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Trying to Be Steamy and Serious

Wayne Wang sought to tell an erotic tale with real issues--a taboo combination in Hollywood today.


It has been nearly 30 years since Pauline Kael famously proclaimed, "The movie breakthrough has finally come. Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form," and the 1972 premiere of "Last Tango in Paris" would become "a landmark in history comparable to May 29, 1913, the night 'Le Sacre du Printemps' was first performed." Back in the late '60s and early '70s--the Days Before Video, for you younger readers--serious filmgoers were known to stand in the long lines to see naughty movies.

They were there to study the social significance of such liberating cinematic fare as "I Am Curious (Yellow)," "Deep Throat," "The Story of O" and "Emmanuelle."

The cold war on human sexuality, it seemed, was finally at an end. Funny how times change.

"We've come a long way since the days when sexuality in movies could be discussed seriously," observes Wayne Wang, whose steamy and provocative "The Center of the World" is likely to set more than a few tongues wagging when it opens today in selected theaters. "After 'Showgirls,' none of the studios wanted to have anything to do with explicit sexuality. All of the sex scenes in today's movies are homogenized . . . lit in a pretty way. It's unrealistic. Nobody sweats."

In "The Center of the World," an exotic dancer (Molly Parker) and a newly minted cyber-millionaire (Peter Sarsgaard) not only perspire, they openly secrete bodily fluids and do much more during a lost weekend in a Las Vegas hotel suite. The unabashedly erotic picture is being released unrated, and, as was the case with "Requiem for a Dream," exhibitors are being asked to prohibit anyone younger than 17 from buying a ticket. Even though "Last Tango in Paris" was rated X (which NC-17 replaced), it was widely seen. Certainly, its notoriety was responsible for its success at the box office, but it's also true that most exhibitors at the time were willing to take a chance, especially if it meant filling seats.

"We didn't submit it [to be rated], because I knew I wasn't even close to an R, and there's really no difference between letting it go out NC-17 and going out unrated," Wang says over lunch at the Four Seasons. "Despite what the MPAA says, if you accept the NC-17, you're opening yourself up to a lot of censorship. A lot of newspapers won't accept your ads, and multiplexes can't put it in their theaters.

"Plus, there's a stigma to NC-17. Many people think the rating means a film is pornographic." Wang admits he has been fascinated with the idea of making a movie about sex ever since the days of "Last Tango" and "I Am Curious." In the early '70s, when he was first breaking into the industry back in Hong Kong, his contacts at Golden Harvest studios encouraged him to start out making blue movies for the Japanese and Korean markets. In the '90s, though, his curiosity was piqued by America's seeming obsession with strippers and soft-core pornography, as evidenced in shows such as HBO's "G-String Divas" and "Real Sex," VH1's "Porn to Rock," MTV's "Undressed," sexually suggestive glossy ads in fashion magazines and the endless parade of X-rated Web sites. Wang found it ironic that sexuality, however ubiquitous it may be in the media and on Madison Avenue, still terrifies a whole lot of people in this country.

"Films like 'Leaving Las Vegas,' 'Pretty Woman' and 'Indecent Proposal' were all in my subconscious, I suppose," Wang says. "But I wanted to do something about these two characters--who were trapped in a hotel room--in a direct, realistic and truthful way. That was the impetus." Artisan Entertainment, Wang continues, "knew what they were getting and weren't afraid of it. If a movie has [certain expletives], the rating board automatically gives it an R, and sexuality is NC-17. But you can have 300 bodies on a beach, bleeding all over the place, and it's PG-13.

"I told a French distributor about the lollipop scene [in which a coy stripper uses a Tootsie Pop as a prop] . . . and he said, 'Leave it in. Let the Americans go crazy over it.' " Today's political climate has also put distributors and exhibitors on the defensive when it comes to trailers and other promotional material. "I thought our trailer, which had Molly getting ready for her act by [reciting some spicy dialogue], was interesting, but even in San Francisco, the theaters removed it from the trailers that came with 'Requiem for a Dream,' " says Wang, whose indie credentials are well-established with such titles as "Smoke," "Blue in the Face," "Chan Is Missing" and "Chinese Box." "I don't know if the trailer played in any theaters outside of one or two in L.A. That's self-censorship."

Newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune (both of which are owned by the Tribune Co.) also turned down the first ads that were submitted, which included images of a nude Parker and suggestive language with that lollipop. Subsequent ads have been toned down by creative cropping of photographs and elimination or rewording of the language.

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