How Would We View These Classic Movie Scenes Now?

The ExorcistWarner Bros Everett Collection

Just how different are modern cinema and that of the ’70s and ’80s? Are there great movie scenes that wouldn’t get made today because the audience wouldn’t tolerate them? Conversely, are there scenes that were shocking back in the day that wouldn’t cause anyone to think twice now?

It’s a given that audiences’ tastes change over time… the same as social norms do in America. Oddly, though, where audiences sometimes become more relaxed about what they will accept — for instance, with profanity, since George Carlin’s “7 Dirty Words” has been reduced to two — they sometimes become more conservative about other things. Below is our look at a group of scenes from movies that probably wouldn’t make it on screen for a studio release now, and some others that were shocking when they were released that wouldn’t cause anyone to lift an eyebrow today.

Oh No, They Didn’t!

The Last Temptation of Christ / Life of Brian

Martin Scorsese’s adaption of Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1953 novel, with the scene of Jesus dreaming of a sexual encounter with Mary Magdalene, was controversial in 1988 and caused an outcry from various Christian groups. In today’s media environment, and with the advent of social media, that controversy would be 1,000-fold and wouldn’t go away easily. Even Scorsese wouldn’t be able to get that into a film now… we’ll accept the debauchery and debasement of his The Wolf of Wall Street but depicting Christ as having sexual urges wouldn’t fly. In the same vein, imagine trying to convince a studio to okay Monty Python’s famous “Always Look on the Bright Side” finale to Brian with the singing crucifixion victims. It met with criticism when it was released in 1979, but it would cause Bill O’Reilly’s head to explode now.

Blazing Saddles 

Quentin Tarantino gets heat from all sides for his use of the N-word in his stylized action-violence fantasies like Django Unchained and Pulp Fiction… which represent a far different aura than a studio comedy would. Many white audiences would shift uncomfortably in their seats now at Mel Brooks’ comedic use of the word during the scene where Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart first arrives at Rock Ridge. (As well as the various other ethnic jokes throughout the film; Brooks’ was an equal opportunity offender.) 

Airplane! / Heathers

On a similar token, as funny as Airplane! remains in our memories, in the wake of 9-11 many audiences would be squeamish about laughing at a plane crashing through a terminal, just as the reveal of Christian Slater’s plot to blow up the school in Heathers would play much differently now.

What’s the Big Deal?

The Exorcist / Rosemary’s Baby /The Blair Witch Project

Horror movies have to really work hard now if they want to be controversial. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is still plenty scary 40 years later and the scene where Linda Blair’s Regan finds an inappropriate use for a crucifix would still get attention… but it would be minor and chalked up to the now standard shock tactics employed by the genre. Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is so non-threatening at this point that it’s being done as a network TV series. Similarly, Blair Witch’s up-the-nose shots would be seen as cute after the rise of films like Paranormal Activity that, in fairness, it helped spawn.

Lolita / The Last Tango in Paris

When Reese Witherspoon had sex with her teacher in Election, it barely registered as being inappropriate. Vladimir Nabokov’s book and the subsequent 1962 Kubrick film were hugely controversial (pick any scene of James Mason and Peter Sellers leering at Sue Lyon). When the film was remade in 1997 with Jeremy Irons playing the tortured Humbert Humbert, obsessed with a young girl, audiences could’ve cared less. When Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango was released in 1972 with Marlon Brando as a widower in an illicit affair with a young French woman it earned an X-rating for its sexual content, particularly for a scene involving butter being used for something far removed from toast. When Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty came out in 1996 with Liv Tyler as an American teenager experiencing a sexual awakening amongst a group of artists in Italy, most people’s reaction was, “Hey, is that Steven Tyler’s daughter?”