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

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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 Bound.

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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.”

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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 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.

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.

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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.

BOUND_TCLOCKED_SDR-UHD.00_10_59_05.Still060.tif

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.

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“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).

Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly).

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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.

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“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.

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NBA signs media rights deal with Disney, NBC and Amazon, leaving TNT behind

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NBA signs media rights deal with Disney, NBC and Amazon, leaving TNT behind

An NBA logo is seen on an official game ball before a game, Feb. 1, 2014, in New York. The NBA said Wednesday that it is not accepting Warner Bros. Discovery’s $1.8 billion per year offer to continue its longtime relationship with the league and therefore has entered into a deal with Amazon Prime Video.

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The NBA signed its 11-year media rights deal with Disney, NBC and Amazon Prime Video on Wednesday after saying it was not accepting Warner Bros. Discovery’s $1.8 billion per year offer to continue its longtime relationship with the league.

The media rights deals were approved by the league’s Board of Governors last week and will bring the league about $76 billion over those 11 years.

WBD had five days to match a part of those deals and said it was exercising its right to do so, but its offer was not considered a true match by the NBA. That means the 2024-25 season will be the last for TNT after a nearly four-decade run.

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“Warner Bros. Discovery’s most recent proposal did not match the terms of Amazon Prime Video’s offer and, therefore, we have entered into a long-term arrangement with Amazon,” the league said Wednesday. “Throughout these negotiations, our primary objective has been to maximize the reach and accessibility of our games for our fans. Our new arrangement with Amazon supports this goal by complementing the broadcast, cable and streaming packages that are already part of our new Disney and NBCUniversal arrangements. All three partners have also committed substantial resources to promote the league and enhance the fan experience.”

What Amazon Prime Video gets

Amazon Prime Video will carry games on Friday nights, select Saturday afternoons and Thursday night doubleheaders which will begin after the conclusion of Prime Video’s “Thursday Night Football” schedule. Prime Video will also take over the NBA League Pass package from WBD.

“The digital opportunities with Amazon align perfectly with the global interest in the NBA,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “And Prime Video’s massive subscriber base will dramatically expand our ability to reach our fans in new and innovative ways.”

The package also includes at least one game on Black Friday and the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship game of the NBA Cup.

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“Over the past few years, we have worked hard to bring the very best of sports to Prime Video and to continue to innovate on the viewing experience,” said Jay Marine, global head of sports for Prime Video. “We’re thrilled to now add the NBA to our growing sports lineup, including the NFL, UEFA Champions League, NASCAR, NHL, WNBA, NWSL, Wimbledon, and more. We are grateful to partner with the NBA, and can’t wait to tip-off in 2025.”

ESPN and ABC keep the NBA Finals

ESPN and ABC will keep the league’s top package, which includes the NBA Finals. ABC has carried the finals since 2003.

ESPN/ABC will combine for nearly 100 games during the regular season. More than 20 games will air on ABC, mainly on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, while ESPN will have up to 60 games, mostly on Wednesday nights with some Friday games. ABC and ESPN will also combine for five games on Christmas Day and have exclusive national coverage of the final day of the regular season.

During the playoffs, ESPN and ABC will have approximately 18 games in the first two rounds each year and one of the two conference finals series in all but one year of the agreement.

NBC becomes a second network partner

The return of NBC, which carried NBA games from 1990 through 2002, gives the NBA two broadcast network partners for the first time.

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NBC will have up to 100 regular-season games, including on Sunday night once the NFL season has ended. It will air games on Tuesdays throughout the regular season, while a Monday night doubleheader would be exclusively streamed on Peacock.

NBC will also have the All-Star Game and All-Star Saturday Night. During the playoffs, NBC and/or Peacock will have up to 28 games the first two rounds, with at least half on NBC.

NBC and Amazon will also carry one of the two conference finals series in six of the 11 years on a rotating basis. NBC will have a conference final in 2026-27 followed by Amazon the next season.

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President Biden Addresses Nation After Dropping Out, Time For New Generation

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President Biden Addresses Nation After Dropping Out, Time For New Generation

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These dictators are different. 'Autocracy, Inc.' explains how

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These dictators are different. 'Autocracy, Inc.' explains how

Naval vessels participate in a Taiwanese military drill near the naval port in Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan on Jan. 27, 2016.

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The United States and other major democracies face the most challenging geopolitical landscape in decades. The crises include a bloody battle for land in Eastern Europe that challenges the principle of territorial sovereignty, the risk of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the coming years and a brutal war in Gaza that could still spread.

We are in a new era, but how do we define it, and what is the fundamental threat?

Several recent books tackle this crucial question. New York Times White House and National Security correspondent David Sanger calls this historical moment “New Cold Wars.” He sees the U.S. defending the West against a rising China and resurgent Russia. CNN anchor and Chief National Security analyst Jim Sciutto calls it “The Return of Great Powers.”

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In her new book, the Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum takes a different, more sweeping view. We are not in Cold War 2.0, she argues, but a battle for the future world order against what she calls “Autocracy, Inc., The Dictators Who Want to Rule the World.

Autocracy, Inc., is not a club. There are no meetings like SPECTRE in a James Bond movie, where villains give progress reports on their kleptocratic gains and attacks on democracy. Instead, Applebaum writes, it is a very loosely knit mix of regimes, ranging from theocracies to monarchies, that operate more like companies. What unites these dictators isn’t an ideology, but something simpler and more prosaic: a laser-focus on preserving their wealth, repressing their people and maintaining power at all costs.

These regimes can help each other in ways large and small, Applebaum writes.

Countries such as Zimbabwe, Belarus and Cuba voted in favor of Russia’s annexation of Crimea at the United Nations in 2014. Russia gave loans to Venezuela’s authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro, while Venezuelan police use Chinese-made water cannons, tear gas and surveillance equipment to attack and track street protesters.

Of course, U.S. companies have also supplied authoritarian regimes. When covering the crushing of the democracy movement in Bahrain during the Arab Spring, I rummaged through bins of empty rubber bullet canisters made by a company in Pennsylvania.

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More recently and more alarming, though, have been China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin’s June visit to North Korea, which the U.S. accuses of supplying weapons to Russia.

But Autocracy Inc., uses more than conventional arms to attack democracies. In order to retain power and build more wealth, autocrats also undermine the idea of democracy as a viable choice for their own people. Fearful of its former Soviet republics drifting further West – see Ukraine – Russia and its three main TV channels broadcast negative news about Europe an average of 18 times a day during one three-year stretch.

Autocracy, Inc.

China extends its message through local media and helps other dictatorships. After satellite networks dropped Russia Today – RT – following the invasion of Ukraine, China’s StarTimes satellite picked up RT and put it back into African households, where it could spread Moscow’s anti-Western, anti-LGBTQ message, which resonates in many African nations.

The goal is not to persuade people that autocracy is the answer, but to encourage cynicism about the alternative. Applebaum says the message is this: You may not like our society, but at least we are strong and the democratic world is weak, degenerate, divided and dying.  

How did the world end up here?

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Applebaum is strong on how Western misjudgment and greed enabled and empowered autocrats over the decades. A working theory in Washington and Berlin was that greater economic integration and dependency between the West and China and Russia would serve as a glue and deterrent, making conflict too costly. But Europe’s dependence on Russian gas predictably backfired. Moscow used it as a source of blackmail following the invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, corporate America’s heavy investment in China helped fuel the country’s extraordinary economic rise, but didn’t lead to the desired political results. Instead of becoming a more liberal, Western-friendly regime, the Communist Party became a more powerful rival. Among other things, Beijing used its new wealth to build islands in the South China Sea and a blue-water navy to challenge America’s.

At just over two hundred pages, Applebaum’s book is slender. She might have done more to detail the boomerang effect of globalization. When American companies exported jobs to China, they cut labor costs, boosted profits and lowered prices for consumers. Those business decisions devastated communities built on everything from auto plants to furniture factories.

That sowed the seeds for the populist backlash in 2016 that continues to roil the country to the benefit of America’s authoritarian opponents.

What is to be done? First, make life harder for dictators.

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Applebaum says democratic nations have to make it more difficult for kleptocrats to stash their money overseas. She suggests an international coalition of treasury and finance ministry officials across Europe, Asia and North America work to strengthen transparency and tighten laws together.

This will be tough. Kleptocrats make lucrative clients for lawyers, financiers and real estate agents. One of London’s unofficial industries is money-laundering. And, in a complex political landscape, it can be useful for democracies to work with corrupt regimes to achieve bigger goals.

Another way to combat dictatorship is for democracies to deliver at home, as Charles Dunst argues in Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman. Political grid-lock, income inequality, stagnant wages and rising crime can provide fertile ground for populists.

Anti-incumbency and accountability have stood out as themes during this epic year of elections as voters punished long-serving parties, such as the Conservatives in the UK and the African National Congress in South Africa.

More broadly, Applebaum says, democratic countries need to reduce their economic dependence on authoritarian rivals. Europe’s reliance on Russian gas was an embarrassing and costly lesson. Minerals could prove another one for the United States.

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Today, the U.S. only produces 4% of the world’s lithium and 13% of its cobalt, while China processes more than 80% of all critical minerals.

With the world’s next geopolitical fault-line perhaps lying in the waters around the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, this kind of math just doesn’t figure.

Frank Langfitt is NPR’s Global Democracy correspondent. Previously, he spent nearly two decades reporting overseas, based in Beijing, Nairobi, Shanghai and London. In February 2022, he covered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

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