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Whether they showed something never before depicted in the history of cinema, or spawned a million imitators and parodies, the 25 films that follow changed the course of motion pictures — and sexuality — forever. Wherever possible, we’ve included video of the key scene. (If the scene isn’t currently online, we used a trailer instead.) Here they are, presented in chronological order, so you can properly appreciate the evolution of horniness onscreen...
Why It’s Important: It may not look like much now, but this brief peck between May Irwin and John Rice — the first kiss in a motion picture history — was a sensation in 1896. The film garnered incredulous headlines and became a smash wherever it was shown. From their earliest days, cinema and sexuality were locked in an inextricable embrace.
Le Coucher De La Mariée (1896)
Why It’s Important: Things got even spicier the same year with Le coucher de la mariée, which depicted a newlywed couple on their wedding night. As the bride undresses behind a screen, the groom steals glimpses. Laying bare the entire voyeuristic nature of cinema even in its earliest days, Le coucher de la mariée is one of the very first erotic films ever made — just a year or two into the medium’s existence.
Why It’s Important: Though extremely chaste by modern standards, Ecstasy’s sex scene, featuring a young Hedy Lamarr in her breakthrough role, was one of the earliest depictions of sexual intercourse onscreen — and the first female orgasm.
From Here to Eternity (1953)
Why It’s Important: Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s kisses among the waves at Oahu’s Halona Cove were so passionate that rumors spread of an affair between the two. True or not, the scene was considered so racy the MPAA banned it from ads for the movie. (“They're kissing... horizontally!”) Today, their enthusiastic clinches among the lapping waves of the Pacific have become the iconic representation of Golden Age romance — and Production Code-approved sexuality.
I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967)
Why It’s Important: This controversial and enormously successful Swedish production attracted enormous attention in America thanks to its unprecedented sexuality. At the height of the sexual revolution, I Am Curious (Yellow) broke new ground, including one of the first depictions of frontal male nudity onscreen.
Why It’s Important: The divisions between “art films” and “pornography” got mighty blurry in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the first examples of unsimulated sex in a widely released motion picture was not in porn; it was in Blue Movie from pop artist Andy Warhol, who included a hardcore sex act in his chronicle of a few hours in the lives of a New York couple. (They also talk about the Vietnam War and take a shower.) Warhol’s boldness helped launch an era where hardcore pornography was given sudden respectability, whether it deserved it or not.
Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Why It’s Important: Let’s be clear: Putting Last Tango in Paris on this list is in no way an endorsement of director Bernardo Bertolucci or his appalling methods when filming the notorious “butter scene.” According to star Maria Schneider, the moment when Marlon Brando’s Paul rapes her character using butter as lubricant was not in the script, and she received almost no warning before the sequence was filmed. (“I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped,” Schneider later said in an interview.) It’s inclusion here is not a matter of opinion but historical fact: The butter scene is undeniably one of the most important sex scenes in movie history. Pauline Kael declared Last Tango a “landmark in movie history,” and audiences who saw it began to rethink the lines between serious art and graphic onscreen sexuality. In the process, Last Tango became one of the biggest blockbusters of 1973. While the way in which it was filmed is repellent, its influence is undeniable.
Why It’s Important: While Last Tango in Paris’ reputation waned over time, Don’t Look Now’s has only grown; 47 years after its first release, it still ranks at or near the top of almost every list of the greatest sex scenes ever made. Even in the midst of the “porno chic” 1970s, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s lovemaking was so convincing that rumors spread that the sex was unsimulated. (All parties have insisted it wasn’t.) Beyond its palpable heat, the scene used complex editing to tell the story of this married couple’s relationship through the evolution of their physical intimacy. Genuinely erotic, and genuinely intelligent; Don’t Look Now remains the standard by which all other sex scenes are measured.
In the Realm of the Senses (1976)
Why It’s Important: Some films that were considered taboo in their day look quaint through modern eyes. Not In the Realm of the Senses from Japanese director Nagisa Oshima. A torrid affair between a hotel owner and a maid culminates in a sex scene of such ferocity and violence that it’s still shocking to this day — and yet always grounded in Oshima’s ideas about obsession and morality.
Why It’s Important: Body Heat’s crowd-pleasing blend of old school film noir and modern sexuality helped ignite an entire decade of erotic thrillers that became some of Hollywood’s most reliable hits throughout the 1980s.
Why It’s Important: Film history can be roughly divided into two periods: Before Mickey Rourke Fed Kim Basinger Sexy Foods, and After Mickey Rourke Fed Kim Basinger Sexy Foods. In February 1986, Roger Ebert predicted this sex scene would be the “most talked-about in this movie.” It was not only the most talked about scene in the movie, it was one of the most talked about scenes in any movie that year, and it became a cultural touchstone for decades.
When Harry Met Sally... (1989)
Why It’s Important: While it may not meet the standard definition of a “sex scene,” Meg Ryan moaning in ecstasy over her Katz’s pastrami sandwich became the most famous orgasm — fake or otherwise — in motion picture history.
Why It’s Important: The biggest movie of 1990 — bigger than Pretty Woman, Back to the Future Part III, Total Recall, Home Alone, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — was Ghost, a movie about Patrick Swayze dying and then trying to protect his beloved wife (Demi Moore) from harm. Whatever uncommercial aspects of its premise, Ghost’s ace in the hole was Swayze and Moore’s sensual collaboration at a pottery wheel, which became the focal point of all the movie’s advertising — and helped sell untold thousands of clay pots.
Why It’s Important: In the mid-1990s, Larry Clark’s Kids became the subject of a renewed conversation about the role of sex in cinema in the era of HIV and AIDS. Scenes like the opening, in which a teenage boy systematically talks a virgin into sleeping with him, garnered enormous controversy, and wound up getting Kids slapped with an NC-17 rating. (The film was ultimately released unrated.) The discussion around the movie grew so large that, for better or worse, Kids became one of the defining movies of its time — and not just about sex.
Why It’s Important: Although Titanic’s astronomical budget and groundbreaking effects were the subject of most press around the movie, the film became the biggest hit in history because of repeat customers who wanted to bask in Jack and Rose’s brief love affair over and over again. The sex scene between the two is not especially explicit, but it’s about as graphic as any in a PG-13-rated movie— and surely had a large (if mostly unexamined) influence on Titanic’s enormous box office. Plus: How many movies have copied that hand on the steamy window gag?
Why It’s Important: Stanley Kubrick’s casting of one of the world’s most famous celebrity couples in a sexually explicit drama was noteworthy already, but Eyes Wide Shut took on even more historical importance after the key sex scene — a lengthy tour of a secret society’s orgy party — was altered in post-production to ensure an R rating. The studio digitally added more masked figures into the sequence to hide the most graphic images — becoming a flashpoint in the never-ending battle over censorship in cinema.
Why It’s Important: So many coming-of-age movies play sex for cheap laughs; Y Tu Mamá También shows characters in the midst of true discoveries about themselves, some so surprising they threaten to rupture their very sense of identity. That was never more true than in the film’s legendary sex scene, where friends Julio and Tenoch go from kissing the same woman to kissing one another.
Why It’s Important: Halle Berry won a Best Actress Oscar for her powerful performance in all of Monster’s Ball, not just for her famous sex scene with Billy Bob Thornton. Berry plays a troubled woman named Leticia, who finds comfort in the arms of a former prison guard (Thornton) who she does not realize was involved in her husband’s execution. According to Thornton, the key scene was largely improvised, which makes Berry’s searing intensity even more impressive.
Why It’s Important: This British indie holds the distinction of featuring one of the very first unsimulated acts of fellatio outside the realm of hardcore pornography. (In a somewhat surreal twist of fate, the fellatio is performed on British actor Mark Rylance, bringing new meaning to the phrase “The BFG.”)
Why It’s Important: Secretary not only depicted “taboo” acts of BDSM that remain rare onscreen even 18 years later, it did so in a non-judgmental way that’s even more unusual, with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader consumed by a loving sadomasochistic relationship.
Why It’s Important: Age-old debates about art and pornography came roaring back to life in the early 2000s, thanks in large part to Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, which culminated with a real act of oral sex between Gallo and co-star Chloë Sevigny (who also appeared in Kids). The sequence was crucial to The Brown Bunny’s story and themes and outraged many audiences anyway.
Why It’s Important: 9 Songs pushed even further into uncharted territory for a mainstream movie; director Michael Winterbottom filmed his two leads, Keiran O’Brien and Margo Stilley, committing all kinds of sexual acts with one another and even included shots of O’Brien ejaculating. (You may be sensing a trend in indie movies of the early 2000s.)
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Why It’s Important: The novelty of a “gay cowboy movie” might have made it a cause celebre in the mid-2000s, but it was the heated love scene between co-stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal — and the way they played sheepherders Ennis and Jack’s relationship over many decades — that made Brokeback Mountain a landmark of queer cinema.
Why It’s Important: Even as movies pushed aside many boundaries regarding onscreen sexuality in the 2000s, others remained firmly locked in place. The filmmakers behind Blue Valentine, a drama about the ups and downs in the marriage of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), wound up protesting their rating to the MPAA, arguing that giving their movie an NC-17 because Dean performs cunnilingus on Cindy was hypocritical — since many R-rated movies had depicted similar acts on men performed by women. In the end, the MPAA sided with the filmmakers, and downgraded the NC-17 to an R, leaving the sex scene intact. The landmark decision was a small yet important step toward gender parity in the world of movie sex.
Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)
Why It’s Important: This French love story won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival — yet Blue Is the Warmest Color’s subsequent reception wasn’t nearly so warm, with some critics accusing director Abdellatif Kechiche of filtering the movie’s lesbian romance (and marathon lovemaking) through a male gaze. Even the movie’s stars, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, spoke publicly about their “horrible” experience on Kechiche’s set. The reaction to both Blue Is the Warmest Color’s adult content, and to its director’s treatment of the film's actresses, affirmed that the world’s relationship with onscreen sexuality continues to evolve.