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Before Hollywood handled sex with care, this lesbian neo-noir focused on authenticity

 Corky (Gina Gershon) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly) in <em>Bound</em>.
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Corky (Gina Gershon) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly) in Bound.

Susie Bright still remembers the note she received — on letterhead from the storied Hollywood producer Dino de Laurentiis — in the 1990s. It was from two aspiring film directors who’d loved her book, Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World, and used it as inspiration in a script, which they’d attached. Would Susie, they asked, be willing to make a cameo in their upcoming movie?

The directors behind the letter were Lana and Lilly Wachowski, who would go on to make a little film called The Matrix. But that wasn’t the script they’d sent Susie. What they’d mailed was a bloody neo-noir about a criminal-turned-contractor named Corky who’s hired to fix up an apartment after she’s released from prison. She quickly meets the next door neighbors, a mobster named Caesar and his girlfriend, Violet, who wastes no time in seducing Corky and enlisting her help to swindle a small fortune from the mafia. The movie was called Bound.

Bright says she was flattered by the Wachowskis’ praise and invitation, but she needed to be honest. “I hate to be rude, but the lesbian community is so sick of being twisted by Hollywood and is so defensive of all the garbage that gets put out there,” she remembers writing back. “If I may be so bold, could I be your little helper on creating these characters and these sex scenes? Because I noticed that part’s rather bare on the page.”

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

The challenge of casting Bound

Susie Bright wasn’t the only one with initial reservations about the material. In past interviews, the Wachowskis have said they struggled to cast the main roles because so many actresses were hesitant to play queer characters, and some studios even asked about turning Corky’s character into a man.

Gina Gershon, who wound up playing Corky, says her agents advised her against taking the role immediately after playing a bisexual character in Showgirls.

“I read it, and I thought, ‘This is a really great script,” she says. “The woman never gets 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 <em>Bound</em>. The Wachowskis have said that casting Corky and her love interest Violet was challenging, and some studios even advised that Corky's character be re-written as a man.
Criterion Collection /
Gina Gershon as Corky in Bound. The Wachowskis have said that casting Corky and her love interest Violet was challenging, and some studios even advised that Corky's character be re-written as a man.

Gershon says she wanted to play the kind of role usually reserved for leading men like Marlon Brando and Robert Mitchum, so to her team’s dismay, she signed on. And she wasn’t the only one blown away by the character, says Jennifer Tilly, who also read for Corky but ended up being cast as Violet, a Marilyn Monroe-esque, femme fatale seductress.

“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 once you get past the trappings of femininity, which now I see is a sort of a costume that she puts on to move in the male world and get what she wants. It’s an outfit for the male gaze — which is kind of what I do in acting.”

Crafting Bound’s pivotal early sex scene

At its core, Bound is a film about the personas people put on and the secrets they keep from one another. 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 while lesbian films of the 1980s and ‘90s like Go Fish, Desert Hearts and The Hunger focused on romance and beauty, they lacked eroticism and suspense. Bound packed a heavy punch of both. The film’s main sex scene, thoroughly detailed in the script and shot in one continuous take, unfolds in the first 20 minutes of the movie. Bright says that immediacy is essential to the plot.

“These are two women who met in an elevator, sized each other up, got some very big surprises that led them to commit the perfect crime and to trust each other in ways that wouldn't have happened if this sexual intimacy hadn't exploded within the first, you know, day of their acquaintance,” she says.

Criterion Collection /

But Bright, Tilly and Gershon all remember dealing with intense scrutiny from the ratings board – in part, they believe, because the scene wasn’t just about sex, it was about a deep emotional connection. They say that in one initial take, Corky and Violet did not appear as exposed as in the version that made the final cut – but because Violet’s hand moved along Corky’s thigh, implying manual stimulation, the shot would’ve earned the film an NC-17 instead of an R rating, Bright and Tilly say. Bright believes that a man’s hand on a woman’s thigh wouldn’t have stirred so much controversy, and says 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 these women had. [But] we had to choose a different take where it was much more carnal, much more sexual,” says Gershon. “For some reason, the ratings board is like, ‘Oh no, these women could be f****** each other, but they shouldn't really be in love.’ That was my takeaway from it. And the scene we had was still really great, but it was an interesting comment about where we were as a society and the rules of American film.” (The Motion Picture Association wouldn’t comment on specific movies.)

How Bound’s place in queer cinema has been redefined

Since its release, Bound’s place in the queer canon has been redefined, says film historian and programmer Elizabeth Purchell. At the time the film debuted, the Wachowskis were known as male directors. Some critics alleged that the film used lesbianism 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 like, ‘God, these two straight men are making this nasty lesbian movie where we’re the villains,’ to now like, ‘Oh, here’s these two closeted trans women making this hot, lesbian neo-noir,” says Purchell. She thinks the film is now getting the flowers it deserved all along.

At a 2018 screening of Bound, Lana Wachowski explained that she was moved to write the story after leaving a showing of The Silence of the Lambs in tears, frustrated with how LGBTQ+ characters were constantly portrayed as serial killers or basket cases. She wanted to write a film where the queer characters won. In Bound, Violet and Corky are not saints, but no big, bad punishment awaits them. They get away with double-crossing both the mafia and heteronormativity, upending expectations about their relationship and each other. “I wanted it to be shown that femmes are not just pillow queens who lie there and do nothing, and that we are capable of complete loyalty and great understanding,” says Bright.

 Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly).
Criterion Collection /
Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly).

Intimacy on screen today

After Bound, Susie Bright thought Hollywood would come knocking at her door to help make sex scenes sexy again. But no calls came, and it’s something Hollywood still struggles with today.

“Everyone is nervous and scared of sex,” laughs Rebekah Wiggins, an actor, filmmaker and intimacy coordinator who’s worked on movies like the 2024 lesbian crime thriller Love Lies Bleeding, which Elizabeth Purchell links closely to Bound’s legacy. Wiggins says it’s still common to receive scripts that describe sexual encounters solely as “two figures make love in the background.” She likes to meet with the actors before filming 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?

“Then from there, [we] build out choreography based on that,” she says. “So you're giving people the voice and the platform first, rather than coming in and saying, ‘OK, it's a sex scene. So, you know, three hip thrusts and a side to side wiggle.”

That effort, she says, goes a long way in making the scenes jump off the page; it’s part of what makes Bound still feel fresh today. Susie Bright was not an intimacy coordinator for Bound – she was credited as a technical consultant 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 highly sought-after cameo they wanted). But both Bright and Wiggins agree on one big thing: crafting sex scenes intentionally is key to making movies.

“If you take the time and you take care to build your erotic scene so it supports the characters and the plot, you’re going to have something that electrifies your audience, and that isn’t a gratuitous joke,” says Bright.

And like Corky and Violet, it opens doors for more characters to be gay, do crime and ride off into the sunset.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.
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