We've Got Hollywood Covered

How Larry Kramer Pulled Off the First Film With Frontal Male Nudity – Back in 1969

In an excerpt from his book ”Sexplosion,“ Robert Hofler explores the late writer’s work on director Ken Russell’s groundbreaking film ”Women in Love“

Playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer, who died Wednesday at age 84, got his start in the film business — including director Ken Russell’s Oscar-winning 1969 film “Women in Love,” an adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel that broke barriers with its depiction of frontal male nudity. In an excerpt from his 2014 book “Sexplosion,” TheWrap theater critic Robert Hofler looks back at Kramer’s work on the project. 

Long before he became the world’s most famous AIDS activist, Larry Kramer made movies. Thinking back to his days as a production chief at Columbia in the 1960s, Kramer claimed, “Because of me, Columbia Pictures released ‘Darling.’ I told Columbia that this was a fantastic movie, and they took my advice and picked it up.”

He and the film’s director, John Schlesinger, were more than friends. “I met him. We went to bed a bunch of times. He was more serious than I was,” Kramer recalled.

Their paths crossed again when, hot off the success of United Artists’ “Midnight Cowboy,” Schlesinger was invited by Kramer to see the rough cut of his new film, “Women in Love,” also to be released by UA in 1969. Kramer did double duty on the film, having produced it and written the screenplay. Schlesinger praised the movie so effusively that Kramer thought his old boyfriend might still be smitten — until the director backed up his words by hiring “Women in Love” star Glenda Jackson, as well as most of that film’s crew, for his next project, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

Kramer could only hope that the version of “Women in Love” he screened for his old boyfriend would be the movie audiences saw. As the film’s producer, he had yet to negotiate a final approved cut with the British Board of Film Censors. Even before shooting began, Kramer had sent a copy of his script to the board’s chief, a man named Lord John Trevelyan, who often said, “We’re paid to have dirty minds.” Trevelyan didn’t hold out much hope for Kramer, and even went so far as to tell him that he doubted his “Women in Love” script could be filmed at all. “The male wrestling scene,” as it was soon to be dubbed, sent immediate shock waves through the BBFC.

In his research for the film, Kramer had found an unpublished section of the D. H. Lawrence novel “in which the characters Rupert and Gerald go off and have a full-blown homosexual affair. Of course, it was not used,” said Kramer. “You get the sense, though, that Lawrence is playing around with all this, perhaps subconsciously. In a quote from the unused passage, Lawrence described the two characters’ relationship: ‘They scarcely knew each other, yet here was this strange, unacknowledged, inflammable intimacy between them. It made them uneasy.'”

Kramer knew he couldn’t get away with reinstating what Lawrence, in a preemptive strike against the censors of his day, had cut. But he wanted to convey the two characters’ unique attraction to each other in the finished film. “I wasn’t quite out of the closet at the time I was writing this,” Kramer said of his screenplay. “Now you could look at it as full, ripe and redolent with gay themes.”

Trevelyan warned Kramer that the wrestling scene between Rupert and Gerald “would present an insurmountable roadblock to the film’s release,” Kramer recalled. But he and his director, Ken Russell, gambled that Trevelyan might give his approval if the scene, when filmed, “followed the novel to the letter,” said Kramer.

Trevelyan had recently cut a lesbian sex scene, between Susannah York and Coral Browne, from “The Killing of Sister George.” Kramer’s ploy to “get around” Trevelyan’s objections was to appeal to the censor’s British snobbery. “Sister George” was low camp from American director Robert Aldrich; “Women” would be high art from D.H. Lawrence by way of British director Ken Russell.

women in love

Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in “Women in Love” (United Artists)

Convincing Trevelyan, however, was only half the battle. Equally difficult was convincing Alan Bates (cast as Rupert) and Oliver Reed (cast as Gerald) to wrestle nude in front of a fireplace and before the cameras. Days before the big scene, Reed developed a bad limp and complained of having somehow injured himself. Kramer only exacerbated the situation by reminding the zaftig actor, “You’re going to be seen naked by millions of your fans. You’d better start losing weight.”

Then, Alan Bates developed a very bad cold. “They both had doctor’s certificates to prove it,” Ken Russell said of his actors’ ailments. “The crew were taking bets” that the two men would never show up. When they finally did appear, “Tumultuous applause followed as forty pairs of eyes registered the fact that their dongles were exactly the same length,” Russell recalled.

Kramer understood the two men’s phobia. “Neither actor was happy about displaying it all,” he said. “Oliver would disappear for a few moments before each take, we later discovered, so that he could make his penis look bigger.”

Reed wanted both of them to be inebriated for the scene. When Bates refused to enhance his performance with booze, Reed observed sobriety for once in his life.

Perhaps it would have been easier to have done it drunk. “The task was quite shattering,” Bates said of the two-day shoot. Worse was watching the dailies. “You get to see only a few moments of it in the film, but we saw hours of it,” he said. “It seemed to go on forever, and it was torture.”

Finally, the day Kramer dreaded most: He had to show the film to Lord John Trevelyan. It was not their first encounter. In the late 1950s, Kramer worked as a production assistant on “Suddenly, Last Summer,” and even before that Tennessee Williams project began filming at Pinewood Studios, Trevelyan smelled something foul. Homosexuality, procurement and cannibalism in the hot Caribbean sun! He demanded major revisions in Gore Vidal’s screen adaptation.

“Trevelyan was a real character, a social butterfly,” Kramer recalled. “England had a lot of men like that. Men who had sick sex lives, like he’s into S&M or a Peeping Tom. He gave you that feeling. He loved his work, and he had an enormous amount of power.”

Kramer and Russell thought they might be able to trick Trevelyan, so they cleverly included more footage of the wrestling scene and the revenge rape scene (between Glenda Jackson and Reed) than what was necessary. It would give them more room to negotiate.

“In the end, it was a compromise,” said Kramer. “We snipped a couple of feet from mainly the wrestling scene and the revenge f—, but not so you could tell in any way. That shut him up.”

Trevelyan ended up praising “Women in Love,” including its most controversial scene. “This film included a remarkably brilliant scene in which two young men wrestled naked,” he wrote. “We had to consider this carefully, but decided to pass it; in a scene this was a milestone in censorship since male frontal nudity was still a rarity. We had little criticism, possibly because of the film’s undoubted brilliance.”

Upon the film’s release, debate focused almost exclusively on the wrestling scene. “Because it was the first studio film to have full-frontal male nudity,” said Kramer. “No one paid much attention to the regular, i.e. heterosexual f— scenes.”

In some countries, the wrestling scene got excised almost completely. In Argentina, for example, the censors edited the scene to show the two men shaking hands before they begin their nude fight, and then it cuts directly to their panting on the rug, lying side by side. “It was known as the great buggery scene,” said Russell. “So that’s censorship working backwards.”

This article is adapted from Robert Hofler’s bookSexplosion: From Andy Warhol to ‘A Clockwork Orange’ – How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos.”

Robert Hofler, TheWrap's lead theater critic, has worked as an editor at Life, Us Weekly and Variety. His books include "The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson," "Party Animals," and "Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos." His latest book, "Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne," is now in paperback.