Making love to the camera: how sleaze on-screen got Hollywood drooling
Sam Levinson’s upcoming show The Idol touts itself as “the sleaziest love story in all of Hollywood”. But in the year of Blonde, Pam & Tommy and a post-Roe United States, any story that claims to be the pinnacle of sleaze faces stiff – no pun intended – competition.
“Look in the camera and fuck everyone in America?” asks a young blonde ingénue with smouldering eyes in a teaser trailer for Euphoria creator Sam Levinson’s forthcoming HBO The Idol. “Fuck ’em, and fuck ’em good,” replies her friend.
If the language is considerably bluer than it might have been in Hollywood’s earliest and most golden days, the instruction is not exactly a new one; the ability to “make love to the camera” has been prized in starlets, and especially in young blonde ingénues with smouldering, eyes, since time immemorial. The Idol’s story of a pretty girl’s ascent to fame and her manipulation by a shady older man looks set to fit into a very particular lineage, too.
Because the ingénue in question is played by 23-year-old Lily-Rose Depp, her very presence is a shorthand for celebrity, her perfect face a harmonious 50/50 blend of her beautiful mother, the singer, actress and model Vanessa Paradis, and her once-equally-beautiful (if now more controversial) father, Johnny Depp. Similarly, because the svengali who looks set to lead her down into the dirtiest depths of Hollywood excess is played by 32-year-old Abel Tesfaye, best known as The Weeknd, we might reasonably expect copious references to cocaine, long, dark and glamorous nights of the soul, and a slick suggestion of sexual menace.
All three of the project’s trailers flash and thump, showing characters racking up lines, wilding out and grinding, and all of them contain choice bon mots about celebrity life that have the crisp obviousness of advertising slogans. “Let people enjoy sex, drugs and hot girls, OK? Stop trying to cockblock America,” says a female executive, as if Levinson is anticipating the reaction to his show and trying to counter it ahead of time. “That’s sex. That’s what we’re selling.”
Except by the looks of it, The Idol is not just selling sex. The real currency of the drama, scheduled for broadcast early next year, becomes obvious when its tagline screams across the screen in bright red letters: “THE SLEAZIEST LOVE STORY IN ALL OF HOLLYWOOD”. “Sleaze” and “sex” are somewhat different, as sleaze carries with it the unmistakable stink of a taboo, the implication that the thing being described – usually as it pertains to a male skeeze and a babe being skeezed on – is inherently sordid or corrupting, and somehow contra to good morality and taste. (It is this very quality, of course, that can make sleaziness extremely hot, provided all parties are consensually down to break taboos, challenge good morality and taste and soon, which makes “sleazy”a little slippery as a descriptor.)
The eternal lens-fucking between a gorgeous woman and the camera, or a gorgeous woman and her ravenous fans, is one of Hollywood’s longest running love stories, and has often proven to be one of its sleaziest, too. Rarely has this been more evident in recent memory than in Andrew Dominik’s not-exactly-a-biopic of Marilyn Monroe, Blonde – a film that lavishes three hours of violence, abuse and sexual degradation on its central character, purportedly as a means of reclaiming her legacy as a sort of sacrificial feminist icon.
Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ eccentric, sprawling 2000 novel of the same name, Blonde is not about Monroe the way we know her – as an intuitive, genius comedienne – but about her as an idea. As such it barely touches on an aspect of her life that is not hideously sordid, sexually violent or distressing. It aims to prove how badly she was treated by a patriarchal industry, and its removal of a woman’s agency from her own image is intended to function as a commentary on the treatment of female celebrities by Hollywood as a whole.
When I saw the film, I found myself in two minds about its relentless horror. On the one hand, the lack of any real humanity in its central blonde was troubling. On the other, there was a curious kind of validation in seeing misogyny depicted as it is experienced by many women: as brutality, as a lightless and inescapable morass, as the worst kind of sleazy. There was something sort of punk, I thought, about Blonde’s forcible exposure of the audience to such ugliness, and for that I felt perversely grateful.
Later, though, I read an outtake, posted to Twitter, from an interview for Sight and Sound with Dominik by film critic Christina Newland, in which the director suggested that he thought of Monroe as an irrelevant figure in the realm of cinema, important largely because of her cultural footprint rather than her work. “She’s somebody who’s become this huge cultural thing in a whole load of movies that nobody really watches, right?” he said. “Does anyone watch Marilyn Monroe movies?”
When Newland, bristling politely, made an argument in favour of the actor’s beloved 1953 picture Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Dominik dismissively referred to Monroe and Jane Russell’s characters as “well- dressed whores”. Suddenly, Blonde’s terrorising of its subject took on an entirely different hue, and the sleaze seemed to be oozing from a different place. Just as the line between sleaze as taboo-hot and sleaze as nakedly repulsive is extremely hard to pinpoint – as thin as a long, platinum blonde hair and as blurred as a hot and heavy night out after 3am – the line between depictions of sleaziness that are critical or camp and those that are exploitative is finely drawn.
One of Blonde’s closest ancestors, in tone as well as in its presentation of a sexy, delicate, female victim, is revered among cult critics and Film Twitter alike for its haute-Eighties, minimalism-and- coke-and-Breuer-chairs aesthetic. Star 80 (1983), written and directed by the iconic choreographer Bob Fosse, is a biopic of actress and Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten. More specifically, it is the story of the two brief years of stardom leading up to her murder and posthumous rape by her jealous, vicious, estranged husband.
Discovered at 18 and killed at 20, only three years before the film’s release, Stratten is played by Mariel Hemingway as a blonde angel, a pure innocent with a body built for sin. Eric Roberts, as the murderer Paul Snider, is terrific, and the actor is often said to have been robbed of an Oscar nomination purely because his performance was so slimy, so convincing, that the Academy could not possibly have been seen to approve.
Like Blonde, the film plays with chronology. Events are interrupted by a flash of evil, a literal or metaphorical blood splash, meaning everything about the story is in service of its deathly, very unhappy ending. The media’s fascination with the grisly details of Stratten’s murder and Snider’s suicide sprang from their co-mingling of the sick and the erotic, and this intersection happened to be Fosse’s speciality. Even his choreography, famously angular, treating the pelvis as a kind of locus of both pain and pleasure, addressed the same dark contradiction.
As with Blonde, too, Star 80 is at once so controversial and so visually pleasing that, if nothing else, it is destined to live on in stills and gifs. One scene in particular – of Roberts kneeling at Hemingway’s feet in a glossy white apartment, an enormous blown-up image of her wet-lipsticked, sultry face leaning at right angles to them both against the wall – repeatedly recurs on both Instagram and Tumblr.
Because of its subject matter, nobody can quite agree on whether Star 80 is a brilliant exposé of sleazily violent industry men or an exercise in empty sleaze itself. Christina Newland, for example, likes the movie more than Blonde. “Star 80 is no slasher film. Instead, it returns to those ‘confines of realism’, almost as a reproach to the genre’s casual attitude toward the mutilation of women,” she wrote in 2016 on Roger Ebert’s website. “It literalises what slasher films tend to make metaphorical – unfettered, raging misogyny,” she added, pointing out how newly relevant it felt after Trump’s then-recent election win.
Conversely, on a recent episode of the film podcast Blank Check, the comedian and actress Julie Klausner argued that the film “hurts women” with its tendency to focus on the killer rather than his victim, ensuring that Stratten comes across like a sweet, fluffy pet. The tone, she said, “is like: ‘Did you hear [about how] some guy murdered this bichon frisé?’ ‘Oh, really, what was he like?’”
Cinematic (and televisual) sleaze is nearly always double-edged, but never more so than when it deals with the stories of dead-or-abused and sexy women – often blonde, usually slim, always white. Sleaze is all surface, all dark sexuality, grit and slime, and it is almost never about grey areas or subtext. The inability to recognise a woman’s full complexity, and her sometimes-contradictory desires, can be the very thing that makes a movie or a television programme about female suffering sleazy in the first place.
Take, for instance, this year’s Pam & Tommy, Hulu’s retelling of the 1995 theft and leak of Pamela Anderson’s honeymoon sex tape with then-husband Tommy Lee that advertised itself with an eerily similar, bombastic tagline to the one used for The Idol: “THE GREATEST LOVE STORY EVER SOLD”. The limited series tried to claim that it was empowering Anderson by pointing out the sexism and hypocrisy that dogged her (but not Lee) in the media once the tape had been released. In fact, it portrayed her as – you guessed it – a hot but airheaded victim, with Lily James playing her as simpering and dumb, a martyr with a fake DD chest.
The real Anderson, who always played up to the camera, was deliberately knowing and perpetually in on the joke of her own pneumatic sexiness. Pam & Tommy, with its dead-split of redemption narrative and prurient recreation, had no room for a babe who often acted as her own svengali, manipulating the media just as much as they manipulated her. After its premiere, a number of people close to Anderson claimed she felt “violated” and was experiencing “complex trauma” brought back by the existence of the TV show, which was, like the tape, released without her consent. Its supposedly corrective narrative, forcing her to relive one of the worst moments of her life from every angle, felt just as unpleasant and exploitative as the sex video itself.
Of course, we don’t have to look back at the ’50s or ’80s, or even to the ’90s, for examples of cultural sleaze, or for stories of this particular variety about famous women. Lately, there has been a renewed interest in the culture of the Noughties, leading to the trend being slapped with the label “indie sleaze” as a nod to some of the decade’s creepiest vibes.
Things that I remember first time around due to my advanced age – the visual style of alleged serial-sexual-predator-slash-photographer Terry Richardson, the ’70s-porn-lite look of American Apparel, paparazzi-hounded party chicks like Paris and Britney – have resurfaced in the public consciousness in supposedly different, less offensive contexts. Apparently, this new mania for the Noughties is in part about stripping the period of its nastiest qualities, removing its sexism, “ironic” racism and other insensitivities, keeping only the aesthetic.
Intellectually, this makes sense. I have always enjoyed dressing as if it is 1972, but I would not say that I had 1970s values. “When trends come back, it’s not like the values are the same,” the trend forecaster Mandy Lee recently told Harper’s Bazaar in defence of indie sleaze. “Nobody thinks that people who like to wear dresses from the ’50s and ’60s suddenly want to be housewives who are abused by their husbands.”
Still, the decade is recent enough to create an unsettling double-layered echo. And at least one of its wronged blondes is alive and well and able to object to her depiction in revisionist television. “My life has always been very speculated [on], watched, and judged,” Britney Spears posted on Instagram in 2021, offering her take on the documentary Framing Britney Spears, which was produced by the New York Times and broadcast on FX/Hulu in the US. “I didn’t watch the documentary but from what I did see of it, I was embarrassed by the light they put me in. I cried for two weeks and well… I still cry sometimes!!!!”
Framing Britney Spears, like Blonde, Star 80 or Pam & Tommy, is a thematically ugly object about a beautiful starlet being used by the machine and it is full of jump-scares. It shows interviewers asking Spears about her breasts, broadcaster Diane Sawyer reading her a threatening quote from the wife of a politician and the paparazzi swarming paramedics as they lift her drugged body from her mansion on a gurney. All of this means that although it aims to shame the media at large for their participation in her pain, it also shames its subject.
In light of Spears’ understandable distress, the once-celebrated documentary’s existence presents a moral quandary. Arguably, it helped the pop star escape the conservatorship she had been held under for 13 years. Certainly, it exposed the vile misogyny of her treatment in the press. But it also reduced a vivacious woman to a victim, raking over the worst moments of her life for what were now being judged as enlightened, feminist reasons.
Seen through the singer’s eyes, the film suddenly does seem sleazy, in the least titillating and most unethical way. Britney Spears, in her youth, had also been told to look straight into the camera and fuck everybody in America. The doc made America, and the rest of the world, look back, and rather than feeling empowered, Spears felt hatefucked by the gaze.
Maybe this is something else strange about sleaze: that we now perceive it as having a retro, out-of-time component, as if it is a tired relic of an earlier era. We see ourselves as being beyond the simplicity of the slavering, swaggering male beast and the sweet ingénue from out of town who wants to please. We think of vicious, predatory media sexism as it appears in films like Star 80 or Blonde or, yes, Framing Britney Spears as a phenomenon we can look back on critically, perhaps even a little darkly amused at the way we used to be back then.
This distance is what encourages social media users to look at Fosse’s film from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Or allows a visual style mostly associated with a moustachioed creep to make a comeback minus the moustachioed creep himself. Or lets us tut at the way the paparazzi treated famous women, even though many of us were reading TMZ, Perez Hilton and Page Six the whole time.
Still, to say that sexual life is easier for women as a monolith circa 2022 is not accurate. When Klausner fumed about Star 80 on Blank Check, for instance, she had to admit that her revulsion had been amplified by the fact that Roe v. Wade had been repealed just hours earlier, and that subsequently it had become much harder to pretend that men and women occupied a level sexual playing field. It is this context – a contemporary landscape in which the possibility of women’s healthcare rights being rolled back sits, horribly and improbably, on the horizon – that makes onscreen sleaze more piquant and unsettling than ever.
When the trailer music for The Idol first kicked in, I experienced what I can only describe as a flashback. The song, Planisphère by French electro-rock duo Justice, was the sound of my late teens. It was released when I was at art school, at a time when Britney Spears was having her much-documented breakdown. It was a time when I and all the other thin white girls my age were still routinely receiving gross soliciting messages from amateur Richardson-style photographers on Myspace and when Vice’s Do’s and Don’ts column still posted weekly photographs of female strangers and assessed them as to whether or not the magazine’s editor might deign to fuck them.
Coupled with The Idol’s visual aesthetic, which is slickly neon-tinted and excessive enough to also approximate the style of the late Noughties, I wonder whether Levinson will be consciously riffing on the mores of that time. Certainly, in Euphoria, he has demonstrated an ongoing interest in the degradation of hot teenage girls and, whether the audience feels OK about it or not, he is frighteningly adept at toeing the line between glamorising sleaze and painting a curiously alarmist picture of what the youth of today might be getting up to after dark.
There is space, I think, for a depiction of the toxic love affair between young, hot and undoubtedly vulnerable women and the media that has light and shade, integrity and sexiness – and above all else, a brain. Whether or not The Idol will provide it is, at the time of writing, as yet unknown. One thing is certain, though: even if it does succeed in being “THE SLEAZIEST LOVE STORY IN ALL OF HOLLYWOOD”, it is only likely to retain that title for a short while, until something even sleazier inevitably comes along.