Is Baz Luhrmann’s 'Romeo + Juliet' The Most Erotic Film Of All Time, Or Was I Just A Demented 14-Year-Old?

A reexamination of everything we thought we knew about cinematic sensuality

When I was but 14 years old, my high school's English teachers decided it would be wise to screen Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet for the entire freshman class. This wasn't a random decision; at the time, we were reading the original William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which is to say, pretending to read it but actually just skimming the summaries on SparkNotes. Likely knowing this, the teachers hoped that we'd connect to the source material if we began to associate it with the pornographically beautiful visage of a young Leonardo DiCaprio.

Not only were these wily English teachers correct, but they also, inadvertently, encouraged a mass carnal awakening and altered the sexual trajectory of our class forever.

I still remember stumbling forth from my 11 a.m. English class, blind with my first taste of real lust, weeping over the impossibly acute angles of Leo's face and also that whole thing where Juliet pretends to kill herself and then Romeo kills himself on top of her and then she actually kills herself. I remember congregating with my group of flat-chested friends around our lockers, wringing our hands over the sexiness of it all before realizing, all at once, that a boy in our class — we'll call him Tobey, as a hat-tip to the Pussy Posse — looked exactly like Leo did in the movie. Same small, perpetually bloodshot blue eyes (probably not for the same reasons); same greasy shock of blond hair (again, for extremely different reasons); same glass-shattering cheekbones; same inexplicable penchant for Hawaiian shirts. Suddenly, painfully, we were women.

Word of Tobey's doppelgäng-ing spread fast, and soon he was the most sexually objectified man in our school — nay, in the world. I cannot overstate the potency of the combination of previously latent adolescent hormones, an overwrought film about previously latent adolescent hormones, and a dazed adolescent wandering the halls, looking like he'd accidentally stumbled out of said film. All of us girls (and a not-insignificant portion of the boys) descended on a very confused Tobey like flies who did not know what to do after descending — usually we just said some variation of "hey," then ran away screaming into the perpetual night of suburban teenagehood.

Though a brave few actually engaged in some manner of sexual relations with Tobey, the rest of us had to sate our scorching thirst by watching Romeo + Juliet over and over again and imagining that, someday, we might have the privilege of engaging in a sensual double-suicide with a lesser version of Tobey. In this way, Romeo + Juliet was singlehandedly responsible for my sexual awakening and the sexual awakening of every single teenage girl in my school. Romeo + Juliet put hundreds of us through puberty; as my friend Hallie recalled when I asked her to verify the existence of this viral horn-plague, "We were like, 'Ew boys!' and then saw it and all instantly developed breasts." As such, I remember it as the premier erotic media of my time.

This week, Baz Luhrmann's The Get Down premieres on Netflix. Seeing as the mere utterance of "Baz Luhrmann" immediately transports me back into my lust-addled 14-year-old brain, I thought I'd take this opportunity to revisit Romeo + Juliet as an adult woman — one who has not seen or even considered Tobey or this movie in approximately 1.5 decades — to see if it still holds up as the most rabidly sexy film on God's Earth, or if we were all just temporarily driven insane by the toxic cocktail of suburban boredom and well-targeted marketing. Join me, won't you?


The Scene: A newswoman introduces the Capulets and the Montagues' blood feud over a dramatic montage of urban violence.

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: It includes a brief glimpse of Leonardo DiCaprio's school photo, in which he looks EXACTLY like a young Tobey. This is the point at which every girl in my English class gasped in recognition. Also, someone says the word "loins."

Is It Still Sexy? No. This is a photo of a 12-year-old child.


The Scene: Leonardo DiCaprio smokes gloomily and writes emo poetry on a beach in a suit to the sounds of Radiohead's "Talk Show Host."

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: Leonardo DiCaprio smokes gloomily and writes emo poetry on a beach in a suit to the sounds of Radiohead's "Talk Show Host."

Is It Still Sexy? Honestly, all I can think about right now is how the transformation of Leo from young, ambiguously gendered, besuited nymph to his current dadbod/dadface/model-fucking iteration is one of the most profound tragedies of our time. In that sense, this remains the sexiest scene ever committed to film, as it captures an erotic moment in our nation's history that we will never be able to return to.


The Scene: Leonardo DiCaprio smokes gloomily on a carousel, then engages in a disturbingly flirty repartee with his cousin, who is wearing an ill-advised unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt.

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: Carousels are supposed to be fun, but Leo's, like, sad on one :(. (Note: I did and continue to conflate Leonardo DiCaprio with his characters 100 percent of the time.) Leo is so deep. I wonder if Tobey likes carnivals. I wonder if Tobey smokes. Should I be smoking?

Is It Still Sexy? No. This scene is very stressful to watch as an adult. Leonardo DiCaprio is wearing a black suit in broad daylight on a CALIFORNIA BEACH. His sleeves are rolled all the way down, so much so that one of them covers his hand. I recognize now that his hair grease is just unmitigated sweat.


Important sidebar: Paul Rudd is in this movie, which I completely forgot about until now. Paul Rudd's like, "I washed my hair for you, Claire Danes," "I turned my collar down for you, Claire Danes," "I put on a goddamn tie for you, Claire Danes!!!!" And she doesn't give a FUCK. Both Claire Danes and I slept on Paul Rudd as teens and we'll both live to regret it.


The Scene: Leo plays pool and continues to confusingly flirt with his gross cousin.

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: I cannot overstate what the piece-y hair-in-front-of-the-eyes thing did to my adolescent brain. Later I would transfer this particular attraction to Shane from The L Word.



Is It Still Sexy? Kind of, but I really can't stop noticing how sweaty Leo is in all of these scenes. In contrast, Shane appears to be at basal body temperature at all times.


The Scene: Leo wears chainmail to the beach and does drugs. He appears to be wearing light eyeliner.

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: A young Leonardo DiCaprio sporting medieval-inspired attire validated my heretofore Disneyfied conception of sexuality, but the drugs and the eyeliner hinted at something darker, which would compel me to date eyeliner-abusing druggies for a significant amount of time thereafter.

Is It Still Sexy? Leo could still get it in this chainmail, but again, he and Baz Luhrmann have fundamentally misunderstood beach attire. Leo is now so greasy-sweaty that I could cook an egg atop his head (which would loop this whole thing back around to being sexy again!!!).


The Scene: Leo rolls so hard he has to dunk his head in a sink. We watch him from the perspective of the sink.

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: ????????

Is It Still Sexy? This scene is getting me the opposite of pregnant.


The Scene: Leo (head still wet from sink) and Juliet lock eyes from opposite sides of a fish tank to the sounds of Des'ree's "Kissing You."

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: Des'ree's "Kissing You" made me remember I had not ever kissed anyone and I should probably get around to that at some point.

Is It Still Sexy? Yes, only because Des'ree's "Kissing You" could make a routine waterboarding sexy. Also, Leo inadvertently washed his hair.


The Scene: Leo and Juliet make out in an elevator.

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: See: Had not ever kissed another human being.

Is It Still Sexy? Honestly, still into it.


The Scene: Leo climbs Juliet's balcony, sits there for a while, then stands behind her silently.

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: Leo is so agile and bold!!! He will not let systemic class conflicts get in the way of his one true love!!!!

Is It Still Sexy? No. Leo is sweating profusely again, and this time he is also breathing very hard. He talks to himself for a long, long while. This screenshot is the MRA movement in cinematic form.


I mean. Dude.


The Scene: Leo and Juliet get married in a church one day after meeting each other. This is Leo's outfit.

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: Leo looks like he is wearing his dad's suit to prom!

Is It Still Sexy? Leo looks like he is wearing his dead dad's funeral suit to prom.


The Scene: John Leguizamo kicks the crap out of Leo on the beach, then kills his best bro.

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: I was on some twisted shit.

Is It Still Sexy? Just wish the blood seeping out of his mouth here was, like, 10 percent less Joker-esque.


The Scene: Romeo kills John Leguizamo after screaming and screaming at him for a really long time.

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: Hmmm, really starting to retroactively worry about myself.

Is It Still Sexy? Hold on, am calling therapist.


The Scene: Leo regrets doing this.

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: Oooh, a wet shirt.

Is It Still Sexy? I really forgot how violent this movie is and how it, like, tries to make blood and death real sexy. Some un-woke late-'90s shit right here.


The Scene: Leo and Juliet do it even though he is still bleeding from several orifices.

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: Leo and Juliet do it.

Is It Still Sexy? Even though he is still bleeding from several orifices!!!!


The Scene: Leo finds out that Juliet is (fake) dead and freaks out.

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: I had never before seen a teen boy cry; the novelty of it was provocative.

Is It Still Sexy? Wrenching, guttural sobs not really my "thing" anymore.


The Scene: Leo takes a rando hostage and shoots at a police helicopter.

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: Again, really unclear.

Is It Still Sexy? Setting aside the fact that he looks generally deranged, he has only buttoned the top button of his shirt for this entire part, so he's got this weird triangle-chest thing happening that's really distracting.


The Scene: Leo sees fake-dead Juliet and smooches her.

Why It Was Sexy to 14-Year-Old Me: He feels so deeply!!!

Is It Still Sexy? Why is he making out with that corpse…?


The Scene: Leo and Juliet commit suicide on top of each other.

Why It Was Sexy To 14-Year-Old Me: Look, let's just face it: I was demented.

Is It Still Sexy? I cannot believe I and hundreds of my peers watched this movie and walked out of the classroom newly libidinous. The only thing that turns me on in this scene is knowing how swimmingly Claire Danes's career goes after this.

Ultimately, it would seem that the unmitigated horniness that drove Romeo and Juliet to behave like maniacs similarly caused me to flagrantly overrate the erotic nature of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. This is a good-ass movie, don't get me wrong, and it would be irresponsible of me not to admit that the greasy, piece-y, weepy li'l head of Leonardo DiCaprio can still induce in me an unmatched carnal lust. But I, much like Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers, was clearly not of sound mind nor body when I first encountered the film, and thus spent the next decade and a half gripping tightly to the idea that a movie in which basically everyone dies in a bloody heap was wildly sensual.

This non-erotic awakening, though, has shaken me to my core. After the two-hour ordeal of reexamining everything I thought I knew about cinematic sexuality, I am not quite ready to start another revisionist journey of self-discovery. I do not want to confront the possibility that Josh Hartnett did not deserve an Oscar for Pearl Harbor, or that The Basketball Diaries is not a sporty rom-com. Or, god forbid, that Jack's death at the end of Titanic wasn't just a goof. Because all those fantasies about fucking on a floating door in an icy ocean would be ruined.

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