Femme fatales who mate and murder. Empowered women with unapologetic erotic appetites. Older woman seducing younger men into bed. Young women experiencing a sexual awakening. Ladies of all ages finding a favorite new kink. These are some of film and television’s most enduring and iconic characters, yet the roles were almost too steamy for the screen, the censors and certainly for the actresses who were up for a role in a risque movie.
Ultimately, these stars put their reservations (and often their clothes) aside to give life to these compelling characters and in the process ended up having their sexiest roles launch their careers into celebrity stardom.
Sharon Stone – Basic Instinct
With a simple uncrossing of her legs, Sharon Stone cemented her femme fatale status as writer-turned-murder-suspect Catherine Tramell in Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 psychological thriller Basic Instinct. From her erotic appetites to her witty wordplay, Stone keeps Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) off balance and under her spell. But the risque movie role was almost too much for Stone.
Scandalous from the start, the film was protested for its portrayal of a lesbian affair between Catherine and Nick’s ex (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and had to be dialed back after steamy sex scenes landed it an NC-17 rating. Still, Instinct went on to massive commercial success and established Stone as a bombshell.
Catherine Deneuve – Belle De Jour
In famed 1967 French drama Belle De Jour, Catherine Deneuve plays Séverine Serizy, a young housewife who’s troubled past keeps her from being intimate with her husband (Jean Sorel). Her Path to spicing up her marriage is a bit unconventional; she secretly works as a high-end prostitute in the afternoons while her hubby is at work.
Director Luis Buñuel‘s sexually charged film explores Séverine’s taboo desires, including domination, bondage, and sadomasochism, and proved so haunting that thirty years later American director Martin Scorsese promoted a re-release of the award-winning film in the United States and a 2002 DVD re-release.
Honor Blackman – Goldfinger
Sexy movies and Bond Girls go together like peanut butter and inappropriately clothed jam, and there are certainly quite a few of 007s leading ladies who could be on this list. But few of the spy’s unlucky lovers have the cultural staying power of Honor Blackman’s less-than-subtlety named Pussy Galore in 1964’s Goldfinger.
With a proclivity for sexy wrap tops, Pussy leads a troop of female pilots aptly named Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus. Nearly 40 at the time, Blackman is the only on-screen Bond girl who was older than the actor playing the spy (Sean Connery), which might explain that extra dollop of moxie.
Kathleen Turner – Body Heat
Before Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 erotic drama Body Heat, the world had yet to hear Kathleen Turner’s notoriously throaty voice. In this steamy, dreamy thriller, Turner plays Matty Tyler Walker, a wealthy Florida housewife who seduces subpar lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt) and ensnares him in her plans to off her husband.
A commercial success, the flick made Turner an instant sex symbol, who went on to star in some of the decade’s biggest blockbusters including Romancing the Stone, Prizzi’s Honor and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But it’s the image of her windblown in a low-cut white dress that remains forever sexy.
Sofia Vergara – Modern Family
Univision star Sofia Vergara became a household name in 2009 as Gloria Delgado-Pritchett on ABC’s meg-hit Modern Family. Balancing in sky-high heels and poured into outfits highlighting her physics-defying figure, Gloria is a riot as the smart, sassy, second wife of Jay (Ed O’Neil) and the ultimate MILF.
The sitcom is an ensemble, for sure, but Vergara—who’s been nominated multiple times for Emmys and Golden Globes—is far and away the breakout star. For years, she’s topped the list of TV’s top earners, raking in upwards of $40 million from the role and endorsement deals playing off Gloria’s sexy image.
Glenn Close – Fatal Attraction
One of the 80’s risque movies that could also double as a campaign for abstinence, Fatal Attraction managed to first arouse and then scare the pants ON every married man in America. Fatal Attraction stars Glenn Close as Alex Forrest, a free-spirited editor who gives new meaning to the word clingy when her weekend-long affair with a married lawyer (Michael Douglas) ends on a sour note.
A massive critical and commercial success, this Adrian Lyne-directed thriller became the highest grossing film of 1987, and it’s still a talked-about cultural touchstone even decades later. To this day, Close remains the wrist-slitting, bunny-boiling embodiment of the dark side of temptation and passion.
Kim Cattrall – Sex in the City
From 1998-2004 audiences were riveted by the sexploits of NYC writer Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her friends on HBO’s smash Sex and the City. But it was almost always Kim Cattrall’s alter ego, publicist Samantha Jones, who upped the erotic ante…and often got the biggest laughs doing it.
While the other girls often found themselves playing romantic politics to please partners, Samantha remained utterly unapologetic about her erotic appetites. “I’m a trisexual,” she proudly proclaimed. “I’ll try anything once.” And indeed she experimented with threesomes, female viagra, lesbianism, sex swings and (shockingly) even occasional monogamy.
Jane Fonda – Barbarella
An acclaimed up-and-comer, Jane Fonda solidified her sex symbol status in this 1968 adaptation of the Barbarella comic books. As the scantily-clad titular character, Fonda (who was married to director Roger Vadim) is a space adventurer sent by the president to foil the plans of an evil scientist (Milo O’Shea).
The Academy Award-winner didn’t score any acting awards for this pic, but the kitschy film was a huge hit in the UK and became a cult classic in the sexy movies category. Not to mention, Fonda’s space suit striptease in the opening sequence certainly won her a ton of life-long devotees of fanboys.
Pamela Anderson – Baywatch
Pamela Anderson was no stranger to the pages of Playboy, but she became an international superstar when she slipped on a tiny red one-piece bathing suit on Baywatch. From 1992-1997, Anderson caused hearts to race as she rescued LA beachgoers as new-age lifeguard C.J. Parker.
At its height, Baywatch was the biggest show on the planet pulling in a weekly audience of 1.1 billion around the world. And while co-star David Hasselhoff may have been the one with top-billing, it’s the scenes of Anderson sprinting into action that remain synonymous with the show.
Michelle Pfeiffer – Batman Returns
In the course of his battles, the caped crusader has taken quite a few licks, but none as smoldering as the literal one he gets from Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in 1992’s Batman Returns. Knocking Batman (Michael Keaton) on his back, Pfeiffer straddles him and then tongues him from chin to cowl.
By that point in her career, Pfeiffer had already survived shootouts in lingerie in Scarface and won an Oscar for slinking across a piano in The Fabulous Baker Boys, but it’s her skintight latex catsuit with white stitching from Tim Burton’s flick that made her the stuff of fanboy dreams.
Halle Berry – Monster’s Ball
Gorgeous Halle Berry sizzled as a bikini-clad Bond girl in Die Another Day and certainly looked stunning in her bondage-inspired Catwoman costume. But her most sensual performance just might be her Academy-winning turn as grieving single mother Leticia Musgrove in 2001’s Monster’s Ball.
Set during a Louisiana heatwave, director Marc Forster‘s entire drama is cloaked in it central characters’ steamy, sad desperation. And Berry haunts the film with an unfussy sultriness. Her budding relationship with a prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) is so raw and human, it’s impossible to look away from their graphic, gripping attempt at connection.
Anne Bancroft – The Graduate
She starred in scores of films, but for many Anne Bancroft is forever Mrs. Robinson, the family friend who seduces Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman), a recent college grad half her age in 1967’s The Graduate. “Men still come up to me and tell me, ‘You were my first sexual fantasy,’” she said years later.
Insisting Benjamin drive her home for a party, Mrs. Robinson invites him in for a drink and then upstairs for significantly more; poor Ben is utterly baffled by how to respond to the sexual opportunity being offered. Even decades later, refer to someone as “Mrs. Robinson,” and everyone immediately grasps the meaning.
Marilyn Monroe – The Seven Year Itch
Even decades after her death, Marilyn Monroe remains such an iconic sex symbol it’s nearly impossible to pin down her bombshell breakout role. But her most iconic scene is no doubt her white halter dress billowing up from the breeze of a subway grate in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch.
Her character known only as “The Girl” delights in the cool air, as she carries on an innocent conversation with a google-eyed married man (Tom Ewell). Director Billy Wilder complained the Hays Code kept his the film far too chaste, but Marilyn in her white dress has endured as legendary fantasy.
Rita Hayworth – Gilda
Rita Hayworth’s role as the femme fatale title character in 1946’s Gilda was so seductive, she lamented, “Every man I know has fallen in love with Gilda, and awakened with me.” And there was quite a bit to fall for with the free-spirited, sexually aggressive nightclub performer.
To taunt her ex (Glenn Ford), Gilda flirts and flaunts, all while still married to a shady casino owner (George Macready). The flick made Hayworth such a bombshell she became a literal bombshell—an atomic bomb the US detonated in trials had a pic of the star with the word “Gilda” on it.
Kim Basinger – 9½ Weeks
This 1986 erotic thriller starring Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke as a sexually experimental couple was hot enough to melt ice cubes (literally on her stomach, while blindfolded). This 1986 erotic thriller starring As recent divorcee Elizabeth, Basinger’s character in 9½ Weeks played with gender roles, voyeurism and BDSM in an increasingly unhealthy relationship with her Wall Street beau.
As Elizabeth yearns for more of an emotional connection, her man ratchets up the stakes of their sex life to a dangerous breaking point. Their relationship may have only lasted 9 1/2 weeks, but that silky white blindfold and Basinger’s sizzling abs still live in on as a cult classic.
Angela Bassett – How Stella Got Her Groove Back
Angela Bassett’s titular character in How Stella Got Her Groove Back was a 40-something stockbroker, who was very good at her job and being a mom, but not so lucky in love. That is until she meets Winston Shakespeare (Taye Diggs) on a Jamaican gateway and realizes she’s also good at rocking a bikini and steaming up a hotel suite.
Even in 1998, the idea of a woman with a much younger, uber hot boy toy was still a titillating taboo, but Bassett’s mix of confidence and vulnerability was so seductive it’s easy to see why anyone—even a dude with abs of steel and cheekbones to cut glass—would be smitten.
Christina Hendricks – Mad Men
In a show all about bad behavior, Christina Hendricks still managed to own the scene every time alter ego Joan Holloway was on screen during Mad Men’s 2007-2015 run. As the office manager and resident sexpot, Joan was the secret glue that kept the Sterling Cooper ad agency purring in the 1960s.
Whether in the throes of a hotel tryst with her married boss (John Slattery) or simply advising her girls in the typing pool, Joan and her impossible curves exuded a sexuality so intense it was sometimes all the other characters–not to mention loyal Mad Men fans–could talk about.
Elizabeth Berkley – Showgirls
Love it or hate, 1995’s Showgirls certainly allowed Elizabeth Berkley to shed her squeaky-clean Saved By the Bell image. Berkley’s Nomi Malone is a stripper with dreams of making it as a Vegas showgirl, and she’s willing to sleep with or shove aside (literally) anyone and everyone to get there.
Brimming with nudity and graphic sex, Paul Verhoeven’s drama received an NC-17 rating, and United Artists sent hundreds of staffers to theaters to ensure no one under age snuck in. A critical and commercial bust, the flick found success in home video raking in over $100M and becoming a cult classic.
Carrie Fisher – Return of the Jedi
Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia spent the first two installments of the original Star Wars trilogy, in white robes, practical tactical gear, and of course buns. But when a rescue mission goes awry in Return of the Jedi, Leia ends up chained to Jabba the Hutt in a barely-there metal bikini.
Critics saw the get-up as a cheap attempt to sexualize a strong female character for fanboys, and Fisher repeatedly spoke about how uncomfortable the costume made her physically and mentally. Ultimately, however, she found its merits. “What redeems it is I get to kill [Jabba]…I sawed his neck off with that chain.”
Maria Schneider – Last Tango in Paris
After a chance meeting looking at a Parisian apartment, Maria Schneider’s Jeanne begins a sadomasochistic (and graphically depicted) affair with recently widowed Paul (Marlon Brando). The relationship is so anonymous, the two don’t even know each other’s names in the 1972 erotic drama, Last Tango in Paris. In one particularly controversial scene, Paul anally rapes Jeanne using butter as a lubricant.
Last Tango in Paris was banned and edited. In Italy, Brando and director Bernardo Bertolucci were even sentenced to three months in jail (though the sentence was ultimately suspended). Still, it became an art house classic and received multiple Oscar nods. Schneider, only 19 during filming, later claimed Bertolucci stole her youth and never forgave him.
Holly Hunter – Crash
Holly Hunter was already an Oscar-winner when she starred as an auto accident fetishist in the controversial 1996 thriller Crash. As Helen Remington, Hunter is the driver in a crash that kills her husband; still in the carnage, she exposes her breast to the stranger (James Spader) trapped in the other vehicle.
The two begin an affair and seek out others who share their fantasies. With vivid depictions of sex and violence, the David Cronenberg film was so scandalous it was banned in parts of the UK and released in the US with an NC-17 rating. A moderate commercial success, it retains scores of devoted followers.
Isabella Rossellini – Blue Velvet
Beautiful and mysterious, Isabella Rossellini’s lounge-singing, velvet-loving femme fatale Dorothy Vallens owns all her scenes in David Lynch’s 1986 Blue Velvet, a film noir about college student Jeffrey Beaumont’s (Kyle MacLachlan) quest to uncover the mystery of a severed ear in a vacant lot of his sleepy hometown.
Dorothy is at once the sexual predator, forcing the much younger Jeffrey to strip at knifepoint when she finds him hiding in her closet, and the victim, submitting to the kinky demands of the thug (Dennis Hopper) who kidnapped her husband and son. But always she’s the central talking point of the still talked about film.
Lynda Carter – Wonder Woman
In the live-action TV show running from 1975-79, Wonder Woman fought for truth justice and the American way. . . all while wearing a skimpy leotard leaving little to the imagination. With her amazing figure and piercing blue eyes, Lynda Carter truly looked like the comics creation come to life.
While the series itself focussed on the relatively clean adventures of Wonder Woman—aka Diana Prince—and Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner) during the 1940s, Lynda’s iconic red, blue, and gold costume instantly became the stuff of fanboy fantasies and pinup posters. To this day it remains the Amazon’s most iconic outfit.
Demi Moore – Striptease
By 1996, Demi Moore was already one of the planet’s biggest stars when she opted to take it all off as Erin Grant. A fired FBI secretary, Erin starts working as a stripper to fund her custody battle with her ex but finds herself the obsession of a murderous congressman (Burt Reynolds).
From the get-go, director Andrew Bergman’s film found itself in the crosshairs of watchdog groups, with the Motion Picture Association of America even raising concerns about Moore’s nudity in the posters. Critics crucified the erotic comedy as gratuitous and tonally inconsistent, but Striptease was actually a hit with moviegoers.
Julianna Margulies – The Sopranos
Before she was The Good Wife, Julianna Margulies was an actress on the patriarch of the Golden Age of television: HBO’s The Sopranos. The former E.R. star almost turned down the plum gig, however, after reading the scene written for her by the show’s creator, David Chase.
“…the script weirded me out,” Margulies told The Hollywood Reporter. “Her (character) name was Julianna, and she was from Rockland County (New York), which is where I was born. And I’m reading and reading, and suddenly I’m in a bra and panties, doing heroin, and then I vomit.”
Margulies did eventually take the role after being counseled by friend Griffin Dunne. And since then, she’s made a career out of playing bad-ass, powerful women who have better things to do than snort heroin and throw up.
Angelina Jolie – Gia
Before she steamed up the big screen as sexy spies and tomb raiders, virtually unknown Angelina Jolie won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of troubled supermodel Gia Carangi in this 1998 HBO biopic Gia. As she rose to fame in the 70s and 80s, Gia struggled with addiction (like Jolie herself) and the Maleficent actress plays raw and riveting.
And Jolie wasn’t afraid to strip down physically either. In one smoking hot sequence, Gia and her makeup artist lover (Elizabeth Mitchell), pose and take sizzling naked photos of each other through a chainlink fence before a particularly vivid sex scene.
Olivia Newton-John – Grease
In this popular 1978 musical about a 50s high school, new student Sandy Olsen, Olivia Newton-John spends most of Grease in prim sweater sets fending off advances from greaser Danny Zuko (John Travolta). But just when Danny cleans up his act for her, Sandy pulls off a change of her own.
And what a change it is. Hair teased and face done up, Sandy struts out in a black leather jacket and pants so tight she had to be stitched into them. “When I walked out onto the set…everyone stopped,” Newton-John shared. The rest of the world did too, and ONJ shot to international superstardom.
Farrah Fawcett – Charlie’s Angels
In 1976, Farrah Fawcett became an overnight sensation when an image of the aspiring actress in a red swimsuit became the best-selling poster of all time. TV producer Aaron Spelling took note and cast her as a one of three female PIs on his new crime drama Charlie’s Angels later that year.
Dubbed “Jiggle TV,” the series quickly became an International sensation, but Fawcett joked it wasn’t for the acting. “When it got to be number one, I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra.” Fawcett left after one season but remains the show’s most iconic star.
Penelope Cruz – Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona
Penelope Cruz won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as María Elena in Woody Allen’s 2008 dramady Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona. A passionate, unstable woman, Elena decides that entering into a thrupple with her ex-husband (Javier Bardem) and his new lover (Scarlett Johansson) is the perfect way to bring them all “balance.”
Cruz went on to marry Bardem, and they have obvious chemistry as a couple who just can’t seem to end things even when they really, really should. But it was Cruz’ s smoldering make out session with Johansson’s Cristina in the darkroom that really got people talking.
Kelly LeBrock – Weird Science
When two nerdy teens (Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith), set out to create the perfect woman via their computers, she needs to be smart, super-powered, and of course risque as hell. And sultry supermodel Kelly LeBrock as Lisa is more than up to the task.
A cult classic, 1985’s Weird Science isn’t nearly as well regarded as director John Hughes other films, but LeBrock emerging from a pink haze in a cropped shirt and panties, asking “So what would you little maniacs like to do first?” remains the stuff of teen fantasies.