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Fonda, MacLaine, Wood: Sexuality and the sex comedy in the 1960s

Jane Fonda started in the movies at an interesting moment in terms of the representation of women’s sexuality. Or a certain fantasy of women’s sexuality. Suddenly around 1962, with the (limited) softening of some aspects in the Hays Code, franker representations of sexuality in Hollywood movies were allowed. Not that this helped women, of course. If anything, it made guys’ fantasies even coarser, even less interesting.

Sex comedies, misogynist fantasies.

Fantasies of womanhood were already quite limited around 1960. The old “bad girl” stereotype had peaked around the late 1940s and the two main poles of female representation in the 1950s were Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. Monroe represented the fantasy of the dumb blonde, very white, very voluptuous, probably sexually accommodating, in her roles she was always unmarried (divorced in The Misfits) and therefore, according to the masculine imagination, available. Hepburn represented another type: decidedly not fleshy, not voluptuous, somewhat boyish at times, occasionally sexy, always elegant, foreign. But working in the conservative 1950s, their images were firmly contained by the plots in their film. Yes, Monroe was sexier than either Hepburn or Doris Day (the third of the popular new stars that characterize the 50s), but plots and mise en scene made fun of her. Given the situation of censorship few attempts were made at sex comedy. If you tried hard, as Billy Wilder did with Some Like It Hot, you could have enough innuendo to make things clear in sex farces, but never literal sex. One could argue sex was everywhere in the 50s, as sex is everywhere in the movies, but it needed to have deniability.

This was not necessary after the changes introduced in the Hays Code in 1962 which at least allowed for a less convoluted representation of adultery, prostitution, occasional nudity, female desire, pre-marital sex. And married couples could be seen as sleeping on the same bed. This post focuses on how comedy took advantage of the new permissiveness in a series of “risqué” comedies. This had an influence on the development of the star personae of younger actresses. Some, especially those with a Broadway background, like Anne Bancroft, easily resisted the pressures of such obviously mysoginist frivolity. and stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn (both still going strong in the decade) did substantial films, whereas Julie Andrews, maybe the most enduring “new” star of the decade, does not make it to the movies until 1964 (with a sex comedy: The Americanization of Emily). But actresses more dependent on the Hollywood system found in these comedies a way to project an image of modernity and, in the case of Wood, to “grow up” in terms of persona.

The films still had to balance out a certain salaciousness with morality. And somehow morality always seemed to be acting against female characters. In the hands of a great director with sense of humour and keen eye, the genre could lead to something as effective as Kiss Me Stupid (Billy Wilder, 1964), probably the best sex comedy of the decade, but most titles were hit and miss, often unbearably unfunny. This sex comedy cycle flourishes (but it’s not limited to) the years between the relaxation of the Hays Code and the end of the Code in 1969 and includes the following: Sex and the Single Girl, Love with the Proper Stranger, Penelope, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (all starring Natalie Wood), A Period of Adjustment, Any Wednesday, Cat Ballou, Barefoot in the Park (all with Jane Fonda), Irma La douce, All in a Night’s Work, Woman Times Seven, John Goldfarb Please Come Home, What a Way to Go, Gambit, The Bliss of Miss Blossom, (all with Shirley MacLaine, the undisputed queen of this kind of film).

Actually, these three actresses constituted some kind of generation cluster whose ties to Hollywood (and of course also her looks) made them ideally suited for the cycle (in the case of Fonda, due to family ties, the other two had developed before 1960 film careers). Natalie Wood, Shirley McLaine and Jane Fonda had some of the strongest new career arcs and can help us start to think what it meant to be a young female film star in the 1950s. MacLaine, born in 1934 is the oldest of the trio, and Wood, born in 1938, the youngest, although she was also the first to have steady work in the movies as she started as a child actress. Fonda was born in 1937 and had her film debut in a 1960 Josh Logan student comedy titled Tall Story with Tony Perkins on the verge of becoming Norman Bates forever. Incidentally, the three of them appeared naked on film in a decade where such things were not encouraged: Marilyn’s nipple in The Misfits seems like and accident, but there is something of a tease in Wood in Splendour in the Grass (1960) and in MacLaine in Irma la Douce (1963).  Of course Fonda did a lot of nudity in her French films, and is probably the American actress who displayed more flesh in that decade.

Natalie Wood: flirting with feminism

Wood’s actual breakthrough role in her post-childhood year was the oscar nominated part in Rebel without a Cause (1955) made in the same year as McLaine’s film debut in Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry. In this film , she is presented as bold sexually precocious and it guaranteed a series of roles during the rest of the decade. Still by 1960 insiders consider her charm gone. It was then that Elia Kazan saw her potential to play Deanie, the young girl who acquiesces to the sexually opressive conventions in small town Texas and almost goes mad. The script was written by William Inge and she had a sexually charged rapport with co-star Warren Beatty in his film debut.

This changed perceptions regarding her persona and henceforth sex and sexuality were strong elements in her characters. Her Maria in West Side Story was naive, but also sexual and of course she played a strip teaser in Gypsy. But the most interesting role in comedy is in Sex and the Single Girl. The origin of the film was a famous book by Dr Helen Brown that is regarded as influential in explaining the joys of sexuality for single girls at the start of the decade (in Mad Men, it is the kind of book Peggy would read). The film has something of a patriarchal revenge on the potentially liberating advice on the book: Wood plays some neurotic version of Dr Brown, who is pursued by a journalist (Tony Curtis) to force her to confess she’s actually a virgin and therefore can’t give advice on the joys of sex. So, by the end of the film she is contained. She repeated the joke on feminism in another film where she was partnered with Curtis: Blake Edwards’ The Great Race, in which she portrays every negative cliché on feminism.

She did another sex-centered roles, and inaugurated a new openness in one of the first comedies to actually acknowledge (no matter how tamely) the sexual revolution: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, on four friends who experiment with sex. In comedy, Wood had a limited range: she tended to act on the outside and there was never too much evidence of desire or passion. Everything about Wood in comedy seems right, and she seemed happy to use sex appeal to deride sex positive women.

Shirley MacLaine: prostitutes and dolls

MacLaine is the most prolific performer in this selection. She was featured in no less than 16 films during the decade. It is interesting that in most of them she had extra marital sex (the concept of Woman Times Seven is built around this), often adulterous, and since her turn as Ginny in  Minnelli’s Some Came Running (1958) she played a prostitute at least three times again during the decade (Irma la Douce, Woman Times Seven, Sweet Charity). In several films (Night’s Work, Goldfarb, Irma) she appears with very little on and probably nobody displayed more flesh in American movies since Johnny WeissmullerAnd here’s something interesting about MacLaine: she could be great fun, and moving and engaging, but sexual she ain’t.

So putting together MacLaine and sex was in a way having it both ways, and I think Billy Wilder understood this: can you imagine Irma la Douce with Anne Bancroft? It would have been just too serious. Even wrapped in a towel (in All In a Night’s Work) or naked in a bathtub (in Irma) there was something doll-like about her, almost unreal, and maybe that’s what Don Siegel hit on when he complained of her coldness during the shooting of Two Mules For Sister Sarah (a hooker again). The secret of the MacLaine persona, then was to get into “risqué” roles but making audiences think it was not in earnest, as if it was just a joke. In Charity she repeated her Ginny character of a naive hooker with a golden heart, which made her simply unthreatening. Men could feel comfortable with her: she was unneurotic, accommodating. MacLaine contributed to the sex comedy all the qualities of the fifties even if the content was becoming more and more transgressive.

Jane Fonda: sex kitten manqué

Although Fonda starts the 1960s at some kind of disadvantage (the other two had oscar nominations by 1959), as a Hollywood child it seems to have been easier for her to get into the movies and was soon working with such established names as Josh Logan, Edward Dmytryk and George Cukor. She was also less successful in this decade than either Wood or MacLaine, although she did have a strong career (and a life!) in France and she had the most erotic starring role of the trio with the legendary Barbarella (Roger Vadim, 1968). In the French films her persona was modeled on her husband’s former wife Brigitte Bardot, and they all contained nudity and extra marital sex, as well as provocative pouting and flirting, but there was nothing feminist about them. This sex kitten pouting was clearly for men who did not care too much about real women. Her acting in these films is unrealistic, she often seems dazed, lost, even more so than in the American comedies.

Indeed, if we think of her French films, these remarks would need to be altered slightly, but the fact is in the mid-sixties Hollywood still had a certain tendency to remain impervious to what actresses did abroad. It’s as if her French sexpots had no influence on her Hollywood persona. Any Wednesday is an interesting film in the cycle, as she plays the lover of a married man (Jason Robards) while keeping some kind of pouty innocence, and in Cat Ballou she took the act to the Far West. By 1968, right before her watershed turn as Gloria in They Shoot Horses, Don´t They? she was still playing a sexy newly wed in Barefoot in the Park with Robert Redford. Although sexually aware, the fact is the way the role was developed contained any strong suggestions of a sexual life: like MacLaine, she has a kind of naiveté that contains active sexuality. So all her sexuality existed in some kind of bubble and did not engage with real sexual experience for women. But it was clear that by the end of the decade when she returned to Hollywood to stay she was dissatisfied with the kind of roles available. Which explains Gloria.

So, more sexual openness does not necessarily mean liberation. Neither for men (who seemed condemned to keep their desire within certain limits) but particularly for women, who could be sophisticated but largely sexless. There was certainly more noise about sexuality, more acknowledgment of it, but star personas remained old fashioned and far from representing real women-related issues, they remained the fantasies of dumb men. Consequently films really became dumber. Things were about to change in 1969, and it would be Fonda (together with Faye Dunaway, in many ways the central actress of the seventies) who would lead a feminist revolution of sorts in Hollywood with her role in Klute. But playing prostitutes is something that I will discuss in another post.

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