This is the scene Cincinnati audiences for director Wayne Wang's unrated adult drama The Center of the World failed to see at Clifton's Esquire Theatre: A stripper leans over her male customer. She inserts a lollipop into her vagina, quickly pulls it out and inserts it into the mouth of her mesmerized customer. The image is brief and fleeting.
Between May 25 and June 3, Cincinnati audiences instead saw the stripper move the lollipop below her waist, then immediately raise it up and put it into the mouth of her customer. The lollipop's insertion into her vagina was suddenly gone.
Sources on the Esquire's staff told CityBeat that on May 24, one day prior to the film's local opening, Esquire owner Gary Goldman ordered one of his managers to cut the sex scene from the print of the film. There were no complaints from theater customers. The film hadn't even opened. Goldman's clandestine editing was purely proactive. It was also something he felt confident would go unnoticed.
Goldman did not return calls to discuss the incident.
The Center of the World tells the story of a nerdy dot-com millionaire (Peter Sarsgaard) who persuades a pretty stripper (Molly Parker) to spend three days with him in Las Vegas. In a previous interview with CityBeat, Wang called the film Last Tango in Paris for the Internet generation.
The Esquire's audiences weren't informed they were watching a censored film. The theater also broke its copyright agreement with the film's distributor, Artisan Entertainment, when it cut the scene. The edit was a slap in the face to Wang, the film's director, as well as Artisan Entertainment, who have struggled to promote the film's theatrical release.
But the larger issue is why Goldman even felt the need to do something as drastic as cutting a sex scene from an unrated film. For those optimists who believe Cincinnati is becoming a more tolerant place to live, the fact that our city's leading art-house cinema has cut a sex scene is a devastating blow. It also makes one wonder what else happens at the Esquire Theatre or elsewhere that we don't know about.
Signs on the Esquire's doors made it clear that nobody under the age of 17 would be admitted to see The Center of the World. Like most art-house theaters, the Esquire attracts a loyal, adult clientele interested in watching different types of movies. Since Goldman declined to be interviewed about this incident, I can only guess whether he was offended by the brief sex scene. But if he was, he had another choice, the most powerful form of censorship: He could have simply refused to book the film.
"If they (Esquire) did do it, it's up to Artisan to decide if they're going to take any legal action," says Cleveland Cinemas President Jonathan Forman, who's currently playing The Center of the World at one of his Cleveland theaters. "I can see how a theater in a Bible Belt community would feel it was inappropriate to show the film. But I can't understand why a theater would alter the film."
On a recent afternoon, I stood in the projection booth of the Esquire Theatre and unspooled the five feet of film that's been cut from The Center of the World. It stretched from the tip of my shoes to the top of my head. On each individual frame, I peered at the images the Esquire didn't want Cincinnati audiences to see. After watching the "complete" film twice, I can honestly say that the edit was much ado about nothing. The "lollipop scene" is a fleeting sequence. You barely see anything. While I don't recommend The Center of the World due to its lackluster storytelling, I didn't find anything about the film offensive.
"As a distributor, we take great pride in our relationships with our filmmakers," says Amorette Jones, executive vice president of worldwide marketing for Artisan Entertain-ment. "It takes courage to go out with an unrated picture. So it's disappointing that the print was altered. I've been in this business for 12 years, and I was totally caught off guard by the news that someone edited the content of a picture."
On June 4, Artisan Entertainment ordered the Esquire to return The Center of the World without splicing the sex scene back into the print. The title came off the marquee. The auditorium was unexpectedly dark. Theater staff told inquiring customers they didn't know what had happened to the film.
Later this week in Los Angeles, Artisan executives will watch the tampered print to determine exactly how much was cut. Then they plan to destroy the print. Jones says Artisan does not plan to take Goldman or the Esquire Theatre to court. For the time being, they want to find out why the theater would cut a sex scene from The Center of the World without informing them.
I have one suggestion: It's proof Cincinnati is as intolerant as ever.
contact steve ramos: [email protected]