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Tom Shales Review: “Sex: The Revolution”

VH1 Zips (With No Unzipping) Through ‘Sex’
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008; C01

Not so much a documentary as a laser blast of rapidly changing images, “Sex: The Revolution” harks nostalgically back to the days of Times Square porno shops, high jinks in a place called Haight-Ashbury, nudity as a political statement and an obscure late-’60s magazine that advertised itself with the boast: “Living under the constant threat of police confiscation.”

A fast-moving four-hour report that seems much shorter, “Sex” airs in hour-long installments tonight through Thursday at 10 on VH1, then returns in a two-part “uncensored” version on the Sundance Channel May 19 and 20 at midnight. Churlishly, the networks only sent out the censored version for review, but one can deduce what sorts of things will be undraped when Sundance airs the show — Marilyn Monroe’s breasts, for instance, as they appeared in the first issue of Playboy magazine.

That was back in the supposedly sterile and inhibited ’50s, the first decade visited in the documentary — or rather the “rock doc,” as VH1 (part of Viacom’s MTV empire) likes to call such productions. The formula is simple but efficient: lots of sound bites from colorful if sometimes dubiously authoritative figures mixed in with a whirling array of film clips that bring back faces, places and events from the past.

The contributing sound biters range from Cybill Shepherd to Tab Hunter, Gay Talese to Erica Jong, and Danny Glover to Phil Donahue — with madcap filmmaker John Waters making some of the pithiest remarks. The ’50s were so uptight about sexual behavior, Waters recalls, that “you were told you couldn’t do things that you didn’t even know existed.”

At the other end of the sexual revolution, just before the party was broken up by AIDS and political reactionaries, were the heedlessly libidinous ’70s, when dancing was primarily foreplay and revelers went in for naked sex in public places. “No one alive today,” says Waters, “will ever see that again in their lifetime.”

There are lots of stops along memory lane — though very little lingering, since a zippity pace is part of the genre. Viewers who were alive throughout the second half of the 20th century will have their memories tested as once-familiar names and faces pop back in fast flashes: Truman Capote dancing at Studio 54; Hugh Hefner in a talk-show tiff with feminists; “Deep Throat” opening, closing and opening again and introducing “porno chic” to the world; a nearly unknown Bette Midler singing “Friends” to an audience of men in towels at New York’s Continental Baths; and George W. Bush brandishing the threat of “a Constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America,” a menace that fortunately never materialized.

Such seminal moments as the introduction of the birth control pill, Roe v. Wade and the murders of city supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in San Francisco, and the effect these events had on feminism and what used to be called “gay liberation,” are given serious treatment, but the overall tone of the report is playfully sardonic, since there’s nothing like sex to illustrate what fools we mortals can be.

Back for encores are overheated moments from the trenches of sexual warfare — mortifications on the order of Anita Bryant taking a pie in the face from a gay activist at a news conference, then praying aloud for the pie-pelter’s soul. Bryant had achieved fleeting notoriety, and lost her gig as spokesmodel for the Florida orange juice industry, with an anti-homosexual campaign conceived as an answer to alleged libidinous excesses of the ’70s. Comic and writer Bruce Vilanch waspishly recalls another reaction to Bryant’s crusade: “First, nobody would do her hair.”

“The sexual revolution is here to stay,” declared a confident Marilyn Chambers in another corner of that decade. She was wrong, of course, but enjoyed her 15 minutes in the spotlight as one of the first and most attractive porn superstars (“Behind the Green Door”). And, until Procter & Gamble could yank the boxes off the shelves, Chambers ironically and simultaneously appeared as the very essence of wholesome mommyhood on packages of Ivory Snow laundry detergent, “99 and 44/100 percent pure.” Apparently, she was the missing .56 percent.

At the Sandstone Retreat in California, supposedly liberated men and women ate dinner, vacuumed rugs and mowed lawns in the nude, while at another “retreat,” this one called Plato’s, New Yorkers indulged their own desires to go foolishly naked. From the film clips, Plato’s Retreat looks even tackier than Studio 54, but its owner insists that in its brief heyday it was the most famous place in the world. Hmm.

Remember Beatniks? The Fugs? “The Playboy Philosophy”? Burt Reynolds posing almost nude for Cosmopolitan magazine’s first centerfold? How about “the Twinkie defense,” used to help Dan White, the killer of Milk and Moscone, get off with a mere seven-year sentence for “manslaughter”? Times of insanity, absurdity and folly. Like now — only different.

And then it all ended. “The pendulum swung back very hard,” says Jong. AIDS devastated gay America with a double-edged virulence; some on the far right called it a punishment from God. Says writer Armistead Maupin: “People who were dying were being told on their death beds that they were morally evil.” Movies like “Dressed to Kill” and “Fatal Attraction,” meanwhile, signaled what one expert calls “a shift in the ethos of the culture,” and promiscuity became decidedly un-fashionable after two decades of wanton whoopee.

Even such things as sexually transmitted diseases, however, can eventually be joked about; thus a Robin Williams monologue from “Saturday Night Live” dealing with bodily fluids and the newfound fear thereof. Perhaps the pendulum will swing wildly once again. If it does, it’ll be worth bringing back “Sex: The Revolution” for another cautionary — but very entertaining — look.

Sex: The Revolution (one hour) airs on VH1 at 10 p.m. tonight through Thursday. Uncensored encore showings will be on the Sundance Channel on May 19 and 20 at 12 a.m.