Sex and the single boy

A British actor goes to Hollywood and gets screwed. Same old story. Thank heavens, then, for a film year shaped by strong women. By Chris Peachment
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The Independent Culture
The defining moment of the year in film was surely that feeling of surprise and pleasure when we realised that not only did Hugh Grant have genitals, but he actually knew how to use them. For so long now, we have become accustomed to his stammering, blushing, upper-middle-class, repressed-Englishman act that one feared for the man's sanity.

But not any longer. The boy finally let rip, with the divinely named Divine Brown. The sad thing was his abject humility afterwards. Instead of raising two fingers and saying "So?", he went into an orgy of apology and started running scared.

In fact, the whole small event can be seen without much strain as a metaphor for the British film actor in Hollywood for the first time. You make a splash back home. They invite you to Hollywood. They suck you into the system, and drain your talent for what, in the final analysis, turns out to be just so much disposable audience gratification. Whether it be under the dashboard of a BMW, or in the studios, Hollywood is a place where the weak will be screwed.

There were two surprising things about the event. Hugh Grant may not yet be on the A- list, but someone of his standing is usually met at the airport by a stretch limo, complete with a Cointreau-filled jacuzzi, and two well-oiled starlets in the back.

The other odd thing was that people seemed shocked. Or at least they affected shock. Hollywood has always been one huge sex industry. Sex has always been the lubrication that keeps the film reels turning.

With that in mind, the following is an account of some of the more memorable sexy moments on film in the past year. Of course, it is partial, not least because it is from a man's point of view.

Strange to relate, the movies have been rather short on Divine Brown's speciality. But from the excellent low-budget US independent film, Clerks, which was just a bunch of guys sitting around talking while minding the store, we did learn what a "snowball" was (you'll have to see the film yourself to find out). And we also learnt how it is possible to commit necrophilia by accident. According to the coroner, called in to fetch some poor old man who has expired in the store's lavatory, it is quite common for an erection to continue after death. Alas, one poor girl later confesses that she had sneaked in there in the dark looking for her boyfriend, assumed the cadaver to be him, and well, the rest is a small piece of film history. Grim humour, but mordantly funny none the less.

Staying on the grim side of making the two-backed beast, Goldeneye managed the tricky business of updating Bond to the Nineties, and part of that process was to have a Russian villainess called Onnatop, who did a nice line in squeezing men to death between her thighs. I must confess to a frisson comparable to when Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) once threw Sean Connery clean over her shoulder. What is it about strong women?

What it is about strong women is that they are coming into their own for the first time on screen since the great film noir era, when women such as Barbara Stanwyck could twist men around their fingers to the point where they would do anything, even murder, to please their object of desire.

Dora Carrington was a strong woman, although you wouldn't guess from Christopher Hampton's directorial debut, which should have been called Strachey. She moved in with Strachey, and loved him dearly, but, necessarily, platonically, since he was gay. So she married Ralph Partridge just to keep him around the house, because Strachey loved him. Then Partridge takes a mistress in town, so Carrington takes up with his best friend. As Strachey says at one point: "What a world. Women in love with buggers. Buggers in love with married men. Married men with mistresses. And what with the price of coal!" She also had lesbian leanings, which the film politely ignored.

It has been a big year for lesbian cinema, though with poor results. There were no less than four tales about murderous lesbianism - Sister My Sister, Heavenly Creatures, Fun and Butterfly Kiss - and all of them dreadful. Then there was Thin Ice, about lesbian ice dancers, which inevitably gained the title Pink Rink.

On a slightly gay theme, Shallow Grave had the considerably endowed Kerry Fox emerging topless from the bathroom; the man's indifference was the first hint that he might be gay. And The Usual Suspects had, among its many memorable moments, two criminals exchanging banter: "And what will you do if you end up inside?"

"Fuck your father in the showers. Go for some lunch." Not exactly gay perhaps, but worthy of Tarantino.

Another strong woman was Sigourney Weaver in Polanksi's Death and the Maiden. Having survived torture and rape at the hands of the secret police, she later turns the tables on Ben Kingsley, and his subsequent ritual humiliation may well have had its attractions for bondage fans.

Sharon Stone, one of Hollywood's strongest women, graced the mock spaghetti western The Quick and the Dead as the fastest gunslinger since Clint, and while she didn't let on as to whether she was wearing knickers this time, she did blow Gene Hackman out of his boots. In a similar vein Sophie Marceau looked terrific in breeches as D'Artagnan's Daughter, and also engaged in some heavy swordfighting with the best of them.

Lots of good sword fighting, too, in La Reine Margot, which pleased many women with its line-up of well-muscled, long-haired Frenchmen all hacking divots off each other. The sexiest moment though was Daniel Auteuil and Isabelle Adjani shoved up against a wall. They may have been fully clothed, but what urgency! Of the other French films, Leon gave us a new sex symbol. Jean Reno looks like France's answer to Robert Mitchum. He has the same huge body, the same rolling walk, the same husky voice and the same natural gravitas. If I were Fanny Ardant, I would go for him. In fact, she does go for him in the forthcoming Antonioni film, Beyond the Clouds, and mighty touching they are together.

Taken all in all, the sexiest events of the filmic year all came from strong women in touching moments. The first time Meryl touches Clint in The Bridges of Madison County is when she straightens his collar from behind, much as she must have done a thousand times before with her husband and son.

Also very touching was Johnny Depp in two different films. As Ed Wood, he played the Z-grade, poverty-row film director, who was also a man who claimed to have stormed the beaches at Iwo Jima wearing a full set of women's underwear beneath his combat gear. His first marriage cracks under that strain, but when he explains his desires to Patricia Arquette she calmly removes her angora sweater for him to try on. A kind moment in a lovely film.

Depp also played the title role in Don Juan De Marco, a man who, far from being mad, knew just how to woo the cotton socks off any women who crossed his path. "You have brought my manhood alive and made it sing," he says to one girl, and gets the fascinated reply: "It sings?" He also inspires his shrink, Marlon Brando (in his best role in years), to regain the passion he once had for his wife, Faye Dunaway. "What happened to the celestial fires," he asks her, "that used to light our way?" Try it out , it's a good line.

The two Depp films get my vote for sexiest moments of the year, although Kristin Scott Thomas gets a special award for being the sexiest Englishwoman. As Angels and Insects showed, she has intelligence, strength and, that most civilised quality, a sense of irony. The fact that Hugh Grant didn't marry her in Four Weddings and a Funeral should be a punishable offence.

Is there finally any one over-arching pattern to all of this? Not really, except to note that, even if women are getting stronger, there is less sex, and indeed less violence, in the movies compared to the Seventies, in spite of what the moral crusaders would have you believe. In more general terms, the US independent scene is by far the healthiest at the moment, with films such as Clerks, Crumb, Amateur and The Brothers McMullen proving that all you need to make a movie is a good script, a bunch of friends, a garage, a credit card and a passion. I wish someone would tell the British that. Then they would not need to head down Sunset Boulevard in search of satisfaction.