Sex scenes have a rich, varied tradition in the cinema. They’ve gone through periods of near-ubiquity, as well as scarcity. In the 1960s and ’70s, they were often used for shock value and to shake viewer complacency. In the 1980s, they were commodified in startling ways. These days, they tend to be relatively rare. But sex scenes have also been important—whether in the development of the cinematic idiom, or sparking controversy, or just plain helping break new ground in depicting intimacy. Some of the scenes on this list are seminal moments in film history (for better and for worse). Some are flash points that wound up changing our culture in interesting ways. Some came to represent nefarious, exploitative trends. And some are just unforgettable scenes that informed what came after them. It’s a mixed bunch. Here are the 30 Most Important Sex Scenes in Movie History.
In this 1933 Czech film, the great Hedy Lamarr plays a young, frustrated bride who flees her marriage to a wealthy, impotent older man and finds love and lust in the arms of a virile engineer. This may have been the first documented sex scene in cinema. But interestingly, although the film itself contains copious nudity (including a famous, extended scene of Lamarr skinny-dipping) the sex scene itself is largely demure. That’s not to say it’s not erotic, however. Indeed, by focusing largely on the characters’ faces (and by showing Lamarr’s character achieving orgasm probably another first for cinema), director Gustav Machaty conveys the thrill of intimacy.
29. Little Vera
This 1988 film, released at the height of perestroika, made waves in both the USSR and the West for being (reportedly) the first Soviet film to feature a naked sex scene. It’s a drab little melodrama of two star-crossed young lovers whose families do not approve of their relationship, but the scenes of intimacy between star Natalya Negoda and Andrei Sokolov are earthy and lived-in—a far cry from the slick sex scenes of Hollywood. (That didn’t keep star Negoda from posing in Playboy, of course.)
28. The Brown Bunny
Hey, remember The Brown Bunny? Back when it was released, Vincent Gallo’s arthouse provocation was known for two things: Being blasted at Cannes by critics (particularly by the late Roger Ebert, who would later praise Gallo’s final, shorter cut) and for its allegedly unsimulated, lengthy scene of fellatio by Chloë Sevigny. Was it unsimulated? Who can say. Some say Gallo was using a prosthetic; Gallo (of course) claims he was not. The film wasn’t exactly a smash, but the scene, though explicit, is both creepy and touching—a fantasy of a sad, final encounter that haunts the tormented, silent protagonist.
William Friedkin’s 1980 crime thriller, in which undercover cop Al Pacino infiltrates New York’s underground S&M scene to uncover a serial killer and—being Al Pacino—goes in too far, generated a lot of controversy. Many in the gay community felt the film was homophobic and were worried about the portrait of homosexuals in the film. Even though the film was based on a real case and was mostly a genre movie, Friedkin himself understood their concerns. In an interview last year, he told Vulture: “[T]he timing of it was difficult because of what had been happening to gay people … Cruising came out around a time that gay liberation had made enormous strides among the general public. It also came out around the same time that AIDS was given a name … But many critics who wrote for gay publications or the underground press felt that the film was not the best foot forward as far as gay liberation was concerned, and they were right.”
This politically engaged, borderline experimental Swedish film seems rather tame by today’s standards. But in the late ’60s, it became the biggest foreign hit on U.S. shores, thanks to its somewhat explicit scenes featuring the film’s protagonist, Lena Nyman, a sexually liberated student. The film is a docu-narrative hybrid, so it’s rarely clear if what we’re seeing onscreen is real or staged. But what really intrigued audiences (and outraged censors) was a scene where Lena kisses a boyfriend’s limp penis. Full-frontal male nudity was not something one saw in mainstream theaters in the U.S. at the time.
25. Eyes Wide Shut
True, much of the controversy over Stanley Kubrick’s final film centered on the infamous orgy sequence (and the digital images inserted at key moments to mask potentially NC-17-inspiring nudity). But it could be argued that the early, looking-in-the-mirror sex scene between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman was more significant. First, it’s beautiful, and it elegantly captures the film’s through-the-looking-glass atmosphere. But it’s also important because this scene also served as the film’s trailer, and by foregrounding the sex to such a degree, it may have (along with unfounded and inaccurate rumors from the set) helped raise expectations that Kubrick’s final work would be some kind of mythically explicit fuck-fest. That then set up many critics and audiences for inevitable disappointment, when they discovered that the film was, indeed, a curiously old-fashioned thriller that was uninterested in titillation or breaking taboos. Still, this scene’s kind of great. Cruise and Kidman never particularly had much chemistry, but here, Kubrick seems to play off that idea: She’s more interested in seeing herself than she is in him, and the look of urgency on his face is more that of a man in desperation than it is one of arousal or love. This scene helps unlock the movie’s many mysteries.
24. Henry & June
Philip Kaufman’s erotic, literary drama about the love affair between Henry Miller (a comically bald-capped Fred Ward), his wife June (Uma Thurman), and Anaïs Nin (Maria de Medeiros) isn’t exactly thought of as one of the director’s strongest films. (Remember, this is the man who made The Right Stuff.) But its historical significance cannot be denied: This was the film that earned the MPAA’s first NC-17, a rating that was created after they realized that the X rating, which had been appropriated by the porn industry, just wasn’t cutting it. The film has several lengthy sex scenes, but the one that reportedly flipped the MPAA out was a scene in a brothel where Anaïs Nin, after falling for June Miller, selects two girls who look like her and June, and makes them have sex with each other. At one point, the blonde girl looks up and asks Anaïs if she wants something different. “Yes, stop pretending to be a man,” Anaïs responds, at which point the girl starts to go down on the other one.
23. 9 ½ Weeks
Let’s face it, this is a terrible movie. But the infamous “food scene”—in which Mickey Rourke makes Kim Basinger close her eyes and makes her taste various suggestive foodstuffs, strawberries, honey, etc.—is really kind of unforgettable. And totally devoid of nudity or anything explicit. So, is it a sex scene? Well, ask yourself this: Could it possibly be anything else?
22. Monster’s Ball
This much-acclaimed, and occasionally quite reviled, drama about the relationship between a tough deputy prison warden (Billy Bob Thornton) and the widow (Halle Berry) of a convict whose execution he oversaw is steeped in fear, desperation, and tragedy. The two characters are brought together by profound grief, with one bottling it in and the other letting it out. That’s one reason why the film’s pivotal, controversial, drunken sex scene—with Berry’s character repeatedly moaning, “Make me feel good!”—might be its most powerful moment. It might also be why so many people find the scene offensive and debasing. Of course, the character is debased at this moment—debased, vulnerable, needy. It’s a troubling scene, to be sure. But credit where it’s due: Berry plays it perfectly and won a well-deserved Oscar for the role.
21. The Terminator
When Michael Biehn’s soldier from the future and Linda Hamilton’s victimized party girl stop for some hot ‘n heavy action right in the middle of fleeing from indestructible killer robot Arnold Schwarzenegger, it feels at first like a moment of gratuitous sex tossed into the middle of a typical ’80s action movie. And maybe it is, to some extent. But The Terminator didn’t turn out to be any old ’80s action movie, and director James Cameron wasn’t your typical action director. The film became a massive hit that spawned a decades-old franchise (with a new one coming out next summer) and a fairly elaborate, time-hopping mythology. Most of that mythology involves one John Connor, leader of the human resistance against the machines in the future. And this sex scene turns out to be the moment of John Connor’s conception—meaning that the entire Terminator universe somehow revolves around it.
20. Blue Valentine
Derek Cianfrance’s tormented indie romance starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams is passionate and tragic, intercutting the highs of young love with the pathetic despair of divorce; the sex, which alternates between exciting and depressing, helps to punctuate the characters’ journey. But even though nothing in this movie is explicit, the film was originally slapped with an NC-17 for a scene of Gosling going down on Williams, which serves to highlight just how insanely hypocritical the MPAA often is. (Gosling himself lashed out at the ratings board, noting that men receive oral sex in films all the time, and that this double standard over a woman being on the receiving end of such a scene was outrageous.)
19. The Big Easy
As a mildly corrupt but fundamentally decent New Orleans cop and the repressed district attorney investigating him, Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin were the last word in romantic chemistry in the 1980s, thanks to the intensely erotic sex scene in Jim McBride’s wild, atmospheric crime thriller. Fascinatingly, the scene also turned Barkin’s image around virtually overnight. Previously, she had been cast mostly in mousy, repressed roles, in part because execs and agents didn’t find her pretty or sexy enough. Such was the power of The Big Easy that right afterwards, Barkin wound up getting typecast as a sexpot.
Abdellatif Kechiche’s three-hour tale of sexual awakening won last year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, and at first, it seemed like a bit of a breakthrough: Here was an expansive tale of two young women falling in love, with extended scenes of fairly explicit lesbian sex—playful, intimate, and, yes, pretty exciting. Was it exploitative? Some critics were divided, and the actresses themselves seemed to be not entirely onboard with director Kechiche’s methods. The wonder of the film’s early, lengthy sex scenes served a purpose, however; the film itself is about how the initial excitement of romance often gives way to the mundane, and how we all drift apart. And, to be fair, it’s too soon really to deem any of the film’s sex “important.” But something tells me we’ll be arguing about this one for some time to come.
John Cameron Mitchell’s notorious celebration of New York’s outsider/alternate sexual culture—a communal world of changing partners, mutating genders, and fluid sexual preferences—is a libertine cri de coeur, full of scenes that thumb their noses at propriety and conservatism. As such, it’s also a deeply political film: “It’s everything you need to get through the next two years of Bush,” Mitchell said about it at the time. But the film isn’t meant to titillate or outrage; it’s distinguished by the generosity with which it depicts even its most inhibited characters. But we can’t just pick one scene; the whole film kind of qualifies for this list.
16. Body Heat
In classic film noir (such as The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, and Double Indemnity), sex was confined largely to innuendo and subtle wordplay. To some extent, that was a response to the conservative production codes of the era, but it also lent the films a kind of latent sexual tension: We couldn’t see the characters having sex, so we imagined them having sex for the whole film. But in the ’70s and ’80s, we got to see the sex. And in Body Heat, we got to see a lot of it, as William Hurt’s lawyer and Kathleen Turner’s alluring, married socialite found themselves having a torrid, fatal, James M. Cain–ian affair. Indeed, it’s hard to pick one particular sex scene among the many featured in this film, but we’ll go with the mostly clothed one in which Turner, playing vulnerable but never taking her eyes off him, strangely seduces Hurt into breaking into her own house. After 1981, whenever anyone referred to a “steamy legal thriller”—and, curiously, people often did—visions of Body Heat began to dance in everyone’s heads.
The sped-up, long-take threesome set to the William Tell Overture is one of the great extended sight gags in Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre, and scenes like this helped fuel the film’s controversy. But oddly enough, the sex scene is one of the few non-disturbing elements in this dystopian masterpiece—a film that is otherwise steeped in cruelty, rape, and violence. This might be Kubrick’s darkest film, but it’s also one of his most strangely effervescent. Reportedly, one of the great regrets of the director’s life was that he never got to direct a musical. But watch A Clockwork Orange—and particularly this scene—closely, and you may start to realize that he kind of did.
14. Top Gun
The silhouetted “blue light” sex scene was pretty much a staple of action and/or thriller movies in the 1980s and 1990s. These scenes didn’t involve much nuance: They were essentially an excuse to watch beautiful people and/or their body doubles get down in the most generic ways imaginable; undistinguished sex was one of the great perks of being a hero in an ’80s movie. And what better scene to represent this than the one between Kelly MacGillis and Tom Cruise in Top Gun, which now plays almost like a self-parody? As Vulture’s Adam Sternbergh put it recently: “[The scene] that notoriously ticks all these boxes is the famous sex scene in Top Gun—no, not the one involving sweat-sheened boys with aviator sunglasses cavorting on the beach playing volleyball. I mean the more traditional sex scene, in which Maverick finally gets busy with Kelly McGillis, among softly billowing curtains in a bedroom that’s backlit like the VIP lounge at a bordello. The song, of course, was ‘Take My Breath Away,’ a soundtrack choice that would feel only slightly less subtle if the track were titled ‘Look at Us, We’re Finally Doing ‘It’ (and ‘It’ Feels Great).’”
Martin Scorsese’s dream project, an epic adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel about Christ, was always going to be controversial. Much of the story revolves around Jesus (Willem Dafoe) realizing while on the cross that he isn’t the Messiah, stepping down, and proceeding to lead a normal life and growing old—before it’s revealed that his “normal” life has been a ruse by Satan himself. And although this extended dream of a normal life turns out to be just that—a dream—it also features one short scene of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, whom he marries, having sex (complete with a Jesus butt shot!). That infuriated many, in the U.S. and elsewhere, and soon enough, the film was being protested all over the world, often by people who hadn’t actually seen it. In America, the controversy over the film provided an opportunity for the religious right to cohere and coalesce around a single, headline-grabbing issue—a model for future action. Thus, Last Temptation would become one of the first salvos in America’s modern culture wars.
12. Boogie Nights
Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic tale of the porn industry announced to the world at large the arrival of a major directorial talent. It also revealed to viewers that Mark Wahlberg could act. It’s also the first time that many of us truly noticed such supporting actors as Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, and William H. Macy. But perhaps the MVP here was Julianne Moore, whose performance as a troubled, caring veteran porn actress and erstwhile den mother to the film’s cavalcade of fuck-ups helped ground Anderson’s episodic, tonal roller coaster of a story. In the film’s pivotal sex scene, as her character Amber Waves and Wahlberg’s comically hung Dirk Diggler get it on before the cameras for the first time, she gently, hilariously guides the young, clueless star. This scene could have easily become one-note and exploitative; instead, we sense the characters’ generosity and kindness, which makes the whole thing feel curiously more tragic.
What to say about this one? Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s puppet movie satire of action movies (among other things) also features a sex scene that starts off as a satire of Hollywood sex scenes before becoming something entirely different and more gruesome, as the puppet characters get increasingly freaky and nasty. Watch the uncut version sometime, but be sure to bring a barf bag.
“Thank God for the lips. Thank God for the neck. Thank God for kneecaps … ” Okay, technically speaking, it may not even be a sex scene. But it’s hard not to find something insanely sexy and poignant about the scene where Mookie (Spike Lee) rubs ice cubes all over his girlfriend Tina’s (Rose Perez) body on one sweltering Brooklyn day. She says it’s too hot to have sex, he gets creative, and by the end, she’s asking him to come back soon. That adds an extra element of suspense to the rest of the film, as the racial tensions of the neighborhood boil over. (Characters in movies who are asked to come back have an annoying tendency to wind up dying.) But also, this is a very beautiful scene, reveling in the characters’ quiet intimacy. How surprising then to find out later that Perez felt intensely uncomfortable while filming the scene.
It’s not explicit in any way shape or form, but the sight of two male movie stars going at it came as quite a shock to audiences in 2005—even though everybody already knew what the film would be about. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal both give the performances of their careers in this Ang Lee masterpiece, and the moment when they first fall into each other’s arms is remarkable for the way it balances the confusion of the two characters with the fact that they seem to know exactly what it is they need to do, spit-lube and all.
Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 cause célèbre, about the destructive relationship between a former prostitute and the owner of a hotel, will probably never lose its ability to shock, mostly thanks to its intensely disturbing sex scenes showing the characters’ growing possessiveness and abusiveness. Plus, there’s also the little matter of its rather gruesome ending. Oshima’s film, not unlike Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, would soon become a benchmark by which later provocations would be judged.
The love scene from Gina Prince-Bythewood’s romantic masterpiece may not be the most influential or controversial of such scenes, but it is one of the more honest, and it has stood the test of time for that very reason. As basketball-loving neighbors who’ve grown up together enjoying a playful rivalry and a slow-burning, unstated passion, Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps are the last word in romantic chemistry. But when they get together, the scene isn’t played as usual; it’s not a prize in a video game. Rather, the camera focuses on their reactions to one another, resulting in a scene that actually has some real drama and humor to it. Watch the contented, subtly hilarious little shrug Epps’s character gives when it’s clear that Lathan’s character has just seen his, er, manhood. And watch the slight sense of trepidation and pain on her face. This feels like their first time, and we understand that this moment will reverberate in their memories for a long time. As it will in ours.
In Alfonso Cuarón’s seminal road movie, Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal play two wild, boisterous best friends who go on a road trip with a married, alluring beauty played by Maribel Verdu. The coming-of-age story features lots of frank talk about sex, love, and friendship, and it all comes to a head in a beautiful, startling scene where the three engage in a threesome. That itself climaxes with Luna and Garcia Bernal’s characters getting busy with each other. Needless to say, the MPAA tried to give it an NC-17, resulting in the film being released unrated. It became a hit regardless.
The Wachowskis’ 1996 stylized neo-noir got everybody’s tongues wagging thanks to its sex scene between burgeoning outlaw-lovers Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon. In fact, this scene is notorious enough that Vulture dedicated an entire piece to it this week. Here’s part of what Jennifer Tilly had to say about it: “We were a little bit worried because Dino De Laurentiis—bless him—was a producer, and we were worried that after we finished shooting the scene, they would send it off to Italy and insert some breasts and buttocks shots. The Wachowskis said that was a concern of theirs, too, so they decided to shoot that love scene in one long, continuous shot … [They] put the camera on a crane, and there were all these elements that they wanted to capture. They wanted to start out on a safe and get the side of my back, and they wanted to pan down to the toes, and they would be yelling through a megaphone, telling us what different parts were onscreen. They would yell, ‘Toes!’ and Gina would curl her toes like she was about to come. Then they would say, ‘Hand!’ and my hand was on her crotch, and I would kind of move my fingers a little bit. And then they would say, ‘Face!’ and it would be on Gina’s face, and Gina would ‘come.’ So it was very, very technical, and we did eight takes.”
4. Coming Home
This powerful 1978 drama about the affair between a paraplegic, radical vet (Jon Voight, before he went full wingnut) and a conservative housewife (Jane Fonda) married to a gung-ho marine captain (Bruce Dern) was one of mainstream American cinema’s early attempts to grapple with the legacy of the Vietnam War. It was also, as it so happens, a pivotal film in the depiction of onscreen sex: The sex scenes between Voight and Fonda are both touching and incredibly sensuous—not the least because they show her character having an orgasm for the first time, a revolutionary notion for cinema at the time.
Like several of the films on this list, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 cause célèbre has several sex scenes that could qualify as important. But for sheer shock and cultural conversation value, it’s hard to top the scene where Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider explore the lubricant possibilities of butter. That’s a rather glib way of discussing what is one of the more disturbing scenes ever put on film. In Bertolucci’s film, sex is never just sex, and it sure as fuck isn’t love. Rather, the two leads’ anonymous, often violent groping and thrashing and screwing around seems to be driven by a primal desire for self-negation. The closer they are, the more alienating the film becomes.
2. Out of Sight
Steven Soderbergh’s film of Elmore Leonard’s crime thriller exudes cool. And that extends to its much-beloved sex scene, with its elliptical cutting and playful approach to time, not to mention the sheer fun that George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez appear to be having together. Watch the smiles on their faces as they take their clothes off; those are real people, not movie people! This is the polar opposite of the cue-the-pop-song-and-turn-off-the-dialogue blue light sex scenes we’ve seen in so many previous films. The sex doesn’t stop the narrative dead in this case; it enhances and expands it.
Donald Sutherland would claim in later years that he and Julie Christie were actually doing it during the passionate, intimate and groundbreaking sex scene nestled in Nicolas Roeg’s absurdly terrifying chiller about a couple in Venice who begin to have ghostly visions of their dead daughter. The claim has been refuted by some, but it’s easy to believe: The casual intensity, the sheer physicality of the scene is quite unlike anything you’ve seen. But it’s not just a hot ‘n steamy sex scene we’re talking about here: This is a couple experiencing profound grief, and the desperation with which they cling to each other is poignant, too.