- YEAR: 1996
- DIRECTOR: Lilly and Lana Wachowski
- KEY ACTORS: Gina Gershon, Jennifer Tilly, Joe Pantoliano
- CERTIFICATE: 18
- IMDB SCORE: 7.3
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 89%
SEX SCORE: 4.5/5
✔️ This is definitely rewatchable because it is just so much fun!
✔️ And I absolutely would fuck the cast! I’m Kinsey 0-1 but Tilly and Gershon are so fucking hot that I don’t think that matters!
✔️ This is a queer movie with female protagonists – of course they talk about more than just men! Clear pass.
✔️ I do think it’s sex positive – the sex is authentic and looks both hot and a lot of fun!
❓ And I’m giving it a half mark for inspiring fantasies because they’re not very specific to this movie! But as I said, the sex looks hot and a lot of fun, and who wouldn’t want sex like that?
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Freeve via Amazon (free with ads), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49 or buy £5.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
This is only the second post in 2023. In fact, it’s only my second post in 15 months since I wrote about Power of the Dog in April 2022. Much has happened since then – I had a new baby; I’ve worked in 3 different hospitals as my junior doctor rotations come close to ending; I’ve tried (and so far failed) to complete my MD thesis – and writing about movies dropped down my priorities list.
But I missed it. Damn, I missed it. So when Molly asked me in April if I was interested in speaking at the sex blogging conference, Eroticon, on sex in the movies I was intrigued. When I began to research how I could talk about this huge subject in 45 mins, my delight at the complexities of movies was reignited and I became so intrigued at the prospect that I had to say yes. And that’s how I ended up giving a presentation on The History of Sex in Mainstream Hollywood Movies: the battle between erotic expression, conservative values and the rating system (and yes, that is a link to my slides, notes and references if you are interested!).
But even with such a long and supposedly focused title, the subject proved to be much MUCH too big for 45 minutes and I had to focus even further by framing my talk around Dangerous Women. Because it is frankly impossible to separate the history of sex in Hollywood from feminism and the history of women – by which I obviously mean all women, cis and trans, and really anyone who suffers the effects of the patriarchy and misogyny.
Because there was sex and eroticism on screen almost as soon as the technology was developed, and there were calls for censorship just as quickly. It took a couple of real-life Hollywood scandals and the blatant sexual freedom and desires of the women in the pre-code movies of the 1930s, such as Mae West and Barbara Stanwyck, to finally horrified the Catholic Legion of Decency enough to insist on the enforcement of the Hays Code or Motion Picture Production Code, a rigid censorship system released by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) that aimed to promote ‘traditional values’ and avoid ‘lowering the moral standards’ of those who saw the movies. Films released during the Production Code era from 1934 to 1968 were not allowed any illicit or sexual content, with intimacy hinted at with flirtatious banter or passionate kisses. There was no sex, only passionate love. And because this was a very Catholic code, adultery, homosexuality and sex before marriage were strictly forbidden. When sex was strongly insinuated, this was usually as a sign of weakness or immorality. The classic example of this comes from the film noir era where weak men were seduced by dangerous and beautiful women, the femme fatale, who had to be punished at the end of the movie – usually by killing them, sometimes by simply ruining them.
Outside of the movies, however, the sexual revolution of the 1960s was encouraging more sexual freedom and, as reproductive rights improved with the introduction of birth control and legalisation of abortion in America with Roe v Wade in 1973, women finally had the option to choose sex simply for pleasure, supposedly without consequence. With this came the desire for more adult content on screen, and directors like Hitchcock and Wilder began to simply ignore the Hays Code to create the content they wanted – think of the flushing toilet and adultery in Psycho and, well, the whole plot of Some Like it Hot – and these movies were still hugely successful. Faced with this complete loss of control, the MPAA abandoned the Code in 1968 and instead released a new rating scale, from G rated movies for general audiences, through PG and PG-13 movies to R or X (later NC-17) rating, which allowed sexual or violent content while still preventing children from being corrupted by it! Finally freed from constraints, sexually explicit movies like Last Tango in Paris or actual pornography like Deep Throat had a mainstream release and were hugely successful in the early 1970s. In the end, sadly, this freedom was followed by a period of social backlash as Reagan era conservatism tried to reverse all that had been gained.
Movies, however, could not be contained so easily, and the 1980s and 90s were filled with sexy and erotic movies – teen sex comedies, romantic movies involving sex workers, and updated reflections of film noir in the erotic thrillers of these decades. I’ve written about a few erotic thrillers already – Basic Instinct being the most famous, Fatal Attraction being the most controversial and 9½ Weeks being my favourite – and I have plans for many more!
But while movies continued to show sexual content on screen, the way that sex and women were depicted began to be used against feminists and the women’s movement. In 1991, Susan Faludi published her notorious book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women, which is still depressingly relevant today, and described the ‘feminism has gone too far’ attacks of the 80s and early 90s. It was a time when second-wave feminism of the 70s had proved to be inadequate and had not given women true equality, but it had done enough to cause significant male fragility and create fear at the dangers posed by power hungry but unsatisfied women. According to the backlash, women have careers but no men; we have rights to abortion but no children to love us. To quote Faludi summarising the backlash, ‘you may be free and equal now…but you have never been so miserable.’
In her book, Faludi directly attacks Hollywood and Fatal Attraction in particular, describing how movies were now full of ‘emancipated women with condominiums of their own [who] slink wild-eyed between bare walls, paying for their liberty with an empty bed, barren womb,’ causing Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lyne to respond by including a shot of an insignificant character reading her book in his next movie, Indecent Proposal, which in itself became a fulcrum for debate about what women actually want. Do we really want sexual freedom? (Obviously.) But do we want to be objectified? (Perhaps, sometimes.) Are we happy to be seen this way on screen (well, it depends) and are movies a true representation of sexual women? (Unlikely but let’s not make sweeping statements…)
But as those who attended my Eroticon talk will know, the big twist when it comes to representation of sexual women, and frankly women in general, in Hollywood is that women weren’t being given the opportunity to make these statements and representations themselves because women weren’t and really still aren’t allowed to make movies in Hollywood. Every movie I had mentioned in my presentation by this point had been directed by a man and, to paraphrase Helen O’Hara speaking on a podcast examining film criticism, I hadn’t necessarily picked the best movies as examples but they were the most famous and they were all directed by men. And this is still a huge problem – a Forbes article states that only 11% of the top 100 grossing movies in 2022 had female directors and representation hasn’t really changed over the past 25 years.
Which is why I am so fascinated by today’s movie, 1996’s Bound.
Bound is a classic neo-noir, reusing the structure of the 1940s film noir movies where the hero is seduced by a beautiful woman and encouraged to steal from her husband so that they can escape together, but has a significant difference – the heroes are both women. In Bound, beautiful gangster’s moll Violet (Tilly) seduces her neighbour, tough ex-con Corky (Gershon) and persuades her to help rob her husband, Caesar (Pantoliano), who works for the mob and is looking after $2 million in cash for them. Corky agrees; they take the money and manage to survive the incredibly dramatic and violent fallout from the mob, and drive off into the sunset in Corky’s truck! As a crime thriller, it’s amazing – tense, dramatic and violent. As specifically an erotic thriller, it’s just staggeringly hot.
But Bound is also important and different because, unlike all other famous erotic thrillers, it was directed by women.
The Wachowski twins, Lily and Lana, who directed Bound, are trans women but had not come out when they made this movie and didn’t come out until later in the decade after the monumental success of The Matrix in 1999. This means that the Hollywood establishment didn’t perceive them as women in 1996 so they were less limited by the misogynistic structures within the industry that might have otherwise affected them. When no one was yet trusting women to make mainstream thrillers, the Wachowskis were able to make a movie that really did provide the perspective of women.
And Bound is also a queer movie that is celebrated for its authenticity, particularly when it comes to the sex scenes. This is largely due to the fact that the Wachowski sisters brought in noted feminist lesbian writer Susan Bright to assist with the sex scenes, acting both as a consultant and as a proto-intimacy coordinator to ensure everyone was comfortable and the scenes were actually how people with vulvas have sex! This creates an accuracy that is rarely seen in Hollywood sex scenes full stop, let alone lesbian sex scenes. You only need to think of the marathon and much criticised sex scenes in 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Colour to see what happens when heterosexual men try to create lesbian eroticism, but that doesn’t happen here.
Because of this, the sex in Bound is fucking hot. The whole movie is hot but the sex is amazing! It’s exploratory; soft, more insinuated rather than demonstrated. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s coy – my favourite visual joke of the movie comes when Corky shakes hands with Caesar using the same hand that had just been fingering his wife! But unlike the ultra-realism of so many sex scenes, this looks like sex feels. The team at the incredible Fatal Attraction podcast talked about how the sex scene was ‘just the right side of messy.’ It’s not perfect but when is sex ever perfect?
In fact, its sex that looked so realistic that, despite not actually showing anything explicit, it was initially given an NC-17 rating – equivalent to an 18 in the UK but more financially damaging to the movie’s prospects. The MPAA is notorious for giving queer content a higher rating than heterosexual scenes and, speaking to Vulture in 2014 and republished in 2022 (as a content warning, in an article that deadnames the Wachowskis in the first sentence), Tilly remembers that the sisters also blamed this decision on homophobia: ‘Because all you saw was one of my breasts, you saw two of Gina’s breasts, you didn’t see any genitalia, you saw my hand. The MPAA said, “Because Jennifer and Gina are such good actors, it looks like she’s really giving her a hand job.” And the Wachowskis said, “Let me get this straight. If they weren’t such good actors, you would let it go through?” And the MPAA sort of said, “Well … yeah.”’ So they used another take that didn’t actually show Tilly’s hand and it got the R-rating that the studio wanted.
All in all, Tilly has only fond memories of filming the sex scenes – not something that many women can say about their experiences simulating sex on screen. She recalls how it was ‘relaxing,’ and she and Gershon were able to support each other to make a great scene, rather than trying to please a male partner: ‘“Can you put your hand on my thigh here so my butt doesn’t look so big? Can you hold my breast up so it looks more plump and juicy?” You would never, ever say those things to a man.’ As James Robert Douglas wrote in a Guardian retrospective, ‘beyond the frisson generated between the leads what you really notice is that they genuinely seem to be delighted by each other.’ Their chemistry is amazing, and Tilly and Gershon are clearly having as much fun as we are watching them!
That humour and joy seeps into the whole movie. Take, for example, this famous scene when Violet asks Corky to rescue a lost earring. It’s so overtly suggestive that it can’t really be called an innuendo – gripping hands twisting as water overflows – but it’s playful and sweet, and I love it!
Along similar lines, I love how Bound exaggerates the tropes of the film noir genre with the vampy and feminine Violet teaming up with the edgy and raw Corky, and how brilliant Tilly and Gershon were in each role. And so sexy. Just so sexy! I’ve always looked to movies as guides for being sexy and I genuinely couldn’t decide if I’d rather have Violet’s glamorous beauty or Corky’s laidback confidence.
I read that ‘Tilly has made a career out of playing to the male fantasy–the beautiful, sexy, voluptuous, feminine, sweet and adoring woman, the one who is always there with a drink in her hand, sexy lingerie draped on her body, and few thoughts in her head.’ And so she was able to use this to her advantage, making Violet into someone who is constantly underestimated and able to manipulate her husband for her own gain. Corky is more straightforward – she’s a lesbian ex-con – but Gershon manages to give her so much more depth than this simple description. She’s a loner but romantic, tough and capable but still vulnerable. She’s a ‘feminine James Dean!’ But despite how much they are caricatures, with lacy lingerie and leather jackets everywhere, both women are presented in a way that is so affectionate and romantic that it can’t be mockery. In fact, all the exaggeration and use of tropes feels warm-hearted and familial, rather than cruel.
And, wow, this movie is stylish! The Fatal Attraction podcast taught me about the traditional colour palette in a film noir movie – black, white, red for blood, and green for money – and the 90s styling really allows them to play with these colours. Splashes of red in vases and curtains against black and white checked tiled floors, pin stripes with bright ties. It’s intense but so is the movie, and it works!
Overall, Violet and Corky provide two very different ways to be a woman but were opposites that very clearly attracted! Keeping the main characters as women was important to the Wachowskis as they were offered bigger studio money to switch to a heterosexual couple but they instead chose to work with an independent producer, Dino DeLaurentis, and maintain their vision. To quote Catherine Springer in her 2021 retrospective review, ‘in exploring, building and bringing Corky and Violet to life, the Wachowskis were able to find a voice for their societal frustrations, using their artistic vision to bring characters to the screen that were contrary to what Hollywood generally permits there.’
Bound broke the mould because it was a gay film that wasn’t really about being gay and it subverted the male gaze by showing how sex feels, not how it looks AND all the heroes get a happy ending, if you’ll excuse the innuendo! (Sorry, Caesar). Violet and Corky actually get away with their crime and get to live happily ever after, which at a time when the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope was in full force, this was truly revolutionary!
As I concluded my Eroticon talk – let women make more movies. It’s so much hotter when you do!
NEXT TIME… The Shape of Water
Copyright All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.
Thank you to Quinn Rhodes for the trans sensitivity reading that he performed on this post before it was published. Check out his fantastic newsletter, Genderbent, to read his essays exploring gender and transmasculinity!