Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Category: 1980s

When Harry Met Sally…

YEAR: 1989
DIRECTOR: Rob Reiner
WRITER: Nora Ephron
KEY ACTORS: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.6/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 90%

SEX SCORE: 3/5

✔️ Passes Bechdel test…just! Although most conversations between the named women are about men and dating, Sally and Marie talk about wedding dresses at one point and there are conversations at the wedding that don’t include men!
✔️ Rewatchable and still wonderful – despite my criticisms!
✔️ Inspired romantic fantasies more than sexual fantasies, and not always in a good way as it certainly encouraged me to see and believe possible futures with hot friends when I shouldn’t…
But I don’t want to fuck them – they’re all much too neurotic for me!!
And it’s not really sex positive. Sex is something men do with people they don’t like and where women must fake enjoyment in search of love..

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Netflix, YouTube (from £7.99), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), iTunes (rent £3.49, buy £8.99)

The poster for When Harry Met Sally with Ryan and Crystal looking at each other in Central Park

So it seems that my plan to start a blog looking critically at the sex content in movies was not as original as I thought – not only have I discovered a podcast on exactly this theme but also two days before I published my first review, my favourite sex educators and podcasters, Meg-John and Justin, released a special episode of their brilliant podcast that followed roughly the same idea. They watched When Harry Met Sally and recorded their live commentary, discussing the key themes within the relationships on screen, and I would definitely recommend listening to their thoughts as you watch the movie.

I was particularly pleased that they’d chosen this film to start as I’d always thought of When Harry Met Sally as a film about love but this rewatch has shown me that it’s much more a film about sex – and I have learned so much about sex and relationships from Meg-John and Justin that having their input definitely helped me see nuance that I might have otherwise missed.

Talking of favourite podcasts, I was also reminded of an old episode of the Allusionist that I was listening to recently that blew my mind a little. It claimed that dictionaries should be descriptive rather than prescriptive and describe current word usage rather than what might be considered the correct use, exemplified by the new definition of ‘literally’ to add emphasis. This crucial difference sprung to mind when watching this film – did Nora Ephron describe attitudes as she saw them in 1980s or did she create them?

Because this film is full of what would now be considered cliches about how men and women interact – women want love, men want sex; women are desperate to find The One amongst an ever shrinking pool of available men. And the main point of Ephron’s film is, of course, that men and women can’t be friends because they are too different. They approach sex and love too differently to relate to each other – as Harry puts it, ‘the sex part always gets in the way.’

But is that still true now? Was it even true then? Aside from being ridiculously heteronormative, it seems too simple, too stereotypical, and yet those are the stereotypes that exist in this film and are the same ones that we still have to fight against now. Women still bemoan how their age is reducing their attractiveness while men become more valuable, and friendships between opposite sexes are still often viewed with suspicion. So did the film describe how we already were or did it help create these divisions?

Now, I must emphasise that I do love this film and could happily watch it every day, but I also feel that it is starting to look dated and parts of it are certainly at odds with current attitudes. For example, this is another film where, on rewatching now, the male protagonist proves to be a bit of a creep! I have always struggled to like Harry and, while I can see why they’re friends, I now equally struggle to see him and Sally being happy long term. They’re just too different! She’s blonde, light and breezy while he has a dark side. They are optimist and pessimist, innocent and sexual, controlled and emotional, and as much as I enjoy this film, I just don’t think Harry is the nice person he’s supposed to be and it makes it difficult to like him.

I may be accused of making generalisations here but I think a lot of people know a guy like Harry and a lot of women know to be wary of him. He talks about sex even though he barely knows you, he lets you know whether or not he’d want to fuck you even though you’ve just met and now have to spend a long car ride alone together, he doesn’t listen when you say no and still sits next to you on a plane anyway or buys you a drink when you don’t want one. He feels that lying to or subtly manipulating the people he’s dating is just part of the game – ‘I don’t have to lie because I’m trying to get her into bed. I can just be myself.’ He mocks and negs you, making you feel grateful for every compliment. He’s funny but often at someone’s expense and he’s astonished when people don’t like him or when partners leave him.

Harry in a book store, pretending to read but staring somewhere else

Harry and Sally’s inevitable sex scene is both the culmination of the plot and the key moment in my understanding Harry’s character, because the fact that they had sex shouldn’t have been inevitable and it certainly shouldn’t have happened when it did. After controlling her emotions for so long, Sally’s breakdown at the news of Joe’s marriage does demonstrate how close a friendship she has with Harry as he is able to support her and actively listen to her, not ridiculing her for her hyperbole and just being there for her. But this means that he should have understood how vulnerable she is and he should have stopped the escalation to sex. As Meg-John questioned, was their friendship ruined afterwards because they had sex or because they had sex in a poorly consensual way? Harry knows that Sally hasn’t had sex since Joe, he knows that she doesn’t see sex as casually as him and yet he doesn’t stop. Even though he questions how she values sex – ‘I’m not saying it didn’t mean anything. I’m just saying why does it have to mean everything!’ – he knows how she feels about it. He is able to see clearly, he has the power; he took advantage of her.

Harry and Sally in bed together. She looks happy, he looks horrified

So Sally’s distress afterwards is understandable – to put it mostly bluntly, she’s been violated by her friend – and Harry’s persistent demanding of her attention to try and fix his mistake is practically harassment. Again, Meg-John and Justin’s view here was really interesting – why do they need to fix their relationship by doubling down on their mistake? They both agreed that the sex didn’t feel right so why do they want to fundamentally change their relationship to a more sexual one? Perhaps Harry should have apologised and given Sally time to allow their friendship to recover instead. As Meg-John so succinctly put it, you can’t just show up and say I love you and make everything alright. In reality, can we expect the same fairytale ending?

Despite my concerns about Harry, however, Ephron does write about women in a much more positive and inspiring way. In her book about 80s movies, Hadley Freedman notes that the women have strong careers that are equal to their male counterparts – Sally even has same job as Harry’s friend Jess, both working as journalists for New York magazine. This is just not how professional women are now depicted in movies. They’re either bitches that need a man to put them in their place or work in safe, female friendly professions such as bakery, florists or fashion. The women in When Harry Met Sally are smart and capable, but it’s hardly even relevant. It’s just how it is and that’s kind of wonderful.

And although it is used as another way for Harry to mock her, Sally’s specific ordering habits do suggest a level of self-awareness that is admirable and, if I’m honest, somewhat enviable. It took me a really long time to know what I want and even longer to be able to ask for it, and I still sometimes struggle, but Sally is able to ask confidently for very complex meal orders right from the start. ‘I just want it the way I want it,’ she says and I would hope that this also translates to knowing what she wants sexually too! (This was another insight from Meg-John and Justin that makes a lot of sense!)

But I suspect that this was an accidental element of sex positivity as the female characters are generally shown as wanting love, rather than sex. Harry is able to have sex with people he doesn’t even like while Sally waits for someone she loves. The women are just so desperate to find The One – Marie, played by the wonderful and much missed Carrie Fisher, carries her Rolodex with potential dates on index cards with her and whips it out as soon as Sally announces that she’s single again, making jokes about literally finding someone before they all die. As a 34 year old women, I thought it was interesting choice to make the characters over 30 when the main action takes place. It adds a definite note of desperation to their search as their biological clocks keep ticking while the list of potential partners gets smaller and smaller. Is that why Harry and Sally are happy to risk having a sexual connection that isn’t perfect as they don’t think they have time to find better? Or do they just not see how they could stay such good friends if they’re not lovers?

Harry and Sally, smiling at each other at a party

There is a sense that Great Love means sacrificing great sex and Ephron uses Casablanca, a movie I might write about soon, as an analogy. Should Isla have stayed with Rick, claimed to be the best sex that she’s ever had, or gone with Victor, her steady and safe love? Young Sally chooses Victor, much to Harry’s disgust – ‘You’ve obviously never had great sex’ – but older Sally understands Rick’s appeal. Of course, Isla does choose Victor, perhaps just as Sally chooses Harry.

The loss of sex is longer term relationships is also almost stated as a fact without any critical judgement or contradiction. Initially Sally doesn’t want marriage or kids so that she and Joe can fly off to Rome at the drop of a hat or have sex on kitchen floor. She wants to keep all of the hot sex and freedom, even if she admits that she doesn’t utilise it, until her desire for a family trumps those needs. I risk being called hopelessly optimistic and as a new mother of a 6-month old I’d rather you didn’t contradict my hopes, but why can’t we have both? Surely it’s not too much to hope that we can fit our wish for a family into a relationship that otherwise satisfies us? Yes, spontaneous holidays may be a thing of the past but there are other ways to scratch that itch!

OK so I’m running out of space and oh my gosh, there is so much more that I could write about this film! Why are the men only able to talk intimately when they’re doing masculine activities, like playing baseball? Isn’t it clever that the film is set in such beautiful locations and yet the characters never notice them, just as they don’t notice the possibilities of love with each other? And because I can’t ignore the fake orgasm scene entirely, why do we always equate orgasms with good sex? Harry’s partners may have had great sex, even if they didn’t come!

So after all this, can men and women be friends?

It’s an area where my opinion has definitely changed over the past few years. I think I knew about When Harry Met Sally long before I actually saw the movie, so much so that I can’t actually remember when I first saw it, because my parents had a similar love story and were also friends for years before falling in love. As I wrote in my sex blog in 2015, this gave me a pretty skewed opinion on friendships between men and women because I always believed that everlasting love was a possibility. I argued that the sex part does get in the way and that friendships were always unbalanced, even if that was never acted on or acknowledged.

But I can see now that it’s actually a really messed up way to approach friendships! I fear it may be why I had so many unrequited loves in my twenties – they wanted friendship, I wanted more and, deep down, expected more and couldn’t see how weird that was. I do blame When Harry Met Sally for perpetuating this myth and giving hope to dreamers like me.

Because although it may be possible to fall in love with your best friend, it is much more valuable to understand that romantic relationships aren’t necessarily the top of the hierarchy. Deep, intimate but not sexual friendships can exist and can be wonderful. Feeling a strong emotional connection to someone doesn’t mean that they have to be a sexual partner, just as thinking they’re hot and wanting to fuck them doesn’t mean that they have to become a great love to stay in our lives. Changing relationship boundaries doesn’t need to ruin a friendship if it’s consensual and communication is open and equal. One person doesn’t have to be everything all the time.

We can have it all; we just have to be willing to ask for it and accept that some relationships have limitations. Or am I still being an optimistic dreamer?

‘You’re right, you’re right. I know you’re right.’

Next week: What Women Want

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. Gifs from Giphy.com.

sex, lies and videotape

YEAR: 1989
DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh
KEY ACTORS: James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.2/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 96%

SEX SCORE: 5/5 (Fuckable cast, sex positive themes, source of fantasy material, passes the Bechdel test, rewatchable. Yes!!)

This contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (free, with Spanish subtitles), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £5.99), iTunes (rent £3.49, buy £5.99) Sky Store (to rent), Ratuken TV (from £2.49)

The movie poster of sex, lies and videotape, showing images of the cast intercut with thick black lines

Of course this was going to be the first movie in this new series – it was the one that inspired it all! A film about sex, relationships, voyeurism, exhibitionism and with Secretary’s James Spader as the lead? It’s safe to say that this movie had a big effect on me…

Made in 1989 and Steven Soderbergh’s feature directorial debut, sex, lies and videotape tells the story of four people: married couple, Ann (Andie MacDowell) and John (Peter Gallagher), her sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) and an old college friend of John’s called Graham (James Spader). Ann and John’s marriage is struggling – she is in therapy discussing how she no longer likes it when John touches her and all the while, he is fucking her sister. John’s friend, Graham, has only recently moved to the area but creates ripples in the uneasy balance of these relationships. He reveals to Ann that he is impotent and unable to have penetrative sex. Instead, he gets off on videos he’s made of conversations with women talking about sex. His arrival, and the videos he makes of them, prompt both sisters to reconsider and eventually end their relationships with John. It’s such a good film!

And it’s not just me that thinks this film is great – it won the Palme d’Or and FIPRESCI prize at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, where James Spader also won the Beat Actor Award, and Steven Soderbergh was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 1990 Academy Awards.

I first saw this around 2005 during my many years at university and when I was deep into an obsession with the OC’s Sandy Cohen, also played by Peter Gallagher, as many women in my friendship circle were. ‘What would Sandy Cohen do?’ had become a mantra of sorts for us! I was in my early 20s and a long way from working out who I was sexually and what I liked, and I watched this with a group of girlfriends mainly to see what Sandy Cohen had done before becoming Sandy Cohen. They were intermittently shocked and bored – he is not a good person here. I could not tear my eyes away and I’m not sure I have ever been the same!

This film initiated such a paradigm shift in me because it caught me at a time when I had no real sexual experience or confidence, but I knew there was so much wonder waiting just out of reach. At that time, I recognised so much of myself in Ann; her hesitation and embarrassment about sex, her frigid existence as a housewife locking her into a life that she knew was making her unhappy but that she couldn’t work out how to change, and I was so afraid that this was my future.

A two year relationship during sixth form with an eighteen year old boy who was too afraid of being caught buying condoms to actually have PIV sex had been followed by several years of celibacy, and I was left somewhat paralysed when it came to sex. The very few times I did have sex had not gone well and I was stuck, bound by my fear and lack of experience. Maybe I would never work out how to have good sex? Maybe I too would end up in a sexless marriage, living as the perfect housewife but never be sexually fulfilled?

Andie MacDowell and Peter Gallagher in bed. He is asleep, she looks frustrated

So, like Ann, I was fascinated by Graham and his videotapes. Maybe it’s because of my love of movies but there is something nostalgic and a little romantic about Graham’s box of videotapes, each labelled with the name of the person he was filming. As a viewer of the movie, you don’t see much of what is on these tapes and it is left to your imagination, but just the idea of all of these women opening up and talking about sex, answering Graham’s questions and discussing these intimate subjects with such ease, was intoxicating.

And, oh my gosh, I wanted Graham to make a tape of me. I imagined feeling terrified and vulnerable but safe enough to talk, which is a hot combination of emotions! I imagined Graham’s questions probing me and making me realise things about myself that I wished I could vocalise. It was such a delicious fantasy, and one of the earliest that I can remember that was definitively sexual rather than more romantic. I only watched the movie once until many years later but I cannot tell you how often I reimagined that scene and that idea…

Interestingly, in 1989 Roger Ebert described his use of video as a form of sexism assault as ‘he has power not over their bodies but over their minds, over their secrets.’ While I’m not sure that this view of assault stands up in the post-#MeToo world where more definite assault has been revealed to be so dishearteningly widespread and Graham clearly has the consent of the women he’s recording, it did strike me that his simple voyeurism could be seen so negatively.

Because looking back now, this is almost the perfect acting out of my exhibitionist/voyeur tendencies. To be watched so intently by someone who will get off on watching me over and over is among the hottest things I can imagine. Equally, I love the idea of videoing a partner like this, and it proved to be as hot as I’d hoped when I filmed my husband finally breaking his 10 day orgasm denial streak a couple of years ago. The results were definitely NSFW but I got off on the filming and the watching later in almost equal measures, and I remembered Graham’s videos with new eyes.

Andie MacDowell looking towards the camera, wistfully holding a camcorder

This is also a form of voyeurism that adds distance and time to the immediacy of the experience, a deliberate choice by Soderbergh. Talking to Film Comment in 1989, he explained that ‘video is a way of distancing ourselves from people and events…[Graham] needs the distance to feel free to react without anybody watching, which, I guess, is the definition of voyeurism.’

This won’t be the last time I talk about James Spader but it is a good place to introduce him. He is among the most fuckable of all actors and, unlike most celebrity crushes, this is more because of how he is rather than how he looks. In the same review mentioned above, Roger Ebert feels that Spader has the ‘kind of sexual ambiguity of the young Brando or Dean; he seems to suggest that if he bypasses the usual sexual approaches it is because he has something more interesting up, or down, his sleeve.’ That is true of his character here and it is definitely true of his character in Secretary. Both are superficially ordinary, almost boring, and yet have such fascinating and kinky depths, and the juxtaposition is intriguing and a little dangerous.

James Spader with a mullet, gesturing towards the camera

Although the videotapes appealed to me more than the sex or lies of the title, there is so much of interest in the sex and sexual relationships from the other characters. The interplay between Graham’s impotence and Ann’s frigidity in contrast to John and Cynthia’s hypersexuality is almost a caricature. Is this to suggest a challenge or to justify the behaviour of the other characters? Roger Ebert describes the ‘fundamental fact of the human ego’ that we believe that a new partner could cure impotence or overcome frigidity – they’ve just not found yet right one, they’ve not been fucked by the right guy, and other such sexist opinions – and it is true that both Ann and Graham’s character resolutions do revolve around them finding each other. But it doesn’t play like ego; they are almost reluctant in their approaches to each other.

Unlike Cynthia who does visit Graham with the intention of ‘curing’ his impotence as he won’t be able to resist her. And I can see why she’d think that – Cynthia is just so fucking sexy in that 1980s stereotypical kind of way with big hair, a filthy laugh and denim cut off shorts (Laura San Giacomo also played Vivian’s friend Kit in Pretty Woman, another character who rightly or wrongly taught me how women can be sexy), and I did want to be her. I wanted to be that brashly sexy, that confident and capable of getting what I wanted.

Laura San Giacomo lying on her back with her feet in the air, wearing a black dress and black boots

But despite the use of unusual camera angles, sweaty faces and red based colours making it clear that her and John were having Good Sex, it’s not hot. The further through the film I got, the less attractive I found them. Certainly, neither of them are as attractive as they think they are and the sex may appear incredible – energetic, hard and fast, sweaty – but it is framed by so much deception that I struggled to find it that appealing! John is also too much of a twat to be attractive, and their sex less desirable as a consequence.

I think this was the beginning of the end of my reliance on movie sex as a visual learning aid. Porn has always been too starkly real for me, preferring to create my own imagery when reading erotica instead, so movies were really my only visual references for how sex should look. And it turns out that it’s rarely as hot as anything I’ve experienced in real life.

After this film, I stopped expecting the sex I saw to be as hot or arousing as the sex I could imagine. The words? The ideas? Fuck yes! And that’s where this film delivers those delights in spades…

Next week: The Thomas Crown Affair!

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.