I was 9 years old when I saw "Love With the Proper Stranger" starring Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen—three times—at our local movie theater.
Yup, you heard me right. I was 9 and the film was about abortion. A sheltered Italian girl in New York City hooks up with a sexy musician and—surprise, surprise—gets knocked up. But the sexy musician is Steve McQueen, so besides being a hot, free-spirited trumpet player, he's also a nice guy; so nice, in fact, he arranges a backstreet abortion for her.
I loved that film but if you'd asked me what it was about at the time, I couldn't tell you. I had no idea what an abortion was or even how babies were conceived, although Jackie Meyers, the 12-year-old blabbermouth across the street (every neighborhood had a kid like Jackie—usually a girl) had clued me in when I was 7 and it was so horrific and unimaginable I'd immediately erased it from my memory bank.
If my mom was concerned about the adult subject matter of these movies, the gift of a quiet house for a few hours those Saturday afternoons or hot summer days she dumped us at the theater trumped her parental responsibility of finding us age-appropriate entertainment although "age-appropriate" wasn't a thing in those days.
Looking back on it now, I'm surprised at the some of the films I saw at such a tender age: "A Summer Place," where not only the teenagers are bonking, their parents are too; "Peyton Place," that famous hotbed of sex and scandal; an obscure film starring Michael Caine and Jane Fonda called "Hurry Sundown" where Caine puts his hand down Jane Fonda's blouse, cups her breast and says something along the lines of, "You're going to miss this when I'm gone, bitch."
I haven't seen that film since (and I wonder how many people actually did see it) but that scene is seared into my brain. "Lolita" was probably the most controversial, but the references to pedophilia were so subtle, I'm not sure even my mom caught the full meaning when she saw it. Surely, if she knew she wouldn't have given us money to stay in that icy movie theater all day. Or would she? Who knows? Things were looser in those days.
I can't remember when or how it all changed, but I think of it as creeping morality of questionable intent. Is censorship ever a good thing? I don't think so and I've seen both sides. The only time I wished a film had been rated was when my boyfriend and I treated our moms to a movie one weekend. "Shampoo" was a romantic comedy-drama starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn. A witty satire, the film skewered Richard Nixon and his cronies and had a timely release right on the heels of Watergate.
Things were humming along in the theater that night. We had our popcorn, Milk Duds and Cokes; the film was smart and funny, and our moms laughed in all the right places, until this one particular scene. Seated around a table at a political fundraiser, the cast gets into it and Goldie Hawn ends up saying, "I want to suck his dick." The person she wants to perform oral sex on is, of course, Warren Beatty, which is fine when you're there alone with your boyfriend, but not so fine with your moms munching popcorn right next to you. I prayed for the sticky floor of that movie theater to swallow me up.
There were also several popular drive-ins in our area and our local, the Van Nuys, was by far the most popular because they actually played porn films. Outside. This was the infamous San Fernando Valley the Academy Award-winning film "Boogie Nights" so beautifully captured, so of course they did.
Picture this: You're driving west on the 101 freeway and as you cruise by the Van Nuys Boulevard exit you glance outside your passenger window to see a naked male ass—50 feet high—in the distance. We laughed about it when we were kids—no harm done. When we were in high school, we'd climb into the trunk of someone's dad's car and sneak in and watch porn. We were 16. I must have seen "The Stewardesses" five times and I still remember key scenes, most of which take place in a dark alley and involve a pole.
The movie rating system went into effect soon after the "Shampoo" catastrophe with the designations G, PG, R and X but by that time I was of age. I had, however, managed to see almost every unsuitable film released. Am I permanently scarred? Nope. Do I think trying to control what people read and watch—usually sexual or political in nature—is a bad thing? Yes, I do. I could be swayed if violence in films and books was banned, but only for a second. I believe we deserve to see the whole picture.