The Forgotten Film That Brought Sex to the Silver Screen
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
“Man & Wife” broke a key barrier when it came to doin’ it.
Man & Wife (1969) was never meant to be a good movie. Billed as “an educational film for married adults” and inspired by a sex guide from 1920, the movie opens on a “doctor” delivering a stuffy 10-plus-minute monologue on the importance of a healthy and varied sex life for a strong union. The intro is poorly shot and sound-synced — a half-assed pretext for the following 40 minutes of a nude couple simulating 49 different sexual positions. A classic white coater, a movie genre in the late 1960s and early ’70s that used a medical facade to legally get soft-core content into mainstream theaters, the film was reportedly made on a shoestring $86,000 budget and shot in less than 18 hours.
Man & Wife was shockingly successful, playing in theaters from Los Angeles to New York City for years. Though largely unknown by most filmgoers today, some contemporary filmmakers and movie historians consider it a cinematic milestone thanks to one particular achievement: It included the first scene of unsimulated sex screened in a wide theatrical release in the United States. It’s a brief shot, clocking in at approximately 30 seconds, and not exactly in focus, but it constituted a vital step away from censorship, one that helped pave the way for the birth of America’s modern hardcore industry and helped open doors for mainstream filmmakers to explore sexual topics.
Directors had filmed unsimulated intercourse as early as 1908 in Europe and 1915 in the U.S. But explicitly pornographic films were illegal in America, where strict censorship effectively banned any exploration of sex on-screen that wasn’t concealed by double entendres.
In the 1950s, the Supreme Court ruled that protection of free speech applied to movies. Obscene movies, the judiciary held, were still illegal, but it also ruled that nudity itself was not obscene, leaving the definition of obscenity murky. Exploitation filmmakers, who since the ’30s had made small fortunes on cheaply made movies addressing taboo social issues and pushing the limits of good taste and the law, capitalized on that vagueness. Initially, they used mostly staged documentaries about nudists as a pretext to put skin on screens. When they got away with that, they started making nudies featuring gratuitous shots of bare breasts and butts. And when they got away with that, bigger producers took notice, and by the mid-’60s had started putting nudity in more respectable and bigger-budget productions.
By 1969 (yes, ’69), a large gap still remained between legal soft-core nudity and still-underground unsimulated sex scenes. Into the gap stepped director Matt Cimber, known today for a trio of ’70s blaxploitation movies that influenced Snoop Dogg, Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino and for his work on GLOW (Cimber reportedly inspired the Sam Silva character, played by Marc Maron). It’s unclear why Cimber decided to take a jump into pornography with Man & Wife, but he and his crew clearly knew they were doing something risky. In an interview before his death, in 2018, Man & Wife cinematographer Jacques Descent said the project “was so hush-hush in my studio … I was afraid to get raided” by the authorities for obscenity.
Of course, if Cimber and company hadn’t made the leap, someone else would have. Joe Rubin of Vinegar Syndrome, an organization that documents and preserves exploitation films, says that in 1969 other filmmakers were producing soft-core movies with scenes of unsimulated intercourse for furtive distribution to local sex theaters. One of them would eventually have jumped to broad release, Rubin says.
While Man & Wife billed its explicit content as a unique draw with posters claiming that “for the first time we can show you everything you always wanted to see about sex,” other films outdid it within months. “Man & Wife is important,” Rubin says. “But its importance is symbolic.”
That importance was as a checkered flag signaling everyone on the sidelines to proceed full steam ahead with unsimulated sex scenes. Cimber and other filmmakers produced similar films over the next few years, and 1970 saw documentaries on European and American pornography hit theaters as vehicles for even more explicit content. It also saw the mainstream release of Mona: The Virgin Nymph, a hardcore film with a hokey plot and no educational pretext whatsoever — the logical next step after Man & Wife and the birth of modern hardcore. The fact that Man & Wife, Mona and their ilk performed so well in mainstream theaters led to “a lot of press around 1969 and 1970 speculating that we would see major Hollywood stars boffing on-screen” in the near future, media historian Eric Schaefer says. “Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were mentioned.”
A few directors attempted to work unsimulated sex into more-traditional, bigger-budget features during the ’70s. Some, like John Waters in 1972’s Pink Flamingos, used it as a tool to advance the narrative. But the novelty and transgressive potential of unsimulated intercourse quickly faded in America. The popular failure of many experimental films, combined with recognition that movies like Man & Wife and Mona had used education or art as a facade to sneak pornography into the mainstream, helped cement the belief in American minds that, no matter the context, unsimulated intercourse is about titillation. Today many critics write all such scenes off as dressed-up porn or gratuitous provocation, and most directors consider them distractions or liabilities, not storytelling techniques.
But the dead end of unsimulated sex in mainstream American cinema further illustrates the significance of Man & Wife, or rather the cinematic milestone it symbolizes. It was not only a death knell for puritanical censorship and a starting shot for mainstream and hardcore experimentation and development but also a half-remembered tune playing alongside others in the background of future unsimulated sex scenes.