Although not considered one of the stunning beauties of her time, Fay Wray (1907-2004) still had a particular beauty, and this beauty was most memorably displayed in one film, the iconic role that made her famous, as Ann Darrow in the classic King Kong. Although the film is great entertainment, the first great monster movie ever made, with special effects that were, until the creation of Jurassic Park in 1993 never really surpassed, what I find most interesting about this film is its latent, almost forbidden racial eroticism. Fay Wray is the white, soft skinned, fair hair beauty who is under threat from the aggressive, black natives of an distant and primitive land, the most threatening of whom is King Kong himself. King Kong has often been cited as a topical reflection of the white man’s fear of the black man, as a sort of uncivilized and dangerous being, always threatening the borders of white civilization, and, if one watches the film, it is hard not to get that impression. Whether that was the intention of the creators of the film I have no idea; but given that this was made in 1933, such themes and imagery as a reflection of the racial world of its time are hard to ignore.
This black man/white woman taboo still exists today. One of the most popular “genres” of porn is black on white, i.,e., white girls being fucked by black dudes, usually with gargantuan penises. In these flicks, the forbidden racial epithet “n-word” is freely used, both by the black and the white performers. And yet even here there are certain rules of engagement: only the white girl is permitted to use the word. If there is a white guy in the performance, you will never hear him utter this. The black actors use the word freely. Given that this is porn, watched by both black and whites in the privacy of their internet laden homes, and given the racial realities of our time, such as the tinderbox of places like Ferguson, Missouri, it is hard not to conclude that the world is indeed a strange and ironic place.
But back to King Kong. I would have to say that Fay Wray’s performance is one of the most sexual of its time. The film is partly about the rawness of nature, the dangers of an unexplored world, and the precarious position of white women within that world. And yet this world elicits an eroticism and sexuality which is in itself primal, brutal and antediluvian. Throughout the film Wray is either writhing, screaming, moaning or passing out; her slender and sinuous form, enhanced by her nearly translucent clothing, seems to project an almost orgasmic intensity. As the film progresses, at least in the strange world of Skull Island, King Kong’s home, Wray’s character becomes more and more eroticized. She slowly loses more and more of her clothing, until finally, in a hazy scene of Kong’s lair, she is actually groped by the gigantic gorilla: Kong plays with her breasts. Such a blatant act of sexuality would even be forbidden on network television today. And yet here in this 1933 pre-code film, such scenes were allowed.
What I enjoy about these older films is how subtlety such sexuality is presented. In today’s world everything is upfront: we see a nude scene, a sex scene, and it seems most films that use such scenes are doing so not for any real artistic merit, but rather simply to entice the audience with some crass stimulation. In King Kong the sexuality is part of the layered texture of the film, and a very important part. If we think of this classic film as indeed reflecting the racial fears of the white society of the time, by whom and for whom the film was made, then this forbidden sexuality, and the fears associated, are perhaps one of its most important–albeit troubling–qualities.
Fay Wray lived to the ripe old age of 97; her role in King Kong will live forever.