The word “taboo” comes from the Tongan tapu or Fijian tabu, and its English use dates to 1777 when British explorer James Cook visited the Kingdom of Tonga in the Polynesian archipelago. The term was translated to Cook as meaning “consecrated, forbidden, unclean, or cursed.” Film has long tackled societal taboos, pushing the envelope and subverting what has been proscribed by society as improper and unacceptable. In the novel Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange –How a Generation of Pop Rebel Broke All the Taboos, author Robert Hofler addresses a variety of “forbidden” and “unclean” behavior in film; from the first erection in a non-pornographic film -Andy Warhol’s Flesh (1968) -to the butter as lubricant taboo in the anal sex scene in The Last Tango in Paris (1970), filmmakers love to push boundaries and court controversy. Over time, however, the shock of the new is no longer shocking and taboos that "dare not speak their names" become commonplace. Here are 8 films that broke cinematic taboos.
8 First Toilet Flush
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the 1960 masterpiece featuring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, set a new level of acceptability for violence, sexuality, and deviant behavior in film. The murder of Janet Leigh’s character in the shower is one of the most iconic in cinema. The scene features 77 different camera angles and runs for 45 seconds, a combination that makes the scene feel more subjective. Hitchcock described the film technique as “transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience.”
While the “shower scene” is famous, Psycho is also noteworthy because it is the first American film to show a toilet flushing on screen. In fact, Psycho’s scriptwriter, Joseph Stefano, was adamant about showing a flushing toilet to add to the realism of the film. The first toilet appeared in 1928’s The Crowd, but it wasn’t flushed. After Psycho broke the “toilet taboo,” it took another 10 years before a film depicted a man sitting on the toilet. Mike Nichol’s Catch 22 (1970) holds that distinctive honor.
7 First “F-Word”
6 First Blood Soaked Shooting
The ending of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is “one of the most bloodiest death scenes in cinematic history.” Nevertheless, the entire Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway classic with its graphic violence and glorification of murder, was unprecedented and controversial at the time. Roger Ebert called the film "a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance," but not every film critic felt that way.
While shooting deaths were often staged with impact wounds in black and white films, they were rare in color films. Bonnie and Clyde broke that taboo. First, the film depicted someone shot in the face. Second, the shootout at the end of the movie famously shows Bonnie and Clyde blood-soaked and riddled with bullets, their clothes shredded from high velocity impact. It was not only a level of violence never before seen on film, but it was a scene that would change movie violence forever.
5 First Naked Man
Women in Love (1969), directed by Ken Russell and adapted from D.H. Lawrence’s novel of the same name, is the first movie to feature extensive male nudity. In fact, Women in Love is considered by many to be the Holy Grail of male nudity in cinema. The naked wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates not only features the first full-frontal shots to make it past censors, but the explicit homoeroticism in the scene also pushed boundaries. According to Rolling Stone, “Seen today, the homoeroticism is undeniable regardless of the scene's supposedly platonic male-bonding intentions. It's a man-on-man sex scene in everything but name.” Prior to Women in Love, Lindsay Anderson’s The Sporting Life (1963) and John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) both featured unclothed males, yet censorship boards had the films re-edited before release.
4 First Use of Cannibalism as a Plot Device
Cannibalism is one of mankind’s oldest and darkest taboos. From the legendary Italian cannibal films of the ‘70s and ‘80s to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs, the eating of human flesh is a genre unto itself in the horror industry. Doctor X, directed by Michael Curtiz –the same man that would bring audiences Casablanca ten years later –is the first film to use cannibalism as a plot device. Doctor X is a mystery-horror film. It has tongue-and-cheek elements and is considered to be of the “old dark house” horror genre. In the film, reporter Lee Taylor investigates a series of murders. Each of the bodies has been cannibalized. Despite the fact that cannibalism was not explored in motion pictures at the time, Doctor X was a success at the box office. Curtiz followed up Doctor X with another horror film: Mystery of the Wax Museum.
3 First Openly Gay Character
Kenneth Anger, an American underground experimental filmmaker, began his career in 1937 and produced 40 short films. Anger’s films blend surrealism, homoeroticism and the occult, and he is considered America’s first openly gay filmmaker. Homosexuality might have been present in Hollywood films in the 1930s and 40s, but it was veiled and oblique, a secret code amongst those in the know. Working outside the mainstream, Anger’s underground films were quite explicit.
Filmed in 1947, Fireworks is a homoerotic work lasting 14 minutes. The film revolves around gay youth (played by Anger) and various sailors. Homosexual acts were illegal in America at the time, and the film is an impressionistic critique of American traditions. According to Anger, "This flick is all I have to say about being 17, the United States Navy, American Christmas and the Fourth of July.” When Fireworks was publicly shown in 1948, Anger was arrested on obscenity charges. He was acquitted when the Supreme Court of California deemed Fireworks art and not pornography.
2 First Sex Scene
Ecstasy is a 1933 Czech romantic drama directed by Gustave Machaty. The film starred 18-year old Austrian actress, Hedy Lamarr, and was controversial at the time for scenes in which Lamarr swims nude in a lake and runs naked through the countryside. As highly controversial as those nude scenes were, they didn’t break cinematic taboos. However, Ecstasy is the first non-pornographic movie to portray sexual intercourse and female orgasm. During the sex scene the camera is closely framed on Lamarr’s face, and her character is clearly in, well, the throes of ecstasy. At the time, Ecstasy was called “highly –even dangerously -indecent.” It wasn’t released in the United States until 1940, and most state censor boards demanded substantial cuts.
1 First “Actual” Death
The Rolling Stones’ free concert at California's Altamont Speedway in 1969 represented the end of the hippie and counter-culture era. The Altamont concert was marked by the controversial death of Meridith Hunter, an African American man who attempted to storm the stage with a revolver as The Rolling Stones were playing “Under My Thumb,” and was subsequently stabbed in the back several times by Alan Passaro, a member of the Hells Angels who was acting as informal security during the show. Gimme Shelter, a 1970 documentary about the notorious concert, is considered the first major documentary to show an “actual” killing. In fact, the footage was used in Alan Passaro’s murder trial. He was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. According to BBC Culture, Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) is widely considered to be the first narrative film to feature footage of a real death.