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"Black Snake Moan"
© Paramount Vantage
Nymphomaniacs We've Known and Loved
Christina Ricci gets down and dirty in 'Black Snake Moan.' An homage to those who came before her ...

By Kathleen Murphy
Special to MSN Movies

Once upon a time in the movies, when sex came seductively colored in shades of sin and salvation, women who burned too avidly were called nymphomaniacs, and filmmakers treated them as crazies, monsters, spiritually bankrupt and probably frigid. Often, directors bluffed the censors by obediently punishing their wild women, but only after they -- and the audience -- had a real good time!

Back in the 18th century, when simply being interested in fornication could get a girl locked up in Bedlam, a helpful French physician identified some of the most telling symptoms of nymphomania: "dwelling on impure thoughts, reading novels and eating too much chocolate." Who knew you could catch nymphomania from Harlequin Romances, Godiva candies and "Sex and the City" reruns!?

Nowadays, movie-sex frequently looks like a fitness video, and heavy-duty hooking up -- often instigated by the fairer, but hardly frailer, sex -- has become the norm. If nymphomania is defined as "excessive sexual desire in the female," then gender equality seems to have deep-sixed the stigma of "crazy" and turned lusty ladies such as Pamela Anderson and Trump's Miss USA into distaff versions of horndogs and Don Juans.

So maybe famous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey had the right of it when he noted that a nymphomaniac is just "someone who has more sex than you do"!

So why nymphos, you ask? Why now? Well, the recently released "Black Snake Moan" stars Samuel L. Jackson as a Good Samaritan who takes on the righteous task of taming a rabid nymphomaniac (Christina Ricci). Join us for a stroll through sin cinema where we'll cross paths with some past and present champs of concupiscence -- research to help us judge how the nympho of "Black Snake Moan" measures up!

The Rich, Bored and "Sick" Set

"The Big Sleep" (1946)
The weak, wheelchair-bound old general who's just hired a hard-boiled shamus (Humphrey Bogart) unashamedly confesses he's enjoyed a "gaudy life" and that his wild daughters have inherited his "corrupt blood ... all the usual vices, plus the ones they've invented for themselves." His baddest seed, Carmen (Martha Vickers), prances down a curving staircase in short shorts, slants a considering baby-doll glance at the P.I. in the foyer, then pouts provocatively, "You're not very tall, are you?" Ripostes Bogart, "I try to be." Slack-mouthed, sucking on her thumb as though it were candy, this nymphet decides Bogart's "cute" after all and "tries to sit in his lap while he's standing up." Posed in front of a blackmailer's camera, hiding behind her peekaboo page-boy, Carmen giggles vacuously, tracing aimless patterns on her dress, "high as a kite." Think Paris Hilton playing Lolita, her zombie face locked into an expression of infantile appetite. Early on, Bogart snipes, "Oughta wean her ... she's old enough," but by the end of this most stylish and convoluted of detective tales, the shamus advises the Sternwood daughter that he's fallen for (Lauren Bacall) to send Carmen away: "They have places for that ... maybe they can cure her."

"La Dolce Vita" (1960)
Coolest of the cool, Marcello Mastroianni drifts through decadent, turn-of-the-'60s Rome, savoring the "sweet life" while suffering terribly from angst and disillusionment. At one upscale watering hole, he ankles over to the bar to join a gorgeous socialite, Maddalena (Anouk Aimee). Her artlessly tousled hair frames her elegant face, graced with cheekbones to die for and a lovely mouth thinned by spoiled appetites. All in black, masking a shiner with cat's-eye shades, she's ultra-soignée as she leans back against the bar to sweep a jaded eye over the somnolent dancers. As she and Mastroianni drive through the Eternal City in a big American convertible, pursued by paparazzi, Maddalena confesses that only sex still jolts her into something like feeling. Soon, she's picked up a vulgar, good-hearted hooker, so she can feed on some morsels of hot-blooded reality from the woman's sordid life. In the streetwalker's basement digs, Maddalena lies down on the much-used bed, begging Mastroianni for the connection that tricks this dead soul into believing she's still alive.

Nymphos Over the Top

"Shock Corridor" (1963)
Former newspaperman Sam Fuller (a Tarantino fave) made movies that slammed you like front-page tabloid headlines. In "Shock Corridor," a journalist (Peter Breck), hungry for a Pulitzer Prize, goes underground in a mental institution to research an exposé. In real life, our hero's hot for a stripper (Constance Towers), a dish who looks and talks like an upper-class socialite. He scams the shrinks by convincing them that he sees her as his sister, going berserk when she tries to kiss him. Given our reporter's complicated love life, it's cruel irony that he should find himself in a locked ward populated by sexed-up dames his stream-of-consciousness voiceover identifies as "nymphos!" One stalks him while singing a suggestively nasty version of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean"; another embellishes the lascivious graffiti on the walls. Soon the hard-eyed coven moves in to surround their prey, who completely disappears under the writhing heap of voracious women. His anguished howls are so like nightmare, our horrified imagination of what's happening to him far exceeds any reality.

"Supervixens" (1975)
If Sam Fuller went for the emotional jugular, Russ Meyer ("Beyond the Valley of the Dolls"), maestro of '60 and '70s exploitation flicks, aimed to fire up more primal -- and physical -- responses. Credited as writer, cinematographer, editor, producer and director of "Supervixens," Meyer is totally responsible for this insane symphony of oversexed, big-bosomed babes, all of whom are instantly in lust with a baby-faced stud. The female endowments of SuperAngel, SuperCherry, black SuperEula and SuperVixen are as exaggerated as the faceless fertility goddesses -- all breasts and bottoms -- that prehistoric man used to carry around for good luck. The world of these supernymphos is supersexualized; everything -- from pumping gas to jack-hammering post holes to sticks of dynamite -- invokes schtupping, and Meyer cuts like nobody's business, wittily connecting his dynamically suggestive images. Short on the erotic, Meyer's world is strangely innocent and slyly funny, populated by folks who act like overgrown kids who've strapped on big rubber appendages to play bumper cars

Avant-Garde Nymphos

"Women in Revolt" (1971)
Andy Warhol's in-house filmmaker, Paul Morrissey directed, wrote, shot, edited and produced "Women in Revolt," an improvised send-up of women's lib starring three transvestites who were the bee's knees back in the day: Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn. Meant to outrage prudes and delight the avant-garde, this tacky celebration of unattractive men dressed up as women, given to practicing free love at every turn, now looks dated and sad. The most mindlessly inflamed of the trio, Woodlawn, mostly writhes around on the floor -- or anywhere else -- often screeching "I hate men!" while humping anything that moves. Shot through with ugly misogyny, "Revolt" makes nymphomania revolting.

"A Dirty Shame" (2004)
Dubbed the Sultan of Sleaze, John Waters learned sexual shock tactics from Warhol and Morrissey movies, famously featuring drag-queen Divine in classics such as "Pink Flamingos." In "A Dirty Shame," Waters once again belabors juiceless prudes who hate gays, strip clubs and sex. Turns out a hard bump on the head can make sluts and satyrs of even the most repressed souls, and sexual messiah Johnny Knoxville "heals" Tracey Ullman's drab, libido-less housewife into full-fledged nymphomania. Even trees and shrubbery get in on the carnal act as the whole town goes hypersexual. Time was when these shenanigans might have convulsed us in liberating laughter, but in today's no-holds-barred sexual climate, Waters' satire looks old-fashioned and pointless.

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Nympho Scorned

"The Music Lovers" (1970)
Whether chronicling "Tommy's" bizarre sexual odyssey, D.H. Lawrence's libidinous frenzies ("Women in Love") or the conflicted lives of composers like Liszt and Mahler, outlaw director Ken Russell always saw sex and art as creative acts plugged into the same overheated circuit. At the beginning of "The Music Lovers," his Tchaikovsky biopic, the composer (Richard Chamberlain) rolls happily around in snowdrifts with a peroxide-blond aristocrat he's bedding. But tortured Chamberlain (an oxymoron?!) dreams of a pure, white swan-girl -- like Odile in his "Swan Lake." When a local roundheels (Glenda Jackson), driven by idealistic fantasies of her own, visits the great composer, he imagines her as a virginal muse and marries her. Bad move! Every time Nina comes at him, he recoils in horror, repulsed by her naked body. Pretty soon, Tchaikovsky's bugged out and Nina's gone bonkers, servicing any guy who calls himself Rimsky-Korsakov or Bartok. Locked up in a nightmarish loony bin, Nina continues to practice her nymphomaniacal ways -- a-sprawl over a grating that keeps the male crazies down.

"Written on the Wind" (1956)
A trashy masterpiece supersaturated with Photoplay color, Douglas Sirk's "Wind" blows all the competition away as a prototypical '50s fable about undersexed but righteous folk (Lauren Bacall and Rock Hudson) going up against rich neurotics (Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone) driven to booze, lust and violence. The well-behaved types prevail, of course, but what down-and-dirty fun we have with the vice-ridden duo along the way! Malone is so hot for Hudson (no accounting for taste) that her heavily mascaraed, big blue eyes go all wonky, her impossibly crimson lips swell and the lacquered blonde looks as if she might literally collapse in a carnal swoon. You wouldn't be surprised if steam rose from Malone's curvaceous body. When lumpen Rock spurns her -- "I love you like a sister!" -- Malone fires up her bright-red sports car and lays rubber to pick up any stud who'll scratch her itch. Rubbing up against a hard case in a low-class dive or dancing wildly around her bedroom in a scarlet negligee, Malone's Marylee is as single-minded as a cat in heat. (Her consolation prize: the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.)

Grief Goes Wild

"Under the Skin" (1997)
The death of Iris' beloved mother propels the child-woman into an odyssey of the flesh, fueled by grief and the desire to bury death in sexual acting-out. Tricked out in mom's bedraggled page-boy wig, her clingy slip and ratty fur jacket, Iris smears her eyes with black mascara and her mouth with blood-red lipstick. This carnal Candide (Samantha Morton, burning up the screen in her first feature film) embraces strangers in bars, alleys, offices, sinking ever deeper into sexual degradation. It's unlikely anyone could forget Morton's a capella performance of "Alone Again (Naturally)" at a rest-stop during her descent into hell. In this cinematic rite-of-passage, nymphomania counters the unbearable knowledge that everyone dies, and works as a catalyst for finding one's truest self, under the skin.

David Cronenberg Does Nymphomania

"They Came From Within" (aka "Shivers") (1975)
A silky-voiced real estate agent strokes a nice young couple, assuring them that Starliner Island Apartments, a totally self-sufficient housing complex, will allow them to "sail through life in perfect comfort and quiet." From the outside, the Starliner looks like a stack of identical boxes, each lighted window marking a container for bloodless relations. Its pastel hallways are like environmental Valium; all of the tenants seem to be pursuing lives of quiet desperation -- in which any sexual excitement would be considered noisy and unnatural. Then a repulsive parasite, a scientific experiment gone wrong, gets loose in the pipes, popping into mouths and other orifices all over the building. Cronenberg's bug looks like a cross between Mr. Hankey and a bloody piece of meat, and when this disgusting aphrodisiac gets into Starliner's ladies and gentlemen, they metamorphose into raving sex maniacs. Even old ladies get hungry for love, and any gender will do. An image that can never be expunged from your mind's eye: horror movie goddess Barbara Steele ("Black Sunday") soaping up in her bathtub, as one of the "things" crawls out of the drain and creeps slowly upward, toward her privy parts. Look for one of William Blake's radical adages, prominently displayed on a lab wall: "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." Blake's slantwise endorsement of nymphomania and other intemperate behavior stands as Cronenberg's mantra in this creepy indictment of conformity and repression.

Who are you favorite movie nymphos?! Write us at heymsn@microsoft.com

In addition to her regular contributions to MSN Movies, Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.

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