In sexy Tinseltown you've got to fake it to make it

In Hollywood, movies about sex rarely make it past the censors – and those that do are a total turn off, says Geoffrey Macnab

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The Independent Culture

Fifty Shades Of Grey author E L James has been in Hollywood this week, meeting producers keen to adapt her best-selling erotic novel for the screen. Such well-established names as Ron Howard and Brian Grazer (the team behind Frost/Nixon and forthcoming Formula 1 movie Rush), Nina Jacobson (the former Disney exec who brought Hunger Games to the screen) and the very cerebral Focus Features boss James Schamus are reportedly vying to make Fifty Shades Of Grey: The Movie, the hope clearly being to turn the novel and its sequels into an adult version of Twilight or Hunger Games.

It's a moot point, though, whether the millions of (mainly women) readers who've lapped up the descriptions of the heroine naked and shackled, "spreadeagled on a large four poster bed", can now be lured to a multiplex. There is an obvious difference between consuming erotic fiction discreetly on an e-reader and queuing up to watch scenes of bondage and sadomasochism while munching on popcorn. The race to bring Fifty Shades to the screen seems also incongruous, given Hollywood's well-known prudishness. This week, the Edinburgh International Film Festival opens with the UK premiere of William Friedkin's noirish comedy Killer Joe. This film has already fallen foul of US censors and has been given an NC-17 rating (which will prevent it being shown in mainstream theatres.) Killer Joe is indeed very violent in parts. But so are many other films which get R ratings. The suspicion remains that what really riled censorship body The Motion Picture Association Of America (MPAA) was the graphic, in your face nudity (the movie has barely started when we see an unwaxed Gina Gershon).

As Kirby Dick's 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated revealed, the "anonymous group of parents" in southern California who help decide ratings for the MPAA are intensely suspicious of imagery showing female sexual pleasure. Kimberley Peirce, director of Boys Don't Cry, commented after her own tussles with the censors that "in a culture where most movies are written men, directed by men, they (films) are mostly the male experience". Pierce suggested that "if you are a woman who understands female pleasure and understands it from the woman's perspective, you're probably going into terrain that is unfamiliar – and unfamiliarity is what breeds these NC-17s".

In Europe and Asia, there is a tradition of well-respected auteurs dealing with sexuality in a frank and unsettling way, without necessarily being attacked as perverts for doing so. Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter and Last Tango In Paris or Nagisa Oshima's In The Realm Of The Senses and Steve McQueen's Shame are examples of films with graphic sexual content that are treated respectfully by critics. Lars Von Trier is also about to start work on Nymphomaniac. These films may receive NC-17 ratings in the US but they are feted on the festival circuit. Historically, sex in Hollywood movies doesn't necessarily sell. The patchy box office performances of 9 1/2 Weeks, Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and Zalman King's Wild Orchid suggests that mass audiences don't really want to see such fare in cinemas.

Nor are these movies often artistic successes. There is too much soft focus, heavy breathing and posturing as filmmakers try to work out just how graphic they can be without alienating the censors.

The workings of the MPAA are often hard to fathom. A decade ago, Steven Shainberg's subversive S&M indie comedy Secretary (starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as an office worker and James Spader as the neurotic boss who likes to spank her) was rated R. The censors were seemingly won over by the film's lightness and humour and therefore didn't condemn it to the NC-17 wilderness. One guesses that leather riding crops won't be too firmly in evidence in Fifty Shades either and that the film will somehow have metamorphosed into a mainstream romantic blockbuster by the time it reaches your local cinema.