The Surprisingly Long History of Polyamorous & Non-Monogamous Films in Hollywood

vintage postcard featuring the hollywood sign
Image by Mark Fugarino / CC BY

Today’s piece is a guest blog post from KC James. One half of that kick-ass wedding Page wrote about recently, KC studied filmmaking and is an avid collector of analog film media. His regular online haunt is Popcorn Logic: Film & Television where he writes about film and TV trivia.

And check out what he wrote for Poly Land today:

The Surprisingly Long History of Non-Monogamous Films in Hollywood

Since their introduction in 1895, motion pictures have always pushed the envelope of what’s considered “racy.” The earliest depictions of homosexuality came in 1895, the first year they were released, and the first kiss soon followed in 1896.

While there have been documentaries here and there on the subject, major motion pictures that drive audiences and profits have mostly ignored the subject of polyamory. Is the subject too risqué? Was it that pesky Hays Code?

I have done my best to dissect the history of polyamory in American cinema and the accuracy of their depictions below.

Design for Living (1933), an Early Film About Polyamory

The earliest depiction of polyamory I was able to find was 1933’s “Design for Living” starring Gary Cooper, Fredric March, and Miriam Hopkins, who in the film have a relationship together.

Based on the stage play of the same name, the film was a box office and critical disappointment, but has since gained more positive reviews in the last few decades. The movie managed to squeak by the newly formed Hays Code (the predecessor of today’s MPAA rating system), but just nearly. It was banned from re-release in 1934 for its sexuality when the Hays Code was put into full effect.

Polyamory would be virtually nonexistent in American cinema for 36 years after Design for Living’s release.

1969 Heralded the Release of Not One, But Two, New Films

The aforementioned Hays Code stifled and censored everything regarding sexuality in film that wasn’t deeply buried in subtext until it was reorganized into the current MPAA in 1968.

For nearly a decade, the free love movement had been raging outside of Hollywood, and the moment that restrictions in film began to lax, all those hippies jumped on the chance to make motion pictures that more closely regarding their changing world views. In 1969 “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” was released, depicting an open marriage, and eventually a budding poly relationship between two married couples.

That very same year the musical “Paint Your Wagon,” starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, and Jean Seberg was released.

While “Paint Your Wagon” was a critical and commercial failure, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” was a resounding success, receiving award nominations, and a short-lived television series based on the picture. Despite conventional America’s protests, non-monogamy had made its way into the American psyche.

But How Do These Early Films Depict Consensual Non-Monogamy?

Much to my personal delight, the movies from this era I have personally seen depict polyamory and non-monogamy in a generally positive light. In all of the movies above the relationship — and the drama involved — is the primary focus of their films.

However, the women in these films are unfortunately generally the source of the drama, either deciding to end the relationship at some point or pushing one or both parties away. This is still a more favorable depiction than women typically received in Hollywood at the time.

While these movies are not perfect, they were definitely progressive and at the very least didn’t condemn the idea of polyamory.

Another Big Budget Film Wouldn’t Happen for Many Years

After this initial boom of non-monogamy and polyamory in film, the topic appeared to settle down. Nearly all movies featuring the lifestyle after 1970 were low-budget independent movies, being well meaning but most failing to grip the public eye like “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” (Please see my list below though, which includes a list of those releases.)

It wasn’t until fairly recently that Hollywood has begun giving attention to the topic of polyamory and non monogamy again.

Movies like 2001’s “Bandits” and 2009’s “Amelia” were big budget feature films that featured polyamorous relationships, albeit the relationships were not the focus of the films. Neither these nor 2012’s “Savages” were successful in the public eye though, failing to make a profit at the box office or garnish critical praise.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” released in 2017, would be the first film featuring polyamory in recent memory to receive positive critic reviews, despite not being particularly financially successful, generating just under $2 million at the box office.

Despite the lack of box office buzz, the amount of publicity around the movie pushed polyamory into the public eye in a way it hasn’t been since the release of “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” nearly 48 years before.

The Future of Polyamory in Hollywood

What does the future of polyamory in Hollywood bring? Not much it appears. It was thought that non-monogamy would play some part in the recently released Freddy Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but the picture instead glossed over Freddie’s Mercury’s unconventional life and relationships.

Polyamory and non-monogamy will no doubt continue to be featured in independent movies, but it might be some time before another major studio film featuring the subject is released.

List of Films Featuring Polyamory and Other Forms of Consensual Non-Monogamy:

While I only focused on a few films in this article, here is a full list of films I was able to find featuring non-monogamy and polyamory that you might want to check out:

Design for Living – 1933

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice – 1969

Paint Your Wagon – 1969

Lovin’ Molly – 1974

A Change of Seasons – 1980

Willie and Phil – 1980

A Small Circle of Friends – 1980

Summer Lovers – 1982

Micki + Maude – 1984

She’s Gotta Have It – 1986

Henry & June – 1990

The Wedding Banquet – 1993

Sirens – 1994

Threesome – 1994

Carrington – 1995

The Doom Generation – 1995

Breaking the Waves – 1996

Afterglow – 1996

The Blood Oranges – 1997

The Object of My Affection – 1998

Bandits – 2001

The Cuckoo – 2002

A Home at the End of the World – 2004

Kiss Me Again – 2006

Fling – 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona – 2008

Breaking Upwards – 2009

Amelia – 2009

Four Lovers – 2010

The Freebie – 2010

Savages – 2012

Professor Marston & the Wonder Women – 2017

*

Thanks, KC!

Poly Land is always on the lookout for different perspectives on polyamory and relationships in general.

If you have an idea for a guest blog post that you’d like to run by us, here’s a link to a post with examples of work that we’ve published in the past as well as our Submission Guidelines.

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2 Comments

  1. El Sexo De Los Angeles is another quite sweet poly movie. A mono (supposedly) het (supposedly) couple meet a poly bi man and while there is infidelity and cheating, and some shitty communication there’s a lot of tenderness and reconciliation and forgiveness.

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