MARK GILL, THE DEBONAIR marketing chief of Miramax, is one of those people who occasionally says the right thing at the wrong time. Witness the fact that Gill chose last week to confide to an audience at the Toronto Film Festival how Miramax uses sex to sell its films — even those films that don’t have much sex.

Gill’s candor is to be admired, but some folks in Toronto were taken aback. At a time when Calvin Klein is getting bashed for trotting out teenagers in their underwear, and when a new NC-17 movie, “Showgirls,” is about to open on — count ‘em — 1,400 screens with a heavy-breathing ad campaign, this may not be the ideal moment for sexual candor.

Even in the calmest of times, sex makes Hollywood nervous. The creative community has always been discomfited by a modus operandi that is tacitly permissive on violence but repressive on sex, and now suddenly Hollywood is receiving an onslaught of decidedly mixed messages. On the one hand, Bob Dole and his shrill brethren are demanding constraints. At the same time there’s an abundance of anecdotal evidence that, both in actions and beliefs, the Puritanical strands gripping our society have started to fray.

When Hollywood receives mixed messages, it tends to serve them right back in spades. TV fare is getting racier. Last week’s U.S. News & World Report highlights “the rise of sex” in the fall lineup, pointing out that much of it is emblazoned across the 8 p.m. witching hour. The magazine cites academic studies that indicate the kids are not only watching but emulating.

ON THE FEATURE SIDE, the rise of “niche pix” has nurtured a sexual explicitness that was absent in recent years from studio fare — witness Harvey Keitel’s ubiquitous weenie. “People want to see things that are provocative,” Gill reminded the Toronto festgoers. “You’ll see a lot of women with no clothes on their backs in our ads. You can scorn me for this but it works.”

MGM/UA also agrees it works. Never before has an NC-17 film like “Showgirls” opened in so many theaters with such a ferocious sell. Apart from the blast of TV and print advertising, airplanes are dragging banners high over beaches, bus kiosks are plastered with posters and free eight-minute trailers are stacked high in the nation’s video outlets. Despite all the dark warnings of resistance from the media establishment, three of the four networks are running “Showgirls” commercials, with only NBC turning it down on the grounds that it’s “inappropriate” (many NBC O&Os are nonetheless running the commercial).

If “Showgirls” succeeds, a whole new landscape could open up for NC-17 films — a category that was thought to be the kiss of death. Joe Eszterhas, who wrote “Showgirls” (along with another forthcoming erotic thriller, “Jade”), insists that the criteria of the NC-17 rating are absurd. “‘Showgirls’ is a morality tale about a young woman who turns physically and psychologically against the forces trying to corrupt her,” Eszterhas argues. “I’d like to advise teenagers: Don’t let anyone stop you from seeing this movie. You’ll love the music and the dance and the message will find an echo in your hearts.”

Upon being advised of Eszterhas’ recommendation, Jack Valenti, the feisty champion of the rating system, said Eszterhas “needs medical attention.””Showgirls,” after all, is a raw, down-and-dirty picture.

In terms of dialogue alone, it is possibly the roughest picture ever to be released by a major.

Regardless of the rating, the provocative ads for “Showgirls” and “Jade” have by no means ignited the sort of angst caused by the Calvin Klein campaign. Even Advertising Age, that champion of Madison Avenue, denounced Klein in an editorial that concluded: “If any good is to come out of this, it would be as a warning to other advertisers who test our tolerance with sleaze: There is a line and you cross it at your own peril.”

Calvin Klein reluctantly pulled the ads with this observation: “Young people today represent the most media-savvy generation yet and have a real strength of character and independence.”

KLEIN COULD NOT help but notice that all the newsmagazines and TV shows that criticized his campaign nonetheless used the controversy as an opportunity to reproduce the ads that were allegedly so repugnant. Clearly they, too, believe “sex sells.”

The irony of all this, of course, is that “sex” per se doesn’t sell. What sells is the allusion to sex, the erotic nuance, the mind games.

This was well-illustrated two decades ago in the superb campaign for the X-rated picture “Emmanuelle.” In devising this campaign, Stephen O. Frankfurt, one of the true original thinkers in the field of movie advertising, used no art whatsoever, but rather an all-text ad that carried the headline, “X was never like this.”

After relating the storyline, Frankfurt’s ad asked readers to consider the following question: “What’s the most sensual part of your body?”

The answer: “It’s not your calf, your breasts, your thigh, the nape of your neck or even your genitalia. The most sensual part of your body is your mind.”

That point, to be sure, has been lost on some filmmakers who try to create erotic movies. And also perhaps on Calvin Klein.

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