By Robert Hofler

The late 1960s marked a dramatic shift in Western culture generally, and critical veterans of that generation have been increasingly drawn to explanations of what happened and why. In one of the best known accounts of what happened during these tumultuous years on screen, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the film critic Peter Biskind documented how, in the words of his subtitle, the “Sex – Drugs – and – Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.” In a subsequent book, Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris marked 1967 as Hollywood’s watershed. The moment for both authors was the same, and so were the pioneering films: Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Easy Rider (1969).

Robert Hofler’s Sexplosion returns to this moment for a look at the sexual revolution in American culture that occurred between 1968 and 1973. He surveys literature, theatre, television, and movies, but his emphasis, as in Biskind’s and Harris’s books, is on film. These were the years when cinema taboos were broken left and right, with the way sex was presented on film being changed forever.

In particular, what happened is that Hollywood came out of the closet. There were other taboos being broken – on language and nudity, for example – but the Big One was male homosexuality. This is also the clear focus of Hofler’s account, and the taboo subject he clearly sees as central to the revolution. His story of pop rebels is decidedly a “male tale.”

Male homosexuality didn’t just find its way onto network TV (in All in the Family and the PBS docuseries An American Family), but was absolutely essential to the films of Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey, Myra Breckenridge, Midnight Cowboy, The Boys in the Band, Performance, Death in Venice, Sunday Bloody Sunday, and many others. Even in films that weren’t explicitly about gays, a gay subtext was hard to miss. Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling in the nude in Women in Love? More like Men in Love, some critics sniffed. And Last Tango in Paris? Rumors immediately circulated that Bertolucci “had originally conceived the film as the love story of two men” – rumors that Bertolucci helped to spread. Hofler’s punchline is succinct: “In the late 1890s, Oscar Wilde said that homosexuality was ‘the love that dare not speak its name.” In the late 1960s, Mike Nichols called it ‘the vice that won’t shut up.’” And once the doors (or floodgates) opened, if you wanted to be a sexual revolutionary who was not gay you had to run to the other extreme: a path taken by Kenneth “Nonqueer” Tynan and Sam “Red Meat” Peckinpah.

Why this moment to come out? That’s harder to say, and Hofler doesn’t really have an answer. It may have simply been a result of the way affluence and comfort lead to tolerance. In any event, it was good business. The more notorious movies were usually made with small budgets but they returned big profits, and money doesn’t talk any louder than it does in Hollywood. “Smashing taboos could be profitable.” Controversy put bums in seats, at least for a while.

But it didn’t last. Hofler’s final chapter is another version of Biskind’s “we blew it,” as he rambles through what came after the thaw. Already by the end of the period we had reached the year of “porn chic,” while the re-release of an uncut version of Ken Russell’s The Devils in the early 2000s was, for Hofler, only “a reminder of what groundbreaking work the major Hollywood studios once produced on a regular basis in the Sexplosion years – and how diminished that output has been since then.” Coming out as gay had become a very tired rite of celebrity passage around the same time. Public nudity was a human right. Kinky sex had devolved to Fifty Shades of Grey. The culture has become far more permissive, but duller at the same time.

What makes this absorption into mass culture even more depressing is the realization that very little of the groundbreaking and taboo-smashing art of the Sexplosion was any good in the first place. Who can watch Warhol’s movies today? Or The Boys in the Band? Or Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song? (I don’t even know (or care) if I’m spelling that last one right.) Who would want to go to a production of Hair or Oh! Calcutta! for a night out? Myra Breckenridge and Barbarella are curiosities, but terrible movies that can only be seen once or maybe twice. Personally, I don’t think Last Tango in Paris holds up that well, or Death in Venice much better. Even Midnight Cowboy and Carnal Knowledge are period pieces, bereft of any shock value in the twenty-first century and remembered mainly for the strength of individual performances.

Is this surprising? Liberation isn’t art, and neither is controversy. It’s not even clear if they lead to art, or prepare the way. There was a revolution, and it was televised. The landscape changed, but the figures on the ground have long since been erased.

Review first published online December 29, 2014.

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