Hello, my name is Filmofile and I will be your waiter this evening. On the menu, we have a pornographic version of Romeo And Juliet directed by Paul Thomas in 1987. Then, to cleanse the pallet we have a little soft core number called The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet directed by Peter Perry Jr. in 1969, and for dessert, we return to hardcore with an Italian flick entitled Romeo Va Juliet directed by Joe D’Amato in 1996. Once sated on smutty celluloid you will be served a wafer-thin mint, compliments of the house. Bon appetit!
Romeo And Juliet 1987
Our first offering is not a straight forward telling of the original play. Instead, it centers on a down on its luck Shakespearian company that is trying to put on a production of Romeo and Juliet but must deal with a money-hungry, philistine landlord wit uh Brooklyn accent. He is impatient to recoup his investment and threatens to shut the play down unless it is an instant hit. He is considering an offer from someone who wants to buy the theater and turn it into a pornography movie palace. The director and the landlord are in a heated exchange when the director yells “Who wants to see porn anyway?” It’s all very meta.
For a porn movie, Romeo and Juliet has quite a lot going on other than sex. There is an effort to make the off-stage narrative indirectly reflect the onstage narrative. There is also an upbeat, almost heroic subplot where Juliet finds her true Romeo and together they save the play, and lastly of course there are some attempts at humor.
Romeo is an irresponsible, narcissist with impulse control issues. He can’t stop muttering Groucho Marx style jokes in between his lines. Juliet is frustrated by her costar and finds that the young virile janitor has not only memorized all of Romeo’s lines but is a phenomenal actor, or what is supposed to be a phenomenal actor if we suspend our disbelief. She tries to encourage him, “You would make such a perfect Romeo.” She tells him, but modestly he replies “Well who wouldn’t be great with these words, that Shakespeare he really knew how to turn out some dialogue didn’t he.” I suppose he did. Eventually, the asshole Romeo breaks his leg and janitor guy replaces him with great success.
The woman who plays Juliet decides to have sex with the mop wielding Romeo and as she fondles him she dreamily ponders “Mmmmh What is in a name, that which we call a cock would taste so sweet.” A perversion of the original to be sure but Shakespeare was no stranger to dirty jokes. Here is a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones. Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee.”
The director and his wife, played by the infamous Nina Hartly, are avid swingers and seduce all the actors one by one or two by two if need be. Hartly expresses her enthusiasm for sex when she yells out in the middle of an orgy “Well I say all the world’s a boudoir and everyone should fuck their brains out!”
The tension between the porn theater owners and the Shakespearian troupe is resolved when after their romantic exchange of words in the balcony scene Romeo and Juliet decide to display their passion on stage for all to see. The landlord is moved to tears, everyone gets a little sex with their culture, tragedy is averted and no one dies. Not exactly a Shakespearian ending but this way everyone wins! It’s the American way. Make Shakespeare great again!
The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet 1969
Peter Perry Jr.’s The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet was made in 1969 and was also an American production. Possibly the best part of the film is the opening credits. Instead of the conventional scrolling text, Perry Jr. introduces us to each actor by showing them having sex, pausing mid-coitus, and then breaking the fourth wall to introduce him or herself. Both risqué and comical would be enough but Perry pushes it over the top and has the entire cast introduce themselves including roles such as maid number 1, maid number 2, all the way to maid number 6. I suppose it’s a chance to see a lot of people having sex, but this is a softcore film. Having seen more than my fair share of late 60s porn I am frankly relieved that this production refrained from the sweaty close-ups that plague the hard stuff.
The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet is not a horrible film. It has a unique assembly of unexpected elements. The movie claims that it is trying to save Shakespeare from the stuffy academic reputation he has garnered over the years. In an effort to reinvigorate the bard they want to re-inject the ribald debauchery of Elizabethan England. They are not wrong in pointing out Shakespeare’s neglected bawdy side and how the audience would yell and hoot during the performances but if historical accuracy is your goal you might want to look elsewhere. It may be a rationalization for dumping a whole bunch schtupping into the movie but it does seem like they sincerely felt they were helping the audience rediscover the play. In the foreground, we often see the heads of the diegetic audience in front of us. Inviting us to imagine we are there amongst the drunken rabble.
The film uses the format from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. For those of you unfamiliar with the reference, Laugh In was a very popular variety show on television in the 60s. It often broke the fourth wall and cut to actors telling jokes to the camera and to each other. In The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet, the camera cuts away from the play to a friar who asks the audience, “Do you know what Joan of Arc said when she was being burned at the stake?” Cut to young maid number 2 who asks, “No, What did Joan of Arc say while being burned at the stake?” The friar replies “Aaaaah!” Cut to a random man who asks “What did she say after that?” Then back to the friar for the punchline, “Damn all these faggots!”, that’s a little etymological humor for all you historians and wordsmiths.
The film delivers on its title. The majority of it is watching the characters surreptitiously maul each other while trying to keep up appearances of fidelity. The balcony scene is presented with Romeo saying his lines from behind a guard wall while covertly being fellated by an unknown maiden. Juliet answers his amours banter from her balcony while her dress mysteriously shifts and balloons as if someone is under it. Both Romeo and Juliet do their best to deliver their lines while being distracted by ecstasy. Romeo gives up and dives down to meet his fellator, and Juliet lifts up her dress to reveal a German Shepard who wanders off camera. This is followed by another Laugh-Inesque cut to a blonde maiden asking us, “Is this what they mean by puppy love?”
When we get to the climactic orgy scene one of the participants turns to the camera and asks “Where in the hell would you book a picture like this?” That’s a good question. It echoes the question posed by the director in the 1987 Romeo And Juliet when he asks “Who watches porn anyway?” President Nixon had impaneled a commission expressly to answer this question. The same year that The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet was released Nixon’s commission published a 656 page, fully illustrated report, that was made available for purchase to the public. Unfortunately for Nixon, the investigation found no deleterious effects caused by pornography.
To explain why movies like The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet exist is complicated. I’m not referring to why porn in general exists but why porn was using narratives and emulating mainstream films.
The end of the Hayes Code and the rise of the self-imposed rating system created a space for porn movies. The breakup of the studio system opened up theaters to show whatever they needed to show to turn a profit, but the real driver for the change was the unexpected success of Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat. It was a huge hit but more importantly, it drew mainstream crowds, as well as hipsters and critics. Much to the porn industry’s surprise the movie was not cubby-holed and dismissed as smut. It actually garnered real interest.
This opened the way for pornography to step out of the shadows. The porn industry created its own Hollywood in New York City’s Time Square. They made pornographic science fiction films, pornographic westerns, pornographic horror, action, period films they did it all. They even formed the Adult Film Association of America which functioned as a porn academy giving out little sexy statues once a year at a gala event.
There were different levels of seriousness but many directors wanted to follow in the semi-respectable footsteps of Damiano in hopes of getting mainstream recognition and mainstream money. This period from 1968 to 1980 was later called The Golden Age of Pornography. From the filmmaker’s point of view, it was a chance to break out of filming silent 8mm shorts of people screwing in a basement. The uncredited directors churned out little peepshow reels that could be viewed for 25 cents in the back of a “bookstore” or purchased under the counter for home viewing if you had your own projector. These filmmakers were ready to make real movies that showed in real theaters, but in the end, what they produced was confusing. If you paid 25 cents to watch 5 minutes of hardcore porn in a private booth where you could masturbate that made sense. If you paid 3 dollars to sit in a public movie theater and watch a pretty bad movie with some explicit sex scenes in it, that was harder to understand. Why you would want that?
This misguided mismatch is the main reason I watch movies from this era. They are on a doomed mission to blend a masturbation aid with narrative entertainment. An erotic movie is one thing but watching Batman hump Cat woman just doesn’t make sense.
In 2020 porn has found its way back to brief clips that serve a single purpose. You don’t have to pay 25 cents anymore and you can fire off some knuckle-children or paddle your pink canoe depending on your anatomy, in the privacy of your own home. According to The Huffington Post, porn sites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined.
After about an hour The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet gets pretty repetitive and dreary. There is some effort paid to recount Shakespeare’s plot but like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead much of the film takes place adjacent to the actual story. Before Romeo comes to the family crypt Juliet drinks the faux poison and has sex with Gregory in her coffin. Shakespeare never said she didn’t. Shakespeare did however end his tragic play with the two lovers lying dead beside each other instead of both of them waking up in the unburied coffin and humping in the upholstery. Yet again tragedy is averted.
Romeo Va Juliet 1996
After watching the first two movies D’amato’s version falls a little flat, well, not anatomically flat, I mean Tibalt’s sword should be classified as a long-range weapon, a very, very long-range weapon. Romeo Va Juliet has more sex and less plot than the other two films. I wouldn’t recommend using D’amato’s version to brush up on the play before a midterm.
Filming in Italy, D’amato was able to find a period-appropriate castle as his backdrop. When maidens are bent over a parapet it’s a real parapet. The dubbing is ludicrous. You can easily picture the actors standing in a cheap studio panting half-heartedly into the mic while they look at their watches. “Oh yes, wonderful, Oh, yes please.” During a particularly awkward and unheated lesbian threesome, one of the voices is definitely a man. He doesn’t even bother to do a falsetto, he just phones it in.
The sex scenes are relentless. You know that feeling of dread that comes over you when you are watching a musical and the dialogue begins to fade and you know a boring ballad is imminent? It’s the same with Romeo Va Juliet. Just as you think you are about to get a bit of plot development you get this instead,
Busty Wench: “In truth, our carriage waits”
Lusty scoundrel: “You can ride with us. There’s plenty of time for a quickie. One for the road!”
Busty Wench 2: “We have an urgent message.”
Lusty scoundrel: “Wait until you feel my message knocking at your front door, you’ll find out how urgent his is.” I think they meant “he” is or maybe “it?”
I did finally resort to using the 2x speed through some of it. At double speed you can still hear all the dialogue, it’s just mercifully faster, “Oh, ah, it’s so wet! Ah ah ah haha feel that? ooh. Oh, I love to fuck.” D’Amato is very thorough with his sex scenes. He never neglects an orifice, so the sex scenes tend to go on and on.
The end of Romeo Va Juliet is the same as The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet, The two lovers screw secretly in their coffin, but in D’Amato’s version, the coffin is a stone sarcophagus with a heavy lid so there is still hope that the young couple will die of suffocation and finally stop fucking.
So what have we learned? I’ve learned that there is a sequel to Paul Thomas’ Romeo And Juliet called Romeo and Juliet 2 that I am going to avoid like the plague. OK, I watched some of it but I just couldn’t keep going. Not even for you, my lovely audience. You’ve had your there course meal and now it’s time for your mint.