Commentary Magazine

Shooting Blanks

Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to ‘A Clockwork Orange’—How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos
By Robert Hofler
HarperCollins, 387 pages

On October 5, 1969, news photographers captured the extraordinary sight of Jacqueline Onassis, trim and sexy in a patterned head-scarf, form-fitting white top, and dark miniskirt, darting out of Manhattan’s Cinema Rendezvous Theater on West 57th Street, where she had just attended the 4:30 showing of I Am Curious (Yellow).

That the former first lady of the United States—and not just any former first lady, mind you, but the reclusive, supremely dignified woman who stood, at the dawn of the 1970s, as America’s foremost aristocratic figure, our High Priestess of haute couture—had deigned to be entertained, in a public setting, by a soft-core pornographic movie, banned in many places and confiscated in others, marked the triumph of what was once called “obscenity.”

How our society reached such a point, as part of the dizzying trajectory of the counterculture and its takeover of the wider American culture, is a subject worthy of serious examination. Some studies have already appeared. The most acclaimed of these, at least of those focused on Hollywood, is probably Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’n’Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (1999). To this body of literature, HarperCollins had every reason to expect that Robert Hofler, theater critic for and a veteran entertainment editor at many leading magazines, could make a valuable contribution. Alas, Hofler’s Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to ‘A Clockwork Orange’—How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos fails to do so and, worse still, manages the unusual feat of making a book about sex dull.

Sexplosion,” the book’s first sentence informs us, “began as one of those decades books,” about the proliferation of sexually charged entertainment fare in the 1970s. That decade-based approach alone was a mark of the frivolity of Hofler’s animating vision. Nor should we be encouraged by the author’s disclosure that it wasn’t until he conducted a few interviews and dove into the microfilm library that he realized that the great “sexplosion” had actually commenced in the preceding decade (Hofler settles, somewhat arbitrarily, on 1966, and the moderately successful crossover appeal of Andy Warhol’s unwatchable “experimental” film Chelsea Girls). Wouldn’t anyone who has given even cursory thought to this know from the outset how influential the ’60s were in the loosening of American morals and manners, on-screen and off? Indeed, one could argue that the true catalyst for the “sexplosion” was Elvis Presley, that seminal figure of the ’50s, mentioned here only in passing (as an MGM executive’s first choice for the role of the doomed hustler played by Jon Voight in 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, the first and only X-rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture).

At no point does Hofler explain how a book about the widening of our sexual boundaries makes sure to include the fact that British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, appearing on BBC-3 in November 1965, became the first person to drop the F-bomb on television—Tynan wasn’t even using the word as a verb—yet omits the medium’s first romantic interracial kiss, between William Shatner and Nichelle Nicols, in 1968. Perhaps Star Trek didn’t fit the author’s preconceived notions of who, or what, was “rebellious”? Or perhaps Hofler was more interested in chronicling society’s growing acceptance of obscenity than in the evolution of sexual norms?

The main problem, though, is not the conceptual foundation of Sexplosion but its abysmal writing. Even Hofler’s old bosses at Us would likely have reined in his endlessly chatty, digressive, and disjointed style. People and projects flit in and out. Seldom is a moment taken to describe someone’s physical appearance—a critical piece of information for the reader’s ability to conceptualize, let alone empathize with, a character. Instead, novelists, playwrights, actors, and filmmakers are introduced here solely to connect us to the next novelist, playwright, actor, or filmmaker, all of it teeing up the next epochal advance in pop culture libertinism.

Even then, the landmark project at hand is invariably treated mostly by stringing together the most salacious quotations Hofler found in old issues of Variety or the participants’ memoirs. When a quotation does come from someone only peripherally involved with the project, if it is sufficiently juicy or sexual in nature, it makes the cut, at the expense of narrative flow or simple readability. Thus, in his treatment of Gore Vidal’s writing of Myra Breckenridge (1968), a novel about a transsexual, Hofler includes a long and pointless digression about how Christopher Isherwood, author of the source material for the hit musical Cabaret (1972), visited Vidal in Rome, and joked with him about a futuristic genocide from which “the better-looking blonds [sic], the Danes and such,” would be spared.

In the case of the play The Boys in the Band (1968)—whose heterosexual cast daringly depicted a birthday party populated exclusively by homosexuals, and at which the honoree was presented, as his gift, a male prostitute—no dialogue from the script is ever quoted to illustrate how the play worked to change people’s perceptions of gay men. And not until the penultimate paragraph in Hofler’s chapter on The Boys does he explain that its characters “broke ground [because] they presented their sexual orientation as a given, and not something to be cured or revealed as a secret to titillate the audience.”

One surmises that Sexplosion’s scattered, ADHD-like approach was designed to validate the author’s assertion, early on, that the artists behind the making of “everything,” from The Boys on the Bus to Paul Mazursky’s wife-swapping dramedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), were “somehow connected” and “formed a community.” The impossible burden of such an over-arching, and thoroughly artificial, construct is that it produces a constant need for smooth segues, or transitional language, even, or perhaps especially, when no real linkage between the juxtaposed people or events existed.

The results are often cringe-inducing. Case in point: “The other b—wjob ballyhoo that February involved, of all revered organizations, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.” Ah, so there were two b—wjob ballyhoos that February! Nor is Hofler averse to the outright run-on: “If the FBI came lately to the work of Andy Warhol, J. Edgar Hoover’s men had already opened and closed its file on Terry Southern when his novel Candy (written 10 years earlier with limited output from the drug-addled Mason Hoffenberg) went into production as a movie that January at the Income Studios in Rome.”

Come again?

About the Author

James Rosen is chief Washington correspondent for Fox News and author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate.

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