The perfect sex symbol? Bo Derek and the legacy of 10
With her hair braided into cornrows and her body barely covered by a skin-colour swimsuit (as much as one’s body can be covered by a skin-colour swimsuit that goes near-transparent when wet), Bo Derek’s famous scene from the sex comedy 10 – a slow-motion, star-making run along the beach – had to be filmed on three different occasions. Once in Mexico, where the scene is set, and twice again in Hawaii. “Run. Go back! Run again,” writer-director Blake Edwards told her. “I hate to run,” said Derek in 2016. “I never, ever run.”
But it remains the scene for which Bo Derek, now 63, is best remembered. Up there with Ursula Andress emerging from the sea, Raquel Welch’s fur bikini, and the Farrah Fawcett poster, it’s a defining image that immediately transformed Derek into a “sex symbol” – a term that in 2020 seems perilously outdated.
It’s easy to forget the scene is actually played for laughs – the sexual daydream of Dudley Moore’s midlife crisis-stricken composer, framed like a naff commercial of some nose-assaulting Seventies odour.
It has more in common with Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley charging down the beach in The Naked Gun – taking our other couples with a double-clothesline wrestling move – than Ursula Andress’s magnificent emergence in Dr No.
Bo Derek was just 22 at the time, but already four years into her marriage with John Derek, the actor, director, and photographer who was 30 years her senior. Derek did as much to craft Bo's image as a cult-like sex bomb as that iconic scene: he was the one who suggested the braids and swimsuit; he photographed her for famous Playboy spreads; and went on to direct her in censor-baiting softcore films. The couple named their production company Svengali Inc, a reference to how the press often described him.
Unlike John and Bo Derek’s films – including the roundly trounced Tarzan, the Ape Man and Bolero – Blake Edwards’ 10 has stood the test of time. As one critic said after its release in 1979: “This is the sort of classical Hollywood comedy that will still look good in 30 years.”
It’s now 41 years later. And while some of 10 doesn’t look quite so good (its voyeurism and political correctness wouldn’t make the grade in 2020) the heart of the film remains relevant and hilarious: the pathetic tragedy of a man’s sexual urges. Warner Bros recently announced it will remake the film with original co-star Julie Andrews as executive producer.
Bo Derek was just 16 when she met John Derek. Still known as Mary Cathleen Collins, she auditioned for Derek’s film And Once Upon a Time. Derek told her to make the film – which shot in Greece in 1973 – that she’d have to drop out of school.
“It took me about two seconds to make that decision,” she told Interview Magazine in 2016. (The film wasn’t released until 1981, under the title Fantasies.)
She turned 17 during production and began an affair with Derek, who was married at the time to Linda Evans. John and Bo stayed in Europe to avoid statutory rape laws. They married and came back to the US when she turned 18.
The relationship was controversial at the time and seems especially grubby in 2020, not helped by skin-crawling comments such as “I don’t like her fat, so I tell her,” as Derek told People in 1980.
“He’s very critical,” Bo once told Johnny Carson. “If I don’t look good one day, we don’t have a very good day, usually.” Derek was accused of being overprotective and controlling. But Bo Derek has defended the dynamic of their relationship, saying she wasn’t a “puppet.”
“He admired strong women, always did,” she said. “So even though I was younger, the relationship wasn’t so one-sided as everyone probably thought.”
Bo appeared in the 1977 Jaws knock-off Orca the Killer Whale (having her leg bitten off, no less) but became a star when she was cast in 10 by Blake Edwards.
Edwards – husband to Julie Andrews and director of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Victor/Victoria, and The Pink Panther films – had been searching for a woman who fit the bill: a perfect 10. “Blake tested an awful lot of 9s and 9.5s,” wrote Sam Wasson in A Spulrch in the Kisser, his book on Edwards’ films. Edwards discovered Bo Derek after meeting an agent at a party.
Originally, George Segal was supposed to play the leading man, but he pulled out of the film at the last minute. One rumour says he left over Julie Andrews’s beefed-up role – playing Samantha, singer and partner to lead character George – and Wasson’s book recalls that Segal walked because Edwards refused to cut certain scenes. Segal and Edwards would sue each other over the situation.
Dudley Moore – then a relative unknown in the States – quickly took the role of George, an Oscar-winning composer whose life becomes a (self-inflicted) comedy of errors. Unnerved at turning 42, George begins a sexually-dissatisfied mid-life crisis.
“I don’t like middle-age,” he tells his psychiatrist. “It’s not that complicated, I’d just rather be 30.”
George openly spies on his neighbour’s sex parties through a telescope and ogles women on the street (in fairness, he does seem to see sex everywhere he looks – an alternative title for the film could have been “Confessions of a Hollywood Composer”).
When George sees a mystery bride on her wedding day – later revealed to be Jenny (Bo Derek) – his life spins out of control. The film is called 10, but George rates her at 11 – she’s off the scale. Now obsessed with Jenny, he tracks her down to Mexico, via some devious stalker-like tactics and top-drawer slapstick.
After saving Jennifer’s husband (Sam Jones – the actual Flash Gordon) from drowning, George becomes a hero and finally ends up in bed with Jenny for the film’s other infamous scene – making love (or attempting to, at least) to the sound of Maurice Ravel's Bolero.
10 was a $75 million hit and had a major cultural impact. Shades of its randiness would be seen in most sex comedies afterwards. And Bo Derek’s brazen nudity was big news. “America is so funny that way,” she said in 2000. “They have a big problem with nudity – not vulgarity and violence and cheapness, just simple nudity.”
There’s lots in 10 that wouldn’t make the cut in 2020: George’s telescope peeping; some unpleasant homophobic language; and Bo’s trendsetting cornrows – described by People at the time as “a cross-cultural craze and beauty-salon bonanza” – would surely be seen as cultural appropriation.
But the film is also disarmingly forward-thinking: despite the slurs, a gay character played by Robert Webber is progressive even by the standard of some modern characterisations; and a conversation between George and Sam about his use of the term “broads” and sexism is years ahead of its time. In fact, Julie Andrews’ Samantha is the real hero of the story: sure-headed, feminist, and emotionally capable.
10 becomes a sharp commentary of objectification. As soon as Bo Derek’s Jenny becomes a person – not just a sex symbol ogled from across the beach – she loses her appeal to George.
But John Derek knew that his wife would become a sex symbol beyond the movie. When he saw the beach scene for the first time, he told Bo: “Oh, you’re going to be a big star. This is going to be a problem. It’s going to mess with our lives.”
“The film opened and there was this sensation,” Bo Derek said back in 2000. "There was a buzz. Not from the industry, just from the public. Usually, when a girl comes on the scene in a sensational way, you've [already] known her. She's modeled. She's done commercials. She's done television. She's acted somewhere before.
"But to come just out of the blue like that is unusual. And journalists didn't know who I was. They had heard I was married to John Derek so they went back into those old files. That's where the label, 'He's Svengali, I'm Trilby,' came from. The press just sort of created me. I didn't know what was coming, but John knew because he'd seen it so many times before.”
After a bad experience on her next film, the Richard Lang-directed A Change of Seasons (“I felt used,” she said about the film’s nudity), Derek persuaded Bo to exploit her newfound fame on their own terms. They steered a creative path by making their own movies.
In 1981, the husband-wife duo (as director and producer, respectively) made Tarzan, the Ape Man, a highly eroticised re-telling of Tarzan, with Bo front-and-centre as a scantily-clad Jane. It was filmed in Sri Lanka and co-starred Richard Harris. Miles O'Keeffe played Tarzan – an ape man of even fewer words (or grunts) than usual.
As reported in the New York Times, there was major jungle drama: the original Tarzan actor was fired; a herd of elephants failed to show up; and a lion broke free and walloped Bo with a declawed right hook. The estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs also objected to the wanton sexualisation, which led to more than three minutes of cuts. The estate also tried to sue MGM.
John Derek resisted the edits. “Tarzan should be so lucky as to be made by us,” he complained. “Ninety percent of Bo’s nudity will be cut out. If that’s not censorship, I don’t know what is. I’m not going along with it and my darling little Bo is not going along with it.”
Tarzan, the Ape Man was mauled by critics and won Derek her first of three Golden Raspberry Awards. But it was a box office hit, making over $35 million. The couple then embarked on their most controversial (and worst) film yet: the 1984 soft-core odyssey, Bolero – a name inspired by her sex scene in 10.
“Why are we trying to make good films?” Derek told Bo, as recalled in the Cannon Films documentary Electric Boogaloo. “You did 10. All Hollywood ever approaches you with, is to screw to Bolero.”
Bolero took two years to make and cost a reported $7 million. It was financed by Cannon, proud purveyors of such low-rent cinema as Masters of the Universe and Superman IV.
Set in the Twenties, it follows Bo as a graduate who embarks on a journey to lose her virginity. She finds her man, a toreador named Angel (Andrea Occhipinti), but he’s gored by a bull in an unfortunate spot. She takes up bullfighting herself and nurses Angel’s, erm, injury back to rude health. “That thing is going to work!” she commands in an unintentionally hilarious pep talk.
Cannon co-head honcho Menahem Golan insisted that Derek make the film even more explicit than it already was. But The Motion Picture Association of America demanded cuts, otherwise it threatened to give the film a dreaded X rating.
Cannon’s distributor MGM refused to release an X and ended its business relationship with Cannon. Bolero was released without an official rating, instead carrying a voluntary restriction for under 17s. Some American cinema chains refused to screen it.
There were cuts, but Golan insisted they hadn’t bowed to censorship. “There’s not a frame out that isn’t out because we wanted it out,” Golan said.
Derek cut dialogue scenes only. “You would have had a half hour left,” he said about chopping out Bo’s nude scenes.
Indeed, there’s nudity and plenty of it: nudity on horseback; nudity in front of the fire; and even nudity drizzled in honey. Plus, laughable ear-licking, a smoke machine-heavy sex scene that defies logical thought, and dialogue that sounds like someone off-camera is having a laugh (“Oh my god, you’re as naked as the day you were born”). Bolero was unsurprisingly panned and has since been branded as one of the worst films ever made.
“The real future of Bolero is in home cassette rentals,” said Roger Ebert, “where your fast forward and instant replay controls will supply the editing job the movie so desperately needs.”
John Derek directed Bo in one final film, the 1989 stinker Ghosts Can’t Do It (featuring a bizarre cameo from Donald Trump). Despite the early criticism of their marriage, the couple remained together until John Derek died in 1998.
On-screen, Bo Derek was most recently seen in Sharknado 6. But she could return for the 10 remake. She was already talking about appearing in a proposed sequel back in 2016. “When they first started talking about doing a sequel, they asked if I would be the mother,” she said. “Now they're asking if I’ll be the grandmother. So maybe someday."