25 Years Ago Today, A Weekend That Changed Hollywood
The internet loves to celebrate the anniversary of a popular movie; to reflect with admiration and more than a little nostalgia on a beloved cultural object of the past.
Today is not that kind of anniversary.
25 years ago today, on October 13, 1995, Hollywood’s new wide releases were Jade, a sordid murder mystery from The Exorcist director William Friedkin, and The Scarlet Letter, a sordid adaptation of the classic novel directed by Roland Joffé. Both films summarily bombed; that weekend, the #1 movie in theaters was David Fincher’s Se7en after a month of release. Jade barely snuck into the top 5 on the box-office chart, grossing just $4.2 million. The Scarlet Letter was #6, with $4.1 million. Jade and The Scarlet Letter wound up grossing a combined $20.1 million in U.S. theaters; The Scarlet Letter alone cost $46 million. Their simultaneous failures mark an interesting point in movie history; one of the very last times sex was treated like an asset by Hollywood and not a liability.
In the years before October 13, 1995, the annual list of the biggest American films included one erotic thriller after another. In 1987, Fatal Attraction was the third-biggest hit of the year, behind only Beverly Hills Cop II and Platoon. Its combination of illicit (but not too illicit!) sex and melodrama proved an irresistible hook for audiences and many critics; it wound up with six Academy Award nominations on top of its impressive financial haul. In short order, Hollywood studios were cranking out erotic thrillers: Sleeping With the Enemy, Basic Instinct, Sliver, Disclosure and many more — to say nothing of the countless straight-to-video cheapies cranked out by independents.
All through the early ’90s, this was a winning filmmaking formula: Famous movie stars in various (but not too various!) states of undress, in stories of seduction and violence. Even in movies that didn’t strictly fit the definition of an “erotic thriller,” sex and nudity were far more commonplace on movie screens than they are today. As the old advertising truism goes, “sex sells.” And for a while, Hollywood was selling a lot of it.
Even before that fateful weekend in 1995, there were signs that things were changing around Hollywood. With increasing regularity, the top movie every year was a sequel; Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991, Batman Returns in 1992. Each year, the box-office chart featured more franchise films, like Lethal Weapon 3, Home Alone 2, The Flintstones, and Die Hard With a Vengeance. And it wasn’t just that these movies were sequels: They were big-budgeted titles targeted at broad swaths of the American public — including children. Courting that kind of wide audience meant eliminating the sexuality that had become prevalent just a few years earlier.
Still, 1995 had the potential to push Hollywood in the opposite direction. About a month before Jade and The Scarlet Letter opened in theaters, United Artists released Showgirls, perhaps the highest-profile NC-17 from a major studio, both then and now. It came from the creative team behind Basic Instinct — director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas — with even more explicit sexuality than their previous erotic thriller could get away with. Showgirls performed better than Jade and Scarlet Letter, but not by much. It made just $20 million compared to Basic Instinct’s $117 million three years prior, all but dooming any chance that the NC-17 could become a financially viable for adult filmmakers. A few weeks later, the twin disasters of Jade and The Scarlet Letter helped seal the fate of R-rated erotic thrillers too.
Of the pair, The Scarlet Letter is far worse. A title card during the open credits pronounces it is “freely adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne” and boy, is it ever. While it follows the basic outline of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, with Puritan Hester Prynne ostracized and vilified for giving birth to a child out of wedlock, the novel’s emphasis on guilt and shame are mostly absent. In their place, are several softcore sex scenes featuring Prynne (Demi Moore) and her secret lover, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman, a strange choice for a smoldering sex object).
Hawthorne’s novel begins after Dimmesdale and Hester’s affair; the film focuses extensively on their sexually-charged first encounters. Hester initially spies Dimmesdale as he skinny-dips in a lake near her home. Then Hester enjoys a sensual bath while thinking about the frolicking, nude Gary Oldman. Later, they consummate their passion on a hill of beans (not a metaphor) while Hester’s slave girl voyeuristically spies on them. The whole package generally suggests less of a literary classic than a Puritanical reboot of The Red Shoe Diaries. (That would explain why the shoes are red, I suppose.) After the sex scenes, Robert Duvall shows up as Hester’s long-missing husband Roger, and he gives one of the more terrible performances (and uses one of the more terrible accents) I have ever seen from a truly great actor.
Jade is certainly no masterpiece, although it almost looks like one next to The Scarlet Letter. It was written, like Basic Instinct and Showgirls, by Joe Eszterhas, and contains a high concentration of the tacky sleaze he’d turned into his personal brand in the early ’90s. (As the story goes, Eszterhas received $2 million to write Showgirls based on a couple of notes he’d scribbled on a napkin.) The nonsensical story begins with a dead art dealer, who may have had a relationship with a mysterious woman known only as “Jade.” San Francisco Assistant District Attorney David Corelli (David Caruso) investigates, and begins to suspect a former flame, Trina (The Last Seduction’s Linda Fiorentino) could be both the murderer and Jade. Complicating matters, Trina is now married to David’s best friend, defense attorney Matt Gavin (Chazz Palminteri).
Eszterhas’ lurid instincts are tempered slightly by William Friedkin’s assured direction, which delivers several wild and entertaining chase sequences through the streets of San Francisco.
Jade got terrible reviews in 1995; perhaps part of what makes it look more passable today is how rare it is to get a competent erotic thriller now, compared with how common they were 25 years ago. (It also helps that it runs just 85 minutes compared to The Scarlet Letter’s 135-minutes-that-feel-more-like-315.) It’s not necessarily worth seeking out, but it’s the sort of movie that once upon a time you would have stumbled across on pay cable at 10PM and found yourself engaged enough to sit through the entire thing.
Within a few years, sex and adult drama had almost entirely migrated from film to cable television, where it remains a staple while the major studios double down on their sequels and franchises. By the early 2000s, releases of new erotic thrillers had trickled to almost nothing; the occasional exceptions, like the 50 Shades of Gray films, only happened because they were already enormous best-sellers in book form, with a huge built-in audience that all but guaranteed them blockbuster status.
It would be unfair to put all the blame on the movies of October 13, 1995 for killing the erotic thriller, or for bringing about the end of sex in cinema. But looking through the movies released in the following years, this was essentially the last moment anyone in Hollywood believed there was enough of an audience for glossy smut to release two different versions of it on a single weekend. Whether viewers simply tired of the formula, whether studio executives realized they could make a lot more money catering to larger family audiences than they could selling sex to adults, or whether the internet made it a lot easier to look at pictures of naked people without the hassle of having to listen to Robert Duvall speak in a ridiculous Puritan accent at the same time, this was the moment that Hollywood started to abandon this audience.
Gallery — The Best Movies of the Year, 30 Years Ago: