Today is the 25th anniversary of Andy Warhol’s death. Of the artist’s numerous philosophical tidbits, I’ve always been fascinated by one quote in particular: “Sex is more exciting on the screen and between the pages than between the sheets,” he said.
My initial reaction was, why would I rather watch or read about sex than do it myself? Then again, consider the results when I jogged my memory and queried some friends for some of the steamiest onscreen hookups. Among them:
Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost. Leonard DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain. Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club. Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Gray in Dirty Dancing. Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek in Desperado. Meg Ryan in anything. And all the others you’re recalling at the moment.
On the page, the super-nerdy part of me that majored in Renaissance Literature points to any number of Shakespearean passages. For normal people, there’s 50 Shades of Gray.
There are exceptions, sure, but the best onscreen or in-book sex is highly stylized, a beautiful dance between beautiful people that, most importantly, proves significant and meaningful to its characters beyond mere intercourse. I always think of my personal favorite, Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow in (again, English-major alert) Shakespeare in Love: the best movie sex is never just sex; it’s art.
Maybe that’s what Warhol meant, that movies and books portray what we desire but can’t always achieve in real life. That is, sex not just as movement and sound and body but as the transcendence of those, as poetry. I’m not sure about you, but my sex is rarely poetic. For Rose and Jack? Every time.
We engage in real-life sex with our bodies. In literature or film, we don’t. And yet, we experience the best parts of both in the same way, not just physically but intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually. The best sex doesn’t force us to feel these things, because they happen naturally. In movies, though, we’re forced (and also totally willing) to parlay a strictly visual experience into a deeply intense full-sensory one, thanks to one of most powerful human capabilities, imagination. When I watch Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, I’m aware that what I’m watching isn’t “real”—or at least not happening to me—but I subconsciously transpose myself into that position and internalize the beauty and grace and perfection and meaning of the scene.
A movie or book leverages our imagination the same way a dream or fantasy does; often, my dreams feel more intense and “real” than life itself, sex included. Or, if not in dreams, the mystery and wonder in anticipation of sex or the (often-distorted) memories afterwards are stronger than the sensations during.
Maybe that’s it: Sometimes rehashing the show after it’s over or anticipating the sequel is better—or at least longer, more sustained, more fulfilling—than the performance itself.
Do you agree with Warhol? With me? Regardless, what are your favorite onscreen or literary hookups?