The Death of Hollywood Sexy

What happened to the hot movies that smoldered through the ’80s and ’90s? “Fifty Shades of Grey” is more proof that sex is missing from our theaters.

02.25.15 1:45 PM ET

Hollywood’s going through a bit of a dry spell.

Fifty Shades Of Grey got America talking about blindfolds and bondage, yet the erotic lit fantasy was shamefully tame and antiseptic when it came to getting down. Over $411 million in global box office proves the predominantly female audience was indeed “curious” to see how Christian Grey would de-flower his eager bedroom slave, Anastasia Steele. But the C+ CinemaScore and 73% second week drop-off in ticket sales suggest most won’t be persuaded to tap that again.

And who can blame them? Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan’s BDSM sexcapades are so yawn-inducingly vanilla, they make Skinemax look hardcore. EL James’ NSFW books had readers fanning themselves on the subway, but the film, hurried into production by Universal and Focus Features, excised of the novel’s more lurid details. Fans were left calling for sexier sex and railing against its lack of dick shots.

Meanwhile, Will Smith gets jiggy this week with Margot Robbie in Focus, a luxury goods commercial masquerading as a sexy thriller that’s been marketed as the second coming of Out Of Sight. Unfortunately for everyone, Smith and Robbie are no George Clooney and J. Lo, whose chemistry in that Soderbergh sizzler legitimately steamed up the screen.

Smith does tiptoe outside his comfort zone in Focus, stalking around fancy Buenos Aires hotels and showing off his abs as a charming but damaged grifter pining for Robbie’s femme fatale. But trailers for Focus dance around a sexual chemistry that isn’t quite there; even Smith admits the “full-on, steamy grown man-ness” of filming lovemaking scenes felt awkward.

Not that he has much to fret over: Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa tempt viewers with peeks of his and her skin in the film’s few sex scenes. Alas, like most studio films these days, they tastefully cut away every time things get too racy.  

Moreover, Focus has pulled a marketing sleight of hand in the throbbing vein of Fifty Shades; it’s rated R for language, violence, and “some sexual content,” but that’s being rather generous. Even its ad campaign relies on glamour shots of Smith and Robbie staring off into the distance, wearing expensive shades and designer duds. They are shilling for luxe living and indistinct sexiness without actually being full-on, grown up sexy.

Suffice to say 2015 is not ushering in a new era for sex and sexuality at the movies. The closest you’ll find is Blackhat, which splices some brief Chris Hemsworth action into all the Chris Hemsworth action, or J. Lo, who strikes again in The Boy Next Door. It’s been far too long since Hollywood has inducted a new film into the carnal canon alongside sexy cinema classics like 9 1/2 Weeks, Basic Instinct, Don’t Look Now, Body Heat, Last Tango In Paris, Secretary, and Unfaithful.

Unlike those sexually daring films from decades past, the majority of studio fare is designed to take few risks. It’s possible that the looming shadow of the conservative MPAA created a chilling effect. Instead of waiting for the censors to snip away, filmmakers are watering down their own sex scenes into tasteful, clichéd mélanges of Barbie doll limbs, selective nudity, suggestive close-ups, and L-sheets.

So where has all the sexy gone? 

To our television screens. That’s where graphic sexiness has flourished while studios repressed the in flagrante flair that raged hot and heavy in the films of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

In the past year alone, we’ve seen delicious gay sex on ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder, unexpected ass-play on HBO’s Girls, and a headline-grabbing sixty-nine on FX’s The Americans.  Twisted, torrid nookie abounds on Game of Thrones, while Showtime snagged two Golden Globes for The Affair, about a steamy extramarital coupling.

And in case you missed it, King Henry fatally humped a lady out of a window on The CW’s teen period drama Reign. Even that stroke of mad genius in the writer’s room managed to inform character and plot. Shame, then, we can’t get more than a few polite thrusts from Christian Grey.

You know the state of sexiness in film is really dire when more sparks erupt from Channing Tatum operating an angle grinder in the Magic Mike XXL teaser than from any onscreen duo in recent memory. Since modern studio economics mean few people are in the erotic, R-rated movies for grown-ups business these days, nothing Hollywood’s got lined up in the coming year promises to compensate for the massive letdown of Fifty Shades of Tame. Who’ll be the first to bring sexy back from the dead?