This column is going to be about swearing in movies. So if you don’t like it, as Billy Connolly used to say at the start of his shows, ‘f— off now. Don’t wait till the end to complain.’
Talking about swearing in a family newspaper is a challenge, of course, so I will observe strict Fairfax decorum. This means I can’t write f— or c—, although I can hear these words every day on my television, as well as in movies. Moving images are subject to classification by a censorship authority in most countries, newspapers less so, which may be why some newspapers still censor these words. Above my pay grade, that one.
The movie industry gave up a long time ago, although it is hard to pinpoint the exact moment when profanity became mainstream in movies and television. Those are two different histories, of course. Television was slower to accept profanity because the television sits meekly in the home, as a family friend. Its right to offend has never been universally accepted.
Movies, by tradition, required more effort. In 1970, if you didn’t want to hear f— in a movie, you didn’t buy a ticket to Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, the first major studio film to use the word (when John Schuck, as Walter ‘Painless’ Waldowski, tells an opposing football player: ‘Alright bud, your f—ing head is coming right off’.
In truth, the spread of profanity in movies probably began in Britain, as in literature. Two British films used f— in 1967: a version of James Joyce’s Ulysses and the Michael Winner film, I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Isname. DH Lawrence had used both c— and f— in Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928, and Joyce got there earlier in Ulysses (1920). An unexpurgated Lady Chatterley could not be published in Britain until 1960, when a jury found in favour of Penguin Books. The gates swung open, at least for British publishing.
The word was already becoming more visible in American life because of the Vietnam protest movement. The slogan ‘1234, we don’t want your f—ing war’ became widespread in the 60s, in a direct challenge to both government and media. A US Court ruled that the First Amendment right to free speech applied to such protests. Another step in the word’s liberation.
Once Robert Altman kicked open the door, Hollywood didn’t hold back. Audiences were amazed by the swearing in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), not least because the words spewed from the mouth of an 11-year-old actor, Linda Blair. The devil made her do it, of course, but it was confronting. I watched the director’s cut recently and had to bless myself. Apart from the vomit, the blood and the twisting heads, it has one of the earliest uses of c—. A psychiatrist tells Ellen Burstyn that her daughter told him during an examination to ‘keep my fingers away from her goddamned c—‘. Jack Nicholson got there earlier in Carnal Knowledge (1971) when he called the gloriously sexy Ann-Margret a ‘ball-busting, castrating, son-of-a-c— bitch’. It’s fitting that Jack should hold such a record, no?
The title of most profane film-maker on the planet must go to Martin Scorsese. The Wolf of Wall Street set a new record for the number of f—s in a feature film – 569, or 3.16 per minute. He has always pushed this envelope and holds many records. Casino at 422 is currently fourth, and Goodfellas has recently slipped back to 11th, with 300. The Departed has a relatively modest 237. The only one who comes close is Quentin Tarantino, who re-energised the use of profanity in Reservoir Dogs (269 f—s) and Pulp Fiction (265). He appears to be losing his edge: Django Unchained has only 31 f—s, although he threw in 116 ‘niggers’ – a word I am allowed to spell out.
What have we gained from this unleashing of the once-suppressed words? American television can now claim a great deal more freedom, in series like Deadwood, where swearing is used to connote lawlessness in the old west. The everyday street language of some American communities is now much more familiar, as in The Wire, in which there is a scene in the first series that consists of nothing but the word f—, repeated 38 times in three minutes, 45 seconds. Writers are playing with the use of these words in scenes like that.
There is an argument that this liberalisation has given us some memorable comedy, as in the fabulous scene from John Hughes’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles where Steve Martin, having one of the worst days of his life, uses the word 18 times in succession to demand that Edie McClurg, as a Midwest rental car clerk, give him a replacement car: ‘a f—ing Datsun, a f—ing Toyota, a f—ing Mustang, a f—ing Buick. Four f—ing wheels and a seat!’
And there is truth in the argument that we have reduced the power of some of these words by overuse. They used to be forceful; now they are simply frequent. Writers and directors have to work harder to make them powerful again. Profanity is no longer as profane, and that is a shame. These words carry a lot of weight in our culture, going back thousands of years. Normalising them leaves us nowhere to go when we need that cathartic, explosive word to match an emotion. This shit matters, so to speak.