Whatever Happened to Movie Sex?

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Women think men don't like to shop. Wrong: we do. As long as there's competition involved. Send us to Saks to buy socks, and we're bored. But let us shop at eBay, with the clock ticking down on an item we really don't need and may not even want, and our sportsman's juices surge: It's the two-minute warning at Super Bowl XXXVI. (New England Patriots 20, St. Louis Rams 17.) For guys at an online auction, it's not just the getting that counts, it's the crushing of another bidder's acquisitive spirit. In the final seconds of an auction, we — all right, I — enter a last, astronomical bid. I won, won, won! Then the inevitable deflation sets in: But what did I win? And what am I going to do with it? (Probably try to sell it on eBay.)

Mostly, men shop for women. For instance, in midtown Manhattan — a place that puts its astonishing variety of female beauty on display for any idle ambler — the streets are our mall. Walking is our browsing. Sometimes the proliferation of pulchritude is so intense, a gent can get swivel-necked from simple appreciation. It's a pastime for any man, including the mild-mannered, happily married and legally faithful; and it isn't an act of male predation. Just the reverse: it's fealty, an acknowledgment that women have a power over men, which can be ignited at the turn of an ankle or the vaguest smile, or just by walking down Fifth Avenue. Don't pretty women know this? Don't they get a little bit of pleasure stopping pedestrian traffic? Are they not creating their own scenarios of conversation and conquest?

A male boulevardier is usually there just to enjoy the view. But on occasion, on impulse, with no internal debate on the matter, we'll do a 180 and follow some passing knock-out. It's not predatory, just an expression of the atavistic male urge to be a hunter-ogler. (Women's urges are typically defined as natural, men's as primitive. We know it's true, and we shrug.) I've asked lots of people if they've ever suddenly diverted their path to follow a member of the opposite sex. Every woman I've asked has said no, often with an incredulous head-shake; every man has said yes. One fellow — we'll call him Steve — told me of a time he was driving across the Brooklyn Bridge and spotted a luscious woman on the walkway. He sped ahead, parked by a bench in a park just below the Bridge exit and sat there waiting for her, ready to make blithe conversation, as if he hadn't just executed an Earnhardt in hopes his impromptu romantic gambit would pay off.

Something similar happens at the start of "Closer," the funny, hurtful, splendidly acted new film written by Patrick Marber and directed by Mike Nichols. The movie's Dan (Jude Law) has better luck than my friend Steve; fates conspire to put a beautiful stranger in his arms on a London street. He's been stalking, or just appreciatively lurking after, young Alice (Natalie Portman), who's clearly aware of her seductive appeal. Suddenly, she gets hit by a vehicle. Solicitous Dan leaps into action and Galahads her into a cab. (Man, the indefatigable pursuer!) They've just met, but in the forced intimacy of a back seat she removes his glasses, breathes on them and returns them. She also adjusts his rumpled jacket. Her flirtations are a way of both expressing interest and asserting control. You're a mess, her fiddling says, but I'm thinking of taking you on as a reclamation project. (Woman, the ineffable sorceress!)


Men, and women too, are on their ingratiating best behavior in the blossoming of an affair. This isn't all salesmanship, closing the deal; it's that lovers swell with the sweet anticipation that this time will be different — perfect. And they will be different. They are, for a while: better than their best. It's at the bitter end of the affair that men, and women, tend to be at their worst, getting pathetic, shrill, vindictive. Especially if one of the pair feels wronged and righteous. No sadistic cop could grill a suspect with more brutal intensity than a man brings to the job of questioning the woman who's about to walk out on him.

That fury is unleashed in a later scene in "Closer," which takes place several years after the opening. Dan, who has been with Alice all this time, is infatuated with Anna (Julia Roberts). She feels the same attraction, and for a few months they've been coupling furtively while keeping lodgings with their significant others. Now comes the messy announcements to Alice and to Anna's lover Larry (Clive Owen).

Larry doesn't take it well. In just a few minutes, he has experienced the first stages of the cuckolded male: denial, derision, pleading, sobbing, threatening. Now, in confronting Anna about Dan, he atavizes into Caveman, the Alpha Male in competitive fury. Where did you make love: what parts of the house, what parts of the body? How did Dan perform? What did he taste like? Was he "better"? "Gentler," she acknowledges, depleted by the hard truths he's forcing out of her. "Sweeter." Larry finally has what he wanted: the instant, utter and mutual eradication of their year-long tryst. "Thank you for your honesty," he tells her. "Now fuck off and die." It's the loser's victory, which he must extend by ruining Dan's life when he returns to Alice. "The brutal part of the beast," Owen told TIME's Desa Philadelphia, "is the fact that not only has Larry got to get the girl, he's also got to make sure he fucks Dan completely over as well."

This pulverizing few minutes leaves the "Closer" audience as flush and drained as the participants. "I thought we were way past being able to shock anybody," Nichols, 73, said to TIME's Josh Tyrangiel. "But people are shocked. It's not necessarily because of the language, but because things that usually go unexplored are explored in public. Some people are armed against it; they say, 'I just don't know those people.' Well, they're you, man!"

In dissecting Larry, Anna, Dan and Alice as they change partners over a four-year span in the London of the '90s, "Closer" is initially playful about the deceptions this handsome quartet of characters commit while falling in love and, later, climbing out. After all, as Alice declares, "Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off." But if lying has a toxic residue, the truth can kill instantly. Larry, in interrogating Anna, casts off all pride to find the self-lacerating, the ultimate male truth. Was he better? " 'Was he better than me?' — it's the need to know that is the problem," Nichols says. " 'I just want to know, I promise I won't be mad' is the sentence everyone has learned not to answer by the time they're 15. But men are obsessed with asking that question and with getting an answer to it. And, of course, that way lies despair."

Don't women ever ask that question? Doesn't a melee at the lipstick counter on Sale Day suggest that they too can be madly competitive? Once in a while, isn't the fairer sex horribly unfair to its own? Nichols doesn't think so. "Women's competitiveness with one another was always exaggerated, from the days of Clare Boothe Luce on," he says, referring to her 1936 play (and the 1939 movie) "The Women," which proposed that Manhattan's most privileged females were rolling and roiling in bitchery, gossip and recriminations, all designed to bring other women down. "And when cheese-and-wine sessions to discuss orgasms first hit (durng the '70s), women discovered that the competition was never as avid as had been portrayed in 'The Women' — that they were better at being on each other's side than they were at competing." I guess he hasn't seen "Desperate Housewives."


"Closer" runs against the numbing predictability of most current films: the inevitable plot points of revenge and uplift, the reduction of human beings into heroes and villains, the avoidance of complexity in sexual matters. If a batch of recent movies were to ask, "Are we sexier, more mature — better — than films of 30 years ago?", the brutal, truthful answer would be, "No way."

It's true that films are more sex-obsessed these days. All of pop culture is. Americans listen to Howard Stern, giggle over Janet Jackson, collect unrated DVD editions of the "American Pie" trilogy, gossip about celebrities' dirty secrets. We ogle (and then condemn) the dropping of a bathrobe on a Monday Night Football teaser; leaf through Jenna Jameson's best-seller "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star"; log onto the Internet and bathe in all that lovely cyberswill. Not to mention a multibillion-dollar porn industry that produces some 10,000 films a year, far more than the annual number of non-porn films.

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