Donald Clarke: Hollywood has changed since the days of Deep Throat

Kidult franchises financed on colossal budgets have edged grown-up entertainment out of the multiplex

Plans are afoot for a US re-release of the most profitable film of 1972. There is talk of digital restoration and public screenings with Q&A sessions. Why not? The film is (for good or ill, mostly ill) among the most culturally significant of its era.

You knew all this. Indeed, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II have already had their 50th anniversary screenings in Irish cinemas. The first film really did pass out Gone With the Wind to become the highest grossing film of all time. Why am I telling you this now?

While The Godfather was still in cinemas a very different phenomenon was oozing its way from greasy fleapits to unlikely success in mainstream venues. Gerard Damiano's horrible Deep Throat opened in the US on June 12th, 1972. Profiting from the confused aftermath of the sexual revolution, the modestly budgeted porn film gathered respectable audiences and helped launch a briefly squalid phenomenon dubbed "porn chic". Frank Sinatra, Jackie Kennedy and Norman Mailer were among the celebrities who turned up to watch exploited star Linda Lovelace – a victim of shocking sexual abuse – sell Americans the concept of a woman born with a clitoris in her throat. The argument afoot was that the social changes of the 1960s would wear down supposedly prudish attitudes to sex and, by 1980 or so, pornography would be mainstream entertainment while wife-swapping would be the national sport.

Somewhere between then and now Hollywood got frightened of copulation again

Given the unconventional nature of Deep Throat's finances, it has always been hard to pin down quite how much the film really made, but it sits at number six, between Jeremiah Johnson and Cabaret, in the top 10 of North American money-makers for 1972. When you consider the tiny budget and ponder the alleged unrecorded earnings, the claim that it is, in percentage terms, the most profitable film ever made do not seem so ludicrous. The film was so embedded in the culture that nobody blinked when journalist Bob Woodward, during the Watergate investigations, picked Deep Throat as the codename of his secret source.

This was largely a US phenomenon. It hardly needs to be said that Deep Throat did not trouble Irish viewers. In the United Kingdom, what we used to quaintly call "blue movies", did escape Soho and creep on to the high street but, for the most part, the crossover, if it can be so described, involved tame comedies such as the largely harmless Confessions series. The contemporaneous British equivalents of Jackie Kennedy and Frank Sinatra – Princess Margaret and Des O'Connor perhaps? – most certainly were not seen trumping in to mucky films.

The supposed sexual liberation in the US did, nonetheless, threaten a shift in popular culture throughout the world. Since at least the second World War, American tastes had driven consumption on the rest of the planet. If Hollywood was going to open itself up to explicit sex then the rest of us would surely end up consuming the resulting content (as we then didn’t call it).

Even James Bond now pauses before leaping into bed with the next passing lady assassin

The aftermath of porn chic proved more confusing and more juddery than the libertarians predicted. In Erotic '80s, the most recent series of the excellent podcast You Must Remember This, Karina Longworth notes how, during the Reagan years, the grubbier excesses of the previous decade – from the cheap exploitation of Deep Throat to the pretentious posturing of Last Tango in Paris – gave way to a sleek, entertaining treatment of sexual themes in films as diverse as American Gigolo, Body Heat, 10 and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Somewhere between then and now Hollywood got frightened of copulation again. One can't imagine, say, Chris Evans and Jennifer Lawrence going at it in the sink with the same gusto that Michael Douglas and Glenn Close brought to Fatal Attraction. Kidult franchises that, financed on colossal budgets, cannot risk prohibitive 18 certificates have edged grown-up entertainment out of the multiplex.

You will see plenty of sexually explicit material in the more outré material screening at the current Cannes film festival. But even James Bond now pauses before leaping into bed with the next passing lady assassin. The fact that people bothered to remark on the tame love scene in Chloe Zhao's Marvel flick Eternals just confirmed how sexually anaemic that franchise remains.

Yet no sane person would claim that contemporary media is short on sexually explicit material. Deep Throat and its companion titles did not open up the ordinary home to endlessly accessible pornography. It was the technological advances of the internet age that turned 44 Acacia Avenue into the Erotic Palace. In contrast the VHS boom of the 1980s seemed like a minor diversion. Meanwhile, social attitudes to such material, on the surface at least, changed relatively little in the journey from Deep Throat to here. The percentage of terrifyingly modern people who habitually invite guests to watch explicit erotica after dinner is much the same as it was 50 or 60 years ago. Such practices may, in the US, have enjoyed a brief boom during the porn chic era. But the average citizen quickly went back to their bourgeois hypocrisies.

That may not be altogether a bad thing.