Sitting in the stuffy common room of our Massachusetts boarding school, my friend Jess turned to me and said, “I just saw Liv Tyler’s labia.”
She said it in the flat tone that teenagers adopt when they’re completely shocked and impressed by something but refuse to let you know. It was the first time she’d seen Stealing Beauty, but for me, it was probably the 10th. Each time I showed the film to a friend, it felt as if I were deliberately passing on a virus. Curled onto the hard and lumpy dorm couches, the two of us zipped into hoodies, I glanced at Jess to see if the film had caught: Her expression held steadfastly neutral, but her eyes were riveted, and something in her slightly open mouth betrayed the truth. Like me, she was a goner.
It’s been 20 years since Stealing Beauty was released, and yet, it’s somehow escaped the anniversary hoopla that films like Kids and Clueless received. Like those movies, it, too, is the story of a teenage girl at the start of her romantic and sexual life. There are no retrospective listicles, no 12 Lessons We Learned From Stealing Beauty. But of all these seminal coming-of-age films, Stealing Beauty is the one my friends and I re-watched the most — the one I think we did learn from, though we may not have known that at the time. Kids presented all the shock and awful consequence of sex, while Clueless kept it squeaky-clean. Stealing Beauty painted all of it on one luscious canvas: the ache, the thrill, the sadness, and the fumbling lust. Watching as a teenager, it was both jarring and familiar, as if someone had stolen the filthy secrets in my mind and spun them into satin.
“It was kind of like the greatest thing that ever happened and the worst thing that ever happened,” Liv Tyler says, laughing. It was “the worst,” she clarifies, “because it was never that good ever again!” Tyler, of course, played the lead role, Lucy, a young woman who’s come to spend the summer in Tuscany with her deceased mother’s old friends — one of whom, she suspects, is her biological father. The house is a colony of artists and ex-pats, all thrown into a tizzy at the arrival of this lovely, curious girl.
“I literally graduated from high school and left the next day,” says Tyler, who had her 18th birthday while shooting the film. “I was really grateful that it got me out of New York and kind of kept me out of trouble. I don’t know what I would have been getting up to, you know?” It’s a funny sort of comment, considering all the things that she, as Lucy, gets up to on screen: fooling around in an olive grove, getting hit on by a creepy older dude, smoking weed with Jeremy Irons. While the explicit arc of the film is Lucy’s hunt for her biological father, the primary tension is over her virginity. “You’re in need of a ravishing,” Irons’ character, Alex, tells her early on in the film. “I’m waiting,” she replies. Not for long, the audience thinks.
This is a Bernardo Bertolucci film, after all. Even if you’ve never seen Last Tango in Paris, you know about The Butter Scene. Bertolucci is renowned (and sometimes rebuked) for his study of sex, and specifically, the discovery of sex. In his 2004 review of The Dreamers, New York Times critic Terrence Rafferty summarized Bertolucci’s entire career as merely an attempt “to lose his virginity again and again.”
Perhaps he’s right, and perhaps he’s also right to criticize. I doubt anyone watched the orgasmic, incestuous threesome in The Dreamers and thought, Aw, just like my first time. But Stealing Beauty is a unique entity both in Bertolucci’s canon and in the coming-of-age genre. Lucy is the center of everyone’s attention, and yet their watchful gaze is not predatory — though it’s not exactly parental either. The film doesn’t so much eroticize this teenager and her virginity; rather, it invites her to relish in her own innate eroticism.
Without Tyler, I doubt the film would have accomplished such a nuanced feat. Throughout her career, she has never fit neatly into any one archetype, and in this film, that complexity serves her particularly well. She’s done the box-office bombshell roles like her part in Armageddon, and she’s plunged into the dark and murky depths of projects like The Leftovers. In Stealing Beauty, she’s somber, shy, sexy, bold, and awkward — a real-life teen rather than a movie teen. In many ways, the summer she spent filming the movie was as romantic as the film itself.
“I did so many crazy things. A group of friends took me to this place where there were natural hot springs. And everyone’s just naked and building fires and drinking beer… I mean, it was just pitch black at night with just the moon and the stars.” She waxes nostalgic about piling into a tiny Italian car with friends to go shopping at the Prada outlet (“I didn’t even know what that was at the time!”), about picking vegetables for dinner in the garden, and eating lunch under a tent used in Bertolucci’s earlier film, The Sheltering Sky. The way she tells it, there was little separation between on and off-screen camaraderie: “We would sit together as a cast and film a scene where we were having wine and lunch and we were all laughing and talking, we were really enjoying it that much.”
But did Lucy’s story reflect her own in any way? “I definitely wasn’t a virgin if that’s what you’re asking me,” she says, laughing. (I wasn’t. Okay, maybe I was a little.) I think it’s Tyler’s mix of dreamy-eyed romanticism and unabashed frankness that made Lucy and Stealing Beauty work so well. “One night, over a couple glasses of wine in front of the fire, Bernardo basically asked me to do a scene where I wipe away a tear and start touching myself,” she remembers. “And I was like, ‘You mean you want me to masturbate?’” She laughs again. “I was so American about it! He was beating around the bush.”
It’s clear she had — still has — a great trust in the director. “I felt completely open and just completely safe to do everything,” including things like masturbating on camera (which isn’t explicitly shown) and doing a long, realistic sex scene (which is). Later though, she adds that she “was not that comfortable with nudity.” A contradiction perhaps, but a logical one. “At that age, you feel so new and unsure of so many things, and yet so sure and so overly confident of so many things as well,” she explains. “You know?” Of course.
I think it’s that very paradox that made the film so resonant with my generation of teenage girls — and the reason it’s not splashed across the internet in meme form, à la Clueless. It’s relatable, and yet totally ridiculous. It speaks in the romance language of a high-school sex dream. One might see this story scribbled in a spiral notebook — the kind you keep hidden under your mattress. It was an adult film for young people, and for adults, it’s an aching reminder of an age when love and sex were so much simpler — and so complicated.
For 20 years, Stealing Beauty has stuck with me, and I don’t think a year has passed without me sitting on a couch with one of my girlfriends, watching in familiar silence. When we were young, it was a kind of ritual, the coded message passing between us: Am I a total weirdo for liking this? Is it just me? Or do you like it too? Watching it now, we all know the answers. We know a good deal more about the realities of romance, and perhaps that’s why we like to go back. I don’t think we’re trying to lose our virginities over and over again. But don’t we all yearn sometimes to step back into that magic hour between curious childhood and experienced adulthood?
Or is it just me?