A naughty, mind-opening artifact from a more sexually liberated era? Fuck that. If anything, The Stewardesses proves that the 1960s were hardly a heyday for free love on both sides of the gender divide. And the movie seems to know it, given its proto-Requiem for a Dream finale in which a Zodiacally-misguided hookup ends in death for both (but still the woman’s fault). And damned if men didn’t drag their women to see it; for two weeks in 1971, it was listed in Variety as the top-grossing film in the country.
The Stewardesses is for all but the last 10 minutes a vapid, happy-go-fucky taxonomy of the nighttime rituals of transcontinental flight attendants that feels as though it’s presented in real time. (The cut released on DVD by Shout Factory is probably the longest extant version, combining all the sex scenes of the original X-rated flick and the gratuitous plot points added for the movie’s wider-released R-rated version.) With the added novelty of 3D technology, it’s no wonder the entire segment of the country that felt women were starting to get a little too uppity for their own good flocked to have bush virtually leap off the screen and tickle them on the chin.
The Stewardesses gets the ingredients right, especially for modern nostalgia hounds: pasty skin, beehive-shaped titties, advertising agencies, Aviator-specked flight captains, Mai Tais served in brown plastic tumblers, and so on. And the 3D technology is used to nice effect whenever it shows some girl’s feet thrusting over the shoulders of their sex partner. Maybe it’s beside the point to complain that the cinematographer sometimes forgot to frame with both hands on the camera, or that the editor mistook endurance for stamina—even if the effect is that of an immaculate travel brochure printed backward and sliced down the middle of the page.
But the technical shoddiness has nothing on the film’s woeful sexual politics, which sadly say more about the movie’s contemporary audiences. It’s not enough that they’re presented as sex objects, which would be a forgivable necessary evil given the film’s immediate context, but when the movie widens its scope to suggest things they might be doing aside from renting out their labial vacancies, womankind’s options are revealed to be limited. (One girl memorably opts to hump a lamp.) Worse still are the movie’s dual takes on non-heteronormative sexuality: lesbianism is shown to be laughable but still worth lingering over; gay sex happens off-screen and ruins a man’s psyche for the rest of his life. Which goes a long way at explaining why the male cast members predominately fuck with their clothes on but the women can’t even comb their hair without going topless.