Last week, actress Maria Schneider died at the age of 58. Her claim to fame was her role in the 1973 film, “Last Tango in Paris”, a sexually-charged ‘tour-de-force’ that caused a scandal. The film’s raw portrayal of sexual violence and emotional turmoil led to international controversy and drew various levels of government censorship worldwide. Despite it’s controversial nature, the film was still groundbreaking in that it garnered Oscar nominations for Brando and the film’s director Bernardo Bertolucci, only the third “X” rated film to be nominated by the Academy.
In retrospect, I’ve seen many controversial films over the years and I’ve gathered a list of what I feel are films that have given the most controversial buzz in history. There are many that I know I’ve left out and I’m pretty sure I’ll think of them after this blog entry is posted. This list is not a Top 10 list, but a list of films I’ve seen over the years of a controversial nature.
1. Last Tango in Paris (1973), see above.
2. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Based on the novel by author Anthony Burgess, this film was about a dystopian, future Britain. Through the narration of the film’s antagonist, Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell), he leads a small gang of thugs through a horrific crime spree of rape and ‘ultra-violence.’ After his his capture, and attempted rehabilitation via a controversial psychological conditioning technique, Alex is forced to re-visit all of his past dealings, with near-fatal consequences. The film’s violent nature caused it to be banned in Britain for nearly 27 years. The MPAA originally rated the film “X”, but after re-edits by Kubrick, the film was lowered to an “R” rating. My personal favorite from Kubrick and one of my top 5 favorite films of all time.
3. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Like the novel, written by Nikos Kazantzakis, Martin Scorsese’s film depicts the life of Jesus Christ (played by Willem Dafoe), and its central thesis is that Jesus, while free from sin, was still subject to every form of temptation that humans face, including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance and lust. This results in the book and film depicting Christ being tempted by imagining himself engaged in sexual activities, a notion that has caused outrage from some Christians. The movie included a disclaimer explaining that it departs from the commonly-accepted Biblical portrayal of Jesus’ life, and that it is not intended to be an exact recreation of the events detailed in the Gospels. The film caused worldwide outrage and led to being banned or censored in Turkey, Mexico, Chile and Argentina. As of today, the movie continues to be banned in the Philippines and Singapore. Even though I was generally interested in the plot, this was not one of my favorite Scorsese films.
4. In The Realm of the Senses, or Ai No Corrida (1976)
Based on a true story set in pre-war Japan, a man and one of his servants begin a torrid affair. Their desire becomes a sexual obsession so strong that to intensify their ardor, they forsake all, even life itself. Director Nagisa Oshima was highly criticized for using explicit sex to draw attention to the film, but the director has stated that the explicitness is an integral part of the movie’s design. In the US, the film was initially banned upon its premiere at the 1976 New York Film Festival, but later screened uncut. The film was not available on home video until 1990. To this day, the uncensored film has not been shown in it’s native Japan. Upon watching this film, I felt nothing but disbelief from the extreme nature of the film. I felt like I went through a cesspool.
5. Deep Throat (1972)
One of the first pornographic films to feature a plot, character development and relatively high production standards, Deep Throat earned mainstream attention and launched the “porn chic” trend, despite the film being banned in some regions of the country and the subject of obscenity trials. The film’s title soon became a pop culture reference, most notably when then–Washington Post managing editor Howard Simons chose “Deep Throat” as the pseudonym for a Watergate informant, identified many years later to be former FBI agent, W. Mark Felt. This is one of those films that’s a must see if you haven’t watch a porn film.
6. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tennessee Williams, the film deals with a culture clash between two iconic characters, Blanche DuBois (played by Vivien Leigh), a fading relic of the Old South, and Stanley Kowalski (played by Marlon Brando), a rising member of the industrial, urban working class. The play’s themes were controversial, causing the screenplay for the film to be watered down to comply with Hollywood’s “Production Code”. In the film, Stella renounces Stanley’s rape of Blanche, perhaps to the point of leaving the household. In the original play, the ending is more ambiguous, with Stella, distraught at having sent off her sister Blanche, mutely allowing herself to be consoled by Stanley. Williams, in his memoirs, describes the film as “marvelous performances in a great movie, only slightly marred by Hollywood ending.” This was my favorite Tennessee Williams play, and I always watch the film when it’s on TV.
7. Vixen (1968)
Director Russ Meyer had been making nude reels (The Immoral Mr. Teas) and adult-themed motion pictures (Lorna & Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill) for years. But when the MPAA introduced their new ratings system, this film became the first to be designated with the new “X” rating. The film involves the misadventures of the oversexed Vixen (played by Erica Gavin), as she sexually manipulates everyone she meets. The story’s taboo-violations mount quickly, including themes of incest, racism, and violence. Russ Meyer keeps the viewer entertained with a well written storyline, an attractive lead character and sexual tension without using hardcore sex to get the message across.
8. Kids (1995)
The film features Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson in their screen debuts. It centered on a day in the life of a group of sexually active teenagers in New York City and their unrestrained behavior towards sex and substance abuse (alcohol and illegal drugs) during the era of HIV in the mid-1990s. The film created considerable controversy upon its release, and caused much public debate over its artistic merit, receiving an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. Despite the controversy, the film’s director, Larry Clark was nominated for a Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. As one of the critics called it, “…it’s a wake-up call to the world.” It was a powerful wake-up call, to say the least.
9. Mandingo (1975)
Based on the novel by Kyle Onstott, this film boasted a high profile director (Richard Fleischer, who previously made Soylent Green and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and featured big named stars at the time (James Mason, Susan George, Perry King, and boxer Ken Norton). The result, the highly exploitative 1800’s piece about life on a Southern plantation shocked audiences and critics, alike. Despite the controversial nature of the film (slavery and its interracial sex scenes), the movie still generated lots of revenue for the film’s production company, Paramount. I still laugh at James Mason talking like Colonel Harland Sanders. That, and a number of unitentional laughs.
10. Do The Right Thing (1989)
One of Spike Lee’s most successful films was also, his most controversial. Centered on a Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn neighborhood, the film is a day in the life of a pizza delivery man, played by Lee and the shop’s owner, played by Danny Aiello. Tensions between the shop’s white owner and the black neighborhood reach a fever-pitch during it’s violent climax. The film was released to protests from many reviewers, and it was openly stated in several newspapers that the film could incite black audiences to riot. No such riots occurred, and Lee criticized white reviewers for implying that black audiences were incapable of restraining themselves while watching a fictional motion picture. Out of all the Spike Lee “joints”, this one always comes back to me.
Other films of a controversial nature, but I haven’t seen as of this blog posting.
The Devils (1971)
Ken Russell’s film about the rise and fall of Urbain Grandier, a 17th century French priest executed for witchcraft following the supposed possessions of Loudun faced harsh reaction from national film rating systems around the world, due to its disturbingly violent, sexual, and religious content. It was banned in several countries, and heavily edited for release in others. The film has never received a release in its original, uncut form in various countries, and is largely unavailable in the home video market. Not sure how I can find it, but I may have to get a bootleged copy.
Salo, The 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notorious transposition of the Marquis de Sade’s eighteenth-century opus of torture and degradation to 1944 Fascist Italy. The film focuses on four wealthy, corrupted fascist libertines in Benito Mussolini’s Italy in 1944, who kidnap a total of eighteen teenage boys and girls and subject them to four months of extreme violence, sadism, sexual and mental torture. The film is noted for exploring the themes of political corruption, abuse of power, sadism, perversion, sexuality, and fascism. Watching DVD photos of the film gave me the “willies”. But now that there’s a new Criterion Collection release, my nerves might be easing.
Myra Breckinridge (1970)
Based on Gore Vidal’s novel of the same name, the American campy comedy film, featured Raquel Welch in the title role, along with John Huston, Mae West, Farrah Fawcett, Rex Reed, and Tom Selleck in his film debut. Like the novel, the picture was controversial for its sexual explicitness, but unlike the novel, Myra Breckinridge received little to no critical praise and has been cited as one of the worst films ever made. If anything, it would be only for the sake of wasting 90 minutes when there’s nothing else happening on TV.
Like Eric Bichoff said, “Controversy Creates Ca$h!”