre where it’s essential to have a weak, passive, male protagonist.

A sex scene can also be about manipulation, a means to an end.

Body Heat took place in a small town in Florida that had no air conditioning and seemed to be stuck in limbo, like its protagonist Ned Racine (William Hurt).

Here’s a guy who is grown up, hit with the reality that adulthood isn’t as wonderful as he thought it would be, and he lacked the will to better himself or move away. Thus, he became susceptible to the charms of Matty (Kathleen Turner), who used sex to convince him that life with her would fulfill all his fantasies and restore his self esteem, if only he would do this one little thing for her. In fact, she first got him to break the law by encouraging him to break into her house to have sex with her:


...He pushes at [the windows] as his eyes lock with Matty, who watches from the hall. The windows won’t move. Racine spins and picks up the nearest object, a wooden rocking chair. He lifts it, turns and smashes the big window. Glass showers into the dining room.

Matty watches. She hasn’t moved.

Racine pushes the broken window out of his way. He comes in, like a violent gust of wind.


Racine crosses the dark living room fast. As he reaches Matty, she lifts her arms to match his embrace. They come together hard and tight. They kiss. And kiss again. Her hands travel over his body, as though she’s wanted them there for a long time...

In other erotic thrillers, like Sea of Love or Basic Instinct, the sex scene is the moment of reckoning for some characters. Will she or won’t she stab him with an ice pick? Thus, a sex scene can also be an important turning point in the plot.


“You make me crazy. You’re so damn sure I’ll keep coming back here. What do you think? That an American on the floor in an empty apartment eating cheese and drinking water is interesting?”

Well, apparently it is, because I can’t get around the topic of Last Tango in Paris in an article about sex in films.

Frankly, when I first saw this movie a couple of years ago, I hated it. I thought it was boring, un-erotic, tonally inconsistent, and I was particularly incensed by Paul’s sexist, narcissistic, degrading treatment of Jeanne. I mean, he practically raped her twice!

In preparation for this article (and after reading 12 critical essays on Tango), I’m more comfortable with the film than I used to be. When they first meet in the apartment, I no longer think it’s a case of rape. He picks her up, carries her to the wall, and at any time, she could’ve screamed, fought, or tried to resist him. But no, she doesn’t. I think we’re given a visual illustration that she was literally swept away by Brando’s pain, hunger, and need for her.

The butter scene still angers me, though, and it’s inexplicable to me that Jeanne doesn’t storm out of that apartment. Her behavior in the third act is also inexplicable to me. If anything, Tango fails to be a masterpiece because Jeanne behaved the way the filmmakers wanted her to behave, not because her character was fully developed and we could see that it was in her nature to be that way.

Sex was used as a means to escape
the loneliness of the relationships

Sex was not the point of the film, of course. Sex was used as a means to escape the loneliness of the relationships that left those two characters so unfulfilled. Julian Ebb wrote that it was

“sex as an instrument of power divorced from tenderness or curiosity [that] results in chaos and despair.”

That could be. The bigger point is that sex, in and of itself, never should be the point of a scene when it comes to quality screenwriting. The emphasis should be on the characters.

– 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.

Leave a Comment