How the lesbian neo-noir 'Bound' shattered Hollywood's sex and gender norms: NPR

Corky (Gina Gershon) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly) in Be bound to.

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Susie Bright still remembers the letter she received — on the stationery of legendary Hollywood producer Dino de Laurentiis — in the 1990s. It was from two aspiring film directors who loved her book, Susie Sexpert's Lesbian Sex Worldand used it as inspiration in a script, which they included. Would Susie, they asked, be willing to make a cameo in their upcoming film?

The directors behind the letter were Lana and Lilly Wachowski, who would later make a small film called The Matrix. But that wasn't the script they'd sent Susie. What they'd mailed was a gory neo-noir about a criminal-turned-contractor named Corky who's hired to fix up an apartment after she's released from prison. She soon meets the neighbors, a gangster named Caesar and his girlfriend, Violet, who wastes no time in seducing Corky and enlisting her help in conning a small fortune from the mob. The film was called Be bound to.

Bright says she was flattered by the Wachowskis’ praise and invitation, but she had to be honest. “I hate to be rude, but the lesbian community is so tired of being distorted by Hollywood and so defensive about all the garbage that’s being put out there,” she recalls writing back. “If I may be so bold, can I be your little helper in creating these characters and these sex scenes? Because I’ve noticed that part of it is pretty bare on the page.”

The Wachowskis agreed, and so Susie Bright — decades before most productions employed staff dedicated to making sex scenes safe and realistic — took great care in crafting Be bound to an authentic lesbian thriller. Since its release in 1996, Be bound to is enshrined as a queer cult classic. In June, the film became part of the selective and sought-after Criterion collectionwho praised the “deliciously sapphic twist on a crackerjack barbershop premise.”

The Challenge of Casting Bound

Susie Bright wasn't the only one with initial reservations about the material. In previous interviewsThe Wachowskis said they had trouble casting leading roles because so many actresses were hesitant to play gay characters. Some studios even wanted Corky's character to be male.

Gina Gershon, who eventually landed the role of Corky, says her agents advised her against taking the part right after playing a bisexual character on Showgirls.

“I read it and thought, 'This is a really great script,'” she says. “The woman is never supposed to be the hero in these stories, you know? The men always get the girl and get the car and get the money. They're the tough guys and they win.”

Gina Gershon as Corky in Bound. The Wachowskis have said that casting Corky and her love interest Violet was a challenge, with some studios even recommending recasting Corky's character as a man.

Gina Gershon as Corky in Be bound toThe Wachowskis have said that casting Corky and her love interest Violet was a challenge, with some studios even recommending rewriting Corky's character as a man.

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Gershon says she wanted to play the role normally reserved for leading men like Marlon Brando and Robert Mitchum, so much to the dismay of her team, she signed on. And she wasn’t the only one blown away by the character, says Jennifer Tilly, who also read for Corky but was ultimately cast as Violet, a femme fatale seductress in the style of Marilyn Monroe.

“All the girls wanted to play Corky,” she says. “I thought, you know why? Because we're so used to not having power in Hollywood. Violet is an interesting character if you look past the trappings of femininity, which I now see as a kind of costume that she puts on to move in the man's world and get what she wants. It's an outfit for the male gaze — which is what I do as an actor.”

Creating Bound's pivotal early sex scene

In the core, Be bound to is a film about the personas people assume and the secrets they keep from each other. But it's also a story about two women breaking out of those boxes and falling in love through an intense sexual connection. Bright says that lesbian films from the '80s and '90s, such as Go fishing, Desert Hearts And The hunger Although the emphasis was on romance and beauty, there was a lack of eroticism and excitement. Be bound to a heavy dose of both. The film’s key sex scene, thoroughly detailed in the script and shot in one continuous take, unfolds in the first 20 minutes of the film. Bright says immediacy is essential to the plot.

“These are two women who met in an elevator, sizing each other up and had some major surprises that led to them committing the perfect crime and trusting each other in a way that wouldn't have happened if this sexual intimacy hadn't exploded on the first day of their acquaintance,” she says.

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But Bright, Tilly and Gershon all recall facing intense scrutiny from the ratings board—in part, they believe, because the scene wasn’t just about sex but about a deep emotional connection. They say Corky and Violet didn’t appear as exposed in the first take as they did in the version that made it into the final cut—but because Violet’s hand was moving along Corky’s thigh, suggesting manual stimulation, the cut would have earned the film an NC-17 instead of an R rating, Bright and Tilly say. Bright believes a man’s hand on a woman’s thigh wouldn’t have caused as much controversy, saying she felt the issue had more to do with the chemistry between the characters than the actual content of the scene.

“The intensity between Jennifer and I was so palpable. You could feel the love that these women had. [But] “We had to take a different approach, where it was much more carnal and sexual,” Gershon says. “For some reason the ratings committee says, ‘Oh no, these women could fuck each other, but they shouldn’t be in love.’ That was my conclusion. And the scene we had was still great, but it was an interesting commentary on where we were as a society and the rules of American film.” (The Motion Picture Association declined to comment on specific films.)

How Bound's Place in Queer Cinema Has Been Redefined

Since its release, Be bound to's place in the queer canon has been redefined, says film historian and programmer Elizabeth Purchell. When the film debuted, the Wachowskis were known as male directors. Some critics so called that the film used lesbian love for shock value. Years later, Lana and Lilly Wachowski both came out as trans women. “I think the perception of the film at the time was, 'God, here are two straight men making this sleazy lesbian movie where we're the bad guys,' to now, 'Oh, here are these two hidden trans women making this hot, lesbian neo-noir,'” Purchell says. She thinks the film is now getting the kudos it deserved all along.

At a 2018 screening of Be bound toLana Wachowski explained that she was moved to write the story after leaving a showing of The Silence of the Lambs in tears, frustrated by how LGBTQ+ characters were constantly portrayed as serial killers or hopeless cases. She wanted to write a film where the queer characters won. In Be bound toViolet and Corky aren’t saints, but they don’t face any big, bad punishment. They get away with deceiving both the mob and heteronormativity, upending expectations about their relationship and each other. “I wanted to show that femmes aren’t just pillow queens who lie there and do nothing, and that we’re capable of complete loyalty and great understanding,” Bright says.

Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly).

Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly).

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Intimacy on screen today

After Be bound toSusie Bright thought Hollywood would come knocking on her door to make sex scenes sexy again. But no calls came, and it's something Hollywood still struggles with today.

“Everyone is nervous and scared about sex,” laughs Rebekah Wiggins, an actress, filmmaker and intimacy coordinator who has worked on films including the 2024 lesbian crime thriller Love Lies Bleeding, which Elizabeth Purchell is closely associated with. Be bound to's legacy. Wiggins says it's still common to receive scripts that describe sexual encounters as “two figures in the background making love.” She likes to meet with actors before shooting to really understand how their characters are shaped by their sexuality: What turns them on? What turns them off? How do those factors move the story forward?

“From there, [we] “Build choreography around that,” she says. “So you’re giving people the voice and the platform first, rather than coming in and saying, ‘Okay, it’s a sex scene. So, you know, three hip thrusts and a sideways wiggle.”

That effort, she says, goes a long way toward making the scenes jump off the page; it's part of what Be bound to still feel fresh today. Susie Bright was not an intimacy coordinator for Be bound to – she was credited as a technical advisor and helped in a number of ways, including, she says, convincing the Wachowskis to fly real lesbians from San Francisco to L.A. to play extras in a bar scene (where she finally made that coveted cameo they wanted). But both Bright and Wiggins agree on one big thing: Deliberately creating sex scenes is key to filmmaking.

“If you take your time and you make sure that your erotic scene is constructed in a way that supports the characters and the plot, then you'll end up with something that excites your audience, and that's not a gratuitous joke,” Bright says.

And just like with Corky and Violet, it opens the door for more characters to be gay, commit crimes, and ride off into the sunset.

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