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Famous Movie Sex Scenes

Relive the last 25 years of memorable sex scenes from popular mainstream movies.

By Glenn KennyPublished 8 years ago 6 min read

Prosthetics, digitization, and other tricks of the trade can make fake sex look realer than real sex. The MPAA and its rating system are eager to put a damper on the Hollywood creatives who present new levels of verisimilitude to multiplex patrons. But most of us understand what the power of suggestion can do. Whether they are realistic or totally over the top, a good sex scene has the power to transform a movie into an Oscar-worthy production. They are not necessarily the most explicit, but the celebrity presence makes them the most powerful.

Dennis Hopper. Method Actor. Rebel. Culture Vulture. Perv. The man once did an entire pictorial spread of porn stars posing in front of vintage Abstract Expressionist art in his own home, so he’s a man after our own heart, even if he did sell those pictures to Hustler instead of Penthouse. In his 1990 directorial effort, The Hot Spot, he convinced Miles Davis to do movie music for the first time since 1960, showed us full-frontal nudity of now-all-grown-up teen star cutie Jennifer Connolly, and choreographed and shot one of the hottest sex scenes the MPAA has ever had to grapple with: the extended skinny-dip and outdoor seduction scene between Virginia Madsen and 1980s Miami Vice star Don Johnson, in which Madsen’s character demonstrates just why, in her words, “I always get what I want.”

The gonzo sex thriller Basic Instinct was a defining film of the 1990s, with a near-hysterical equation of sex, violence, and drugged-out oblivion seeming to define an erotic nirvana of excess. Some of it might appear a little cheesy now. Undeniable, though, is the chemistry between Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, the latter at the height of her ice queen/crazed slut dichotomy. Her character drives Douglas’s messed-up cop to such distraction he practically rapes his girlfriend (Jeanne Tripplehorn, not without sex appeal herself). The scene in which Douglas submits to Stone and lets her tie him to the bed despite the strong likelihood that she’ll put an ice pick in his neck while she gets off, is still an amazing classic.

“I remember doing the sex scene in Red Rock West. I had to kiss Nicolas Cage and then look like I was going down on him. And he couldn’t do anything – he just had to lie there,” recalled Lara Flynn Boyle of her onscreen assignation in the indie neo-noir. Of course, in mainstream pictures, it’s always the quality of the simulation that counts, and for whatever was or wasn’t going on for real, when Boyle’s vamp character tries to bend Cage’s will via oral manipulation, the effect is convincing indeed. Talk about the power of suggestion.

“Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” Henry Kissinger is reputed to have said, and he ought to know. A Q.E.D. to this declaration is provided in Disclosure, director Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s sexual-harassment thriller. This seduction scene, between ostensible power-bottom Moore, a corporate bigwig, and Douglas, an ex-lover who’s now her subordinate, doesn’t even end in consummation! But while it veers on its way to the now-married Douglas character having a crisis of conscience, it builds up a head of steam and engorgement that’s hard to, um, beat. The next day Douglas’s character wakes up to not only blue balls but a lawsuit from his boss. Talk about a case of the Mondays. Through it all, Moore plays it as hot as newly forged steel.

After creating a franchise with Drew Barrymore starring in the 1992 original, the Poison Ivy producers figured the way to keep it going was more nudity (which Drew didn’t do). The volcanically hot Pressly, on the other hand, was more than happy to oblige for the third movie of the series, and she gets naked or half-naked here at least as often as she poisons someone’s drink. We can’t figure out which scene from this deliciously trashy picture is more erotic: her poolside seduction of dopey peer Greg Vaughan or her cosplay bedding with older man Des Barres. We’re going with the Des Barres scene, because while Pressly later expressed regret at her lack of inhibition, we have to thank her for the whole thing. Rrreeow.

When David Lynch expanded a rejected television pilot about an aspiring Hollywood actress who finds herself living in a mystery into a feature-film, he availed himself of the freedom the theatrical medium gave him. Which meant, among other things, expanding on the sexuality of the two main characters, naïve all-American blonde Betty Watts and amnesiac femme fatale Rita Harring. In Mulholland Drive, the two lost girls fall in love while trying to unravel the mystery of Rita’s past, and seem to exchange identities, Persona-style, but not before enjoying a lesbian bedroom tryst as lusciously sensual as it is tortured. (Director Lynch blurred Harring’s pubic area in the scene at the actress’s unusual request, or so it is reported; it scarcely makes a difference.)

“Make me feel good,” Halle Berry’s almost catatonically distraught widow Leticia mumbles to former corrections officer Hank, played by Billy Bob Thornton, as they embark on an epic exploration of each other’s bodies and souls in the searing drama Monster’s Ball. What Berry doesn’t know is that Hank was one of the fellows who assisted in her husband’s prison execution. These are characters who’ve both suffered terrible losses (Hank’s son committed suicide right in front of him), and the sex is at first a desperate act of mutual consolation that becomes an erotic odyssey. Those who might be thinking, “Billy Bob Thornton? Yuck!” are kind of missing the point. Also, note that Thornton has done pretty well in real life. As for Berry, she won a Best Actress Oscar for baring it all in every sense of the term.

In 1999, People Magazine named just-50 Richard Gere the sexiest man alive. Less than five years later, he played a character getting cuckolded, hard, by smoldering Frenchie Martinez in Unfaithful, the remake of Claude Chabrol’s La Femme Infidèle, directed by the man who gave us 9 and 1/2 Weeks. If anything, this movie is steamier than the groundbreaking Mickey Rourke/Kim Basinger film from 1986, which has badly dated. The characters played by Martinez and Lane, Paul and Connie (short for Constance, get it?) are so immediately attracted to each other they literally can’t stop fucking: they go at it in hallways, restaurant bathrooms, wherever. And they luxuriate nude in Paul’s Soho loft, which is a big real estate porn component of the movie. It all ends pretty poorly, but they do have fun getting there.

After breaking new ground in motion picture love stories with 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, director Ang Lee created a daring story of sexual dominance and submission giving way to eruptive emotions with Lust, Caution, a period espionage thriller set in Shanghai. Hong Kong star Leung, a screen figure with charisma to spare, instructs his secret lover Tang Wei in the ways of bondage and spanking, largely against her will. Their liaisons become more heated, and more two-way, over time. All the while he doesn’t know that the girl is a revolutionary agent intending to assassinate him. The currents of sexual tension and danger of death that animated Basic Instinct are depicted with unusual intensity and integrity here. While the picture flopped in the States, it was enormous in certain parts of Asia, where both the passion and the politics rang uncomfortably true.

“I want you to put your hand up my dress.” “You’re not wearing a dress.” “What does that have to do with it?” With nothing more than two ultra-sexy movie stars in the nude, a white sheet, and pillow talk courtesy of Cormac McCarthy, Ridley Scott crafted one of the sexiest scenes of 2013 or any other year for that matter. The opening of The Counselor depicts its title character, Fassbender, (whose actual name we never learn) and his love object, Laura, between those sheets, in a state of sexual innocence and abandon, with the counselor going down on Laura with such passion and skill that she admits “You’ve ruined me.” So love-besotted is Fassbender’s character that he makes some grievously ill-advised decisions about how to secure his future with his girl, and then the story really gets ruined. But for this intimate opening, the characters and the viewers are in paradise.

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About the Creator

Glenn Kenny

Senior editor and chief film critic of Premiere magazine, 1998-2007. Appears as Dick Filth in David Foster Wallace's essay "Big Red Son." Author and Editor. New York Times Writer.

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    Glenn KennyWritten by Glenn Kenny

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