A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “9½ Weeks” – The 35th Anniversary

From the late 1960s, restrictions on sex, nudity and what couldn’t be shown on film were being significantly loosened. The most famous of them came in 1972, with Bernardo Bertolucci’s erotic drama “Last Tango In Paris”, with Marlon Brando. A film that the MPAA awarded an X rating, that later was reclassified as NC-17 and finally releasing an R rated cut in 1981. The 70’s not only led to the popularity of sexual dramas, but it was the start of the teen sex comedy that would still prove popular decades later that started with 1978’s “Animal House”. 

This lead to a new wave of cinema which explored sexual themes in a far more frank and upfront way than it had ever been before. By the 80s, it seemed like no such content could take viewers by surprise anymore, until the release of 1986’s “9½ Weeks”. The controversial erotic drama got people talking all over the world and it made its lead stars Kim Basinger (playing Elizabeth McGraw) and Mickey Rourke (playing John Gray), two of the most sought after actors around. It also helped set the stage for more such explicit and provocative adult dramas which followed in the years ahead, such as “Fatal Attraction”, “Basic Instinct”, “Sliver” and one of the most controversial of them all David Cronenberg’s “Crash”, just to name a few in a list of many. 

As youngsters growing up during the 80s and 90s we were often longing to be adults and one of the ways we expressed our growing independence was to watch films that were definitely not suitable for our age range. Nearly two decades would have to pass since the release of “9½ Weeks”, in order for me personally to have been old enough to even be able to have seen the R rated film or it’s NC-17 cut. 

“9½ Weeks” had an arduous journey through Hollywood to the silver screen. Having been involved with four different studios, including Tri-Star Pictures pulling out of the project just three days before filming was to begin and causing MGM/UA (United Artists) to end up with it. The production went through a veritable army of producers, at least 10 screenplay drafts and an 18-month editing and reediting process. Along the way, it’s undergone a metamorphosis in a desexing of the original story line, that dealt with a sadomasochistic relationship.

The movie is based on the 1978 semi autobiographical erotic novel, “9½ Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair”. The Austrian American author Ingeborg Day had published the book under the pseudonym Elizabeth McNeill, she passed away in 2011 by suicide. Her novella “9½ Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair”, is known to be the original “Fifty Shades Of Grey” (which is also said to be inspired by the “9½ Weeks” novel). It’s about a woman who becomes sexually dependent on a man who asks her to wear blindfolds and handcuffs, who likes to hit her in the face and watch the bruises form.

The 9½ week affair of passion is played out by future Academy Award winner Kim Basinger (“L.A. Confidential”) and Oscar nominee Mickey Rourke (“The Wrestler”). Directed by Adrian Lyne, who’d go on to direct some of the most sexually charged dramas: “Fatal Attraction”, “Indecent Proposal”, “Unfaithful” and “Lolita”. Lyne was entering “9½ Weeks”, fresh off of his success directing “Flashdance”, with Jennifer Beals. 

“9½ Weeks” was once rumored that the $13 million budgeted film, would receive an X rating. But an X-rated film is not an “accessible” film and the filmmakers wanted a movie that would be hot and sexy, but for the commercial audience. So the steamier scenes were reedited to be safe in receiving an R rating and not all of the controversial elements from the book had made it to the screen. That includes the books dark ending, where Elizabeth suffers an apparent breakdown, while the film ends more on a upbeat note with the Elizabeth resolving to leave John.

Co-producer Antony Rufus Isaacs felt that “9½ Weeks” needed a big name director. So he approached who he he believed was tailor-made for the project. That was two time Oscar nominee director Bob Rafelson, who was a frequent collaborator with Jack Nicholson on “Five Easy Pieces”, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Blood and Wine”. Rufus said: “To me, he [Rafelson] was what ‘9½ Weeks’ was all about. He is definitely an American director with a capital A. I saw this as a distinctly American story”. Rafelson had agreed to do it, but Isaacs couldn’t get a studio to agree to hiring Rafelson. The studios were interested in London born Adrian Lyne, who had just come off the huge success of “Flashdance”. Lyne is the creative force behind some of the most talked-about movies of our time, among them: “Fatal Attraction”, “Flashdance”, “Indecent Proposal”, “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Unfaithful”.

For the demanding lead role of Elizabeth McGraw, there was no shortage of big name actresses on the  dating list. Kathleen Turner and Teri Garr (“Mr Mom”, “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind”) were both interested and went as far as taking meetings with the filmmakers and lobbied hard for the role. French actress Jacqueline Bissett (“Bullitt”) was also offered the part and at one point agreed to do the film; that her likeness was on posters that helped to sell the film to foreign territories at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983. She eventually declined, as she became uncomfortable with the films subject matter and amount of nudity. Before Jacqueline Bisset had declined the role, her and actor Sam Shepard were the hopeful stars when Bob Rafelson was attached to the project, who wanted the two actors.

American Italian actress Isabella Rossellini (“Blue Velvet”) came the closest to landing the role, filming a screen test alongside leading man Mickey Rourke. Lastly Demi Moore tried to audition for the lead role, but director Adrian Lyne didn’t find her worldly enough who was 21 at the time, to play a divorced art gallery curator. However, when Kim Basinger came in to audition for the movie, director Bob Rafelson was already off of the project and director Adrian Lyne was hired to direct. Lyne and his producers, instantly knew they’d found their leading lady in Basinger. She was 33 at the time and considered not that big of a star then, only best known for appearing opposite Sean Connery in “Never Say Never Again”.

Basinger said the audition for “9½ Weeks” was grueling, as she was called upon to act like a prostitute groveling for money in an elaborate sexual game devised by Mickey Rourke’s John Gray (the scene was in the movie, but was later cut). Basinger said she left the audition crying, feeling humiliated and said: “It was like an earthquake in my life”. She told her agent that she never wanted to hear about this film again and would definitely not do it even if she were chosen. When she returned home, she found two dozen roses with a card from Adrian Lyne and Mickey Rourke.

Lyne continued to pursue her for the part and eventually she changed her mind and decided to take it. She became convinced that playing such a demanding role would benefit her as an actress, saying: “I knew if I got through this it would make me stronger and wiser. I was going against my total grain. I felt disgust, humiliation, but when you go against your grain you just know that emotions you never knew you had will surface”.

Before shooting began, Adrian Lyne laid down some ground rules telling his two stars that he did not want them to see each other before the film went into production. Lyne also asked that once production started, that he did not want them to develop an ongoing intimacy. The object was to keep in place a kind of barrier between them that could be utilized in their performances.

Lyne said: “She needed to be scared of him. If they went out and had coffee together, we’d lose the edge”. At the audition, Lyne noted that he had perceived “hostility and sexual energy between them. After that I didn’t want them to meet again until they began work. I didn’t want them to have any relationship that would exclude me. I wanted to have the 10 weeks of the shooting of the movie be like the 9½ Weeks of the relationship”.

The injunction not to become friends was taken even more seriously than Basinger had expected. On the set, Rourke barely spoke to her when they were not working. From time to time Lyne would call him aside, out of her earshot and deliver special instructions, when he felt that a scene was not working. “It got so stupid, Basinger and Rourke wouldn’t even get into the lift together,” recalls the films producer Isaacs. As a result, one star would ride the elevator while the other waited for its return. 

Isaacs was asked if anything particular had happened to sour the working relationship? Isaacs said: “There was nothing that brought it about, really. They just never really liked each other, period. Kim said that kissing him was like kissing an ashtray, while Rourke said that he wanted someone sexier. It was crazy”. In fact that’s what Basinger nicknamed Rourke, as a “Human Ashtray”. 

The tension on the set, was obvious to the crew about the method Adrian Lyne used to elicit the performance he deemed necessary from Kim Basinger. Lyne said: “People did not understand the rationale behind the approach”. Sometimes they would become disturbed at the intensity of the emotions the actress and director displayed, that was from rage to despair as they had worked together. Lyne said he needed to play upon “an edge of terror” in Basinger, to create a more believable sense of fear, surprise and sexual arousal between her and Mickey Rourke.

Lyne, also felt that the normal professional techniques of Basinger’s craft were not sufficient to produce the highly-charged emotions she was called upon to portray. So he struck upon a more controversial approach: he tried to create to some degree an atmosphere on the set and in particular a relationship between the two stars, that would push Basinger into actually experiencing some of the feelings and playing them out in raw form before the cameras.

After shooting Kim Basinger said that filming the movie was traumatic for her and even created some problems for a while in her marriage to Ron Britton (a former movie makeup man and now a painter). She does concede, however, that the experience helped her to grow as an actress and was a kind of an exorcism that liberated her for new roles. The issue of manipulating actors in ways that they are not always fully aware of to achieve a desired result, is one that comes up from time to time in movie making. 

The film had been earlier considered by 20th Century Fox. It got the green light at Tri-Star Pictures, who at the time was owned by the Coca-Cola corporation. The drink company were very concerned about their wholesome image. Because of this, Tri-Star pulled the plug on “9½ Weeks”, only three days before it was due to start shooting. For a short time the film looked unlikely to be made at all, until the filmmakers were able to secure independent financing. Ultimately “9½ Weeks” would be picked up for distribution by major Hollywood studio, MGM. Production began in New York on April 30th, 1984. By this time, says one crew member that the mood was “slightly harried”. The reason? “I think everyone was a little skeptical of the subject matter. They didn’t know if Adrian could pull it off”. 

The controversial subject matter and the more explicit sado-masochism in some of the scenes proved so alienating to preview audiences that the film was severely cut and its opening having to be repeatedly delayed. Perhaps the most glaring example is when John convinces Elizabeth (who is totally under his spell), to swallow pills with him and match him pill for pill. This is another episode of John’s games; the pills that Elizabeth thinks are killing her are actually made of sugar. The realization that their game playing had actually come to the brink of death and that she was ready to die for him is what motivates her to finally leave him. The entire scene, was later cut from the movie and Adrian Lyne said that audiences at previews found the scene simply too strong to take. He said: “It made them hate him too much. They hated John for doing it. They hated Elizabeth for accepting it. They hated me for making it. It made them hate the whole film”.

To make the scene realistic, Lyne engaged in one of his private asides to Rourke. He recalled it this way: “We were shooting the suicide scene and this woman was supposed to be totally devastated at this point. But Kim looked dewy and lovely. I stopped and called Mickey aside. I told him that the scene wasn’t working, that Kim had to be broken down”. He said that Rourke returned to the set and helped extract the effect the director wanted. He said Rourke grabbed Basinger’s arm and held it tightly, refusing to let go. Basinger began to cry and then shouted and struck Rourke. He then slapped her in the face. She began to weep hysterically. Lyne then replied, “Now let’s start the scene”. 

At other moments, Lyne said, when he thought a particular scene required it, he would instruct the actor “be kind to her now. Don’t let her be so isolated”. The alternation between harshness and kindness was supposed to give the relationship its particular sexual tension. Lyne said this overall approach was “not the result of a sadistic alliance between me and Mickey”. He added: “It was something she knew was helping her. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was useful”. He insisted that the technique was not decided upon as a plan before the shooting began, but rather that it evolved in the course of production and was part of a director’s normal skill in drawing emotions from actors as the particular need had arised.

Director Adrian Lyne said that the approach was called for. “You couldn’t do this with everyone. Kim is a bit like a child. She’s an innocent. That’s part of her appeal. She’s an instinctive actress”, said Lyne. Without this kind of emotional engineering from the director, she would not have been able to fully realize the part, he indicated. “She was that woman for 10 weeks. She didn’t act her. In order for her to be angry I would rage at her and she would rage back at me. Mickey also had to do it. He frightened her. And that was done purposely. She’s not an intellectual. She doesn’t read books. She doesn’t actually act, she reacts. And she had to plumb the depths in this movie”.

Basinger, said that Lyne had also come to her several times to whisper instructions aimed at getting a certain response from Rourke. She said she thought the manipulation was the director’s way of working and not a reflection of the kind of actress she was. “I don’t identify with that description of me at all”, she said. “That was his interpretation. Another director would act differently. To tell the truth, I deliberately didn’t allow myself to see all the games being played to get this picture made. I don’t know why, if he wanted some emotion, he went to Mickey and not to me”.

She said she never really understood the level of manipulation that went on until after the movie was shot, although several people told her it was happening. “But I thought that for the character I had to keep myself beaten down and a little naive. If I ever stopped and questioned, if I no longer believed in Adrian, I would have been a mess”. As it was, the movie had a disturbing effect on her. During the shooting of the suicide scene, she said: “Mickey was egging me on and I hated him sometimes. I got confused. I didn’t know who I was after a while. My husband and I had a bad time during this movie”. She said that the strains of the experience and her feeling of being emotionally drained contributed to their problems.

“I think the strains of it and the realization of the material being done, would have hurt any partner. I totally emotionally neglected him for a whole year. I just didn’t have anything left to give and you can’t do that in a relationship”. She said that those problems had since been patched up. Over the course of the film, her and Rourke had became estranged. “We shot in sequence and in the beginning, when the character was sweet, he was very sweet too. Later, when the movie started getting strange, he stayed in character. I am not usually an actress who stays in character. But in this, as it started getting stranger, I found my character staying with me. I couldn’t wait to leave her”. 

She described feelings of confusion, exaggerated mood swings off camera and being depressed, moody, distant and not even being there. But in spite of this, Basinger continues to feel the experience was worthwhile. “The movie we shot and I don’t mean the movie that got released, was not a straight conventional movie. I didn’t always agree with the way Adrian handled things. There were times I was ready to quit, when I wondered if he weren’t a sick human being, if we weren’t all sick to do this, but in the end I faced my own fear and came through it”. Shooting had wrapped by August 1984. A year later, Hollywood was rife with rumors that the film might never be released. In fact, MGM took it off its 1985 release schedule and wasn’t released until the following year on February 21st, 1986. 

Some of the steamier scenes in the film are included in the European version and also appeared in the videocassette of the movie. But ironically, the strongest scenes, the most emotional outbursts, the episodes the most difficult and traumatic for Kim Basinger to do, were excised from the version American audiences will see. The director and distributors decided that audiences here would find them too distasteful.

It’s obvious “9½ Weeks” was a film which set out to push the envelope from the start. All of the unused footage, that was ultimately deemed to be simply too extreme for a mainstream audience. Is now owned by Kim Basinger herself that is reportedly 14 hours in length. Lyne was also defensive about reports that the movie had tested poorly. “Look. Sexuality is a real tough thing to deal with. People’s public posture can be very different from what they do in private”, said Lyne. He continues “This film has exacted some fear and embarrassment from test audiences because people are afraid to come to terms. They don’t want to face themselves.”

Lyne sighed. “The thing is, you’re making it sound as if all the editing means the movie is in trouble, as if it’s covered in Band-Aids. But this is just the normal process of making a movie. You show it to people, again and again, until you get it right”. Lyne conceded that the film had undergone a considerable change.

“This is the story of a downward spiraling, self-destructive nightmare that the girl has to escape in order to save herself. But if I’d been totally true to the original script, then in the course of the movie audiences would have lost sympathy for the character. If you have an audience turn off to your central character in the end, then you lose your whole movie. And you are dead and buried”. 

As is the case with such provocative content, European audiences will see more than American audiences. Thus, a kinky love scene in an alley will play longer for Europeans. The film has been widely compared to “Last Tango in Paris”, in which middle-aged Marlon Brando and baby-faced Maria Schneider are lovers who enjoy sex without love, or identities. With its story of obsessive love and a woman who becomes a prisoner of her sexual curiosity, “9½ Weeks” also seems a distant kin to those uneasy movies about love between a woman and a determined suitor and captor.

Having cost $17 million to make, it made only $6.7 million from cinemas on its home soil in the US. However, it proved considerably more popular overseas, including the UK, Europe, Canada and Australia. The cut released internationally contained footage which had been censored in the R-rated US theatrical version, helping build its reputation as a shocking must-see movie. This international success took the film’s box office takings to $100 million. Later, it proved even more popular on VHS and cable TV.

In 1998, MGM Home Entertainment released an “uncut, uncensored version” on DVD that was 117 minutes long. The same cut was released by Warner Home Video on Blu-ray on March 6th 2012. Mickey Rourke agreed to reprise the role of John Gray in “Another 9½ Weeks”, also known as “Love in Paris”. It went straight to video and stars Mickey Rourke and Angie Everhart. “Another 9½ Weeks” was followed in 1998 by “The First 9½ Weeks”, a prequel that no characters from the other films had returned. This also went straight to video.

Watching Elizabeth’s journey and seeing her hold on the real world unfold is what makes “9½ Weeks”, more than just a soft core escapade and sets up the films thoughtful and surprising conclusion. A conclusion where there is an argument, not for sexual liberation, but for sexual responsibility. But what makes the movie fascinating is not that it shows these two people entering a bizarre sexual relationship, but that it shows Elizabeth deciding for herself what she will and will not, agree to.

A lot of the success of “9½ Weeks” goes to the performances of Rourke and Basinger, who despite not getting along at all on set. They both miraculously make the characters and their relationship convincing. “9½ Weeks” is not only a great film, but a humanistic one, in which it is argued that sexual experimentation is one thing. But the real human personality is something else, something incomparably deeper, more valuable and more erotic. It’s a frank depiction of the dynamics of sexual power, a thought provoking exploration on the aspects of hostility, risk and aggression. Director Adrian Lyne’s beautifully stylized adaptation of Elizabeth McNeill’s novel is a milestone of mainstream erotic cinema.



About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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