Oh my. The last episode of The B-Movies Podcast here on CRAVE Online was just soaked with sex. Thanks to a literal grab bag of topics to discuss (wherein we would randomly discuss a news item, but also sometimes answer random questions that were only vaguely film-related), William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I found ourselves ever so entertainingly discussing matters of the groin with an alarming frequency. In addition to a brief discussion of our favorite porn stars (I mentioned a desire to dine with Cicciolia, John Holms and Nina Hartley; if you don’t know who Cicciolina is, I implore you to look her up), I was also put on the spot when asked to name celebrities I wanted to see in the nude, stipulating that I hadn’t seen them in the nude to date.
This beautifully prurient question has us thinking of celebrity nudity, and nudity in films in general, and this week’s edition of B-Movies Extended will be a brief musing on disrobing in front of a camera.
I once read an interview with actor David Duchovny, in which he expressed his distaste with actresses who claim they will only do a nude scene “if it makes sense for the part.” Duchovny very astutely pointed out that under just about every circumstance, nudity is not directly called for, and including it in a film is always gratuitous. He also said that the more gratuitous the nudity, the better. He does have a point. A camera can film a sex scene, a shower scene, or a skinny-dipping scene, and still obscure the nudity in some fashion; any director with reasonable filmmaking skills can easily point the camera away from the exposed swimsuit areas in question. The only reason to include a pair of buttocks or a warm, supple shot of a woman’s breasts, is as a favor to the audience, who is just itching to see some naked bits.
To be sure, there are a few films that directly, and in an adult fashion, approach sexuality in a mature fashion, and actually show that how the characters have sex actually lends to the tone or thematic elements of a film. John Cameron Mitchell’s underrated Shortbus leaps to mind. Secretary, a recent fable about the healthy development of a Sub/Dom relationship, does as well. The Night Porter depicts the sexualization of the Nazi ethos, so it’s important that we see how the characters have sex. Perhaps most notoriously, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris uses its sexuality to depict an emotional emptiness and despair that could not be captured had the sex been lightened, or the nudity excluded.
But, since Americans are still a bit wiggy about sexual matters, despite the explosive proliferation of internet pornography in the last decade, films that deal with real sexuality are few and far between, and on-screen nudity in mainstream Hollywood feature films is rare, especially from a well-known and recognizable actor or actress. What we’re left with is a slightly more immature, but no less glorious use of nudity as a means of down-home exploitation. Call it good, dirty fun. When we see a pair of bare breasts in a mainstream film these days, they’re included usually as a means of titillation, and titillation alone. And while there are claims that such exploitation is anti-feminist, there is still an ambiguity to the argument, as most of the actresses who agree to disrobe on camera are well-aware of what they’re doing, and, in the best circumstances, are boldly taking charge of their sexual natures.
Which is why I admire the actors and actresses who get naked for millions of people. To reassure you, I still have the usual prurient interests in bare breasts. But, in addition to that, I appreciate the self-awareness that comes with flashing a camera. Even if they’re in a non-sexual context, a woman who takes her top off for a movie seems to be declaring with her boobs that she knows what kind of movie she’s in, and just what kind of role she’s playing. There’s a comforting self-awareness to it. A sweet, shared moment of lust, fun, and movie magic that cannot be captured any other way.
Even when the nudity is clearly being done for shock value, the effects can still be felt (at least to a minute degree). When Halle Berry flashed us, all so obviously, in Swordfish (she was reading a book in such a fashion that she could not see it, and then dropped it as her co-star approached), we knew what was going on, even if the context of the breasts distracted us from enjoying them. When Mamie Van Doren, at age 71, flashed us in the loathsome 2002 film Slackers, it was clearly wish fulfillment, but God bless the woman for her willingness to do it. Although, in cases such as these, the gratuity can be so obvious, it can be seen as sour and a mite ugly.
And when the nudity is in a non-sexual context, and plain, easy exploitation is not on the director’s mind, it displays a boldness I especially admire. There is a fantastic scene in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts where Julianne Moore has an argument with her husband, Matthew Modine, while wearing no pants at all. She is not being seductive or playful at all, but there’s her pubic hair, in all its glory, for us to take in. Moore is such a professional, and such a talented actress, that she sells the flip nature of the scene, and the casualness between the characters. Heck, take Harvey Keitel in The Piano or Bad Lieutenant. Here is a man unafraid and bold and professional.
Which is better? Well, I still have an obvious and open weakness to cheap nude shots in genre films. There’s something so wonderfully pure and jejune and, admittedly, basely sexy about it. I recently saw the Charles Band-produced, straight-to-video schlock horror flick Puppet Master II, and there is a scene where an actress named Charlie Spradling rolls out of bed wearing nothing but a pair of white underpants, lazily strolls across the room, and slips into a sheer tank top. This is a beautiful scene in terms of its joyous dirtiness and barefaced gratuity. Think how many adolescent crushes began with a brave actress who bothered to flash us. There is an entire generation of boys who knows who Olivia Hussey is, thanks to her ½-second topless scene in 1968’s Romeo & Juliet. Ask the average sci-fi fan who Matilda May is, and they’ll tell you stories of Lifeforce that cannot be believed.
There was some recent scandal involving actress Olivia Wilde and the choice to have her breasts digitally made bare in a recent nude scene in The Change-Up. The original plan was to film using pasties, but some last-minute re-framing made the pasties visible, and nipples had to be added after the fact. In a vague way, I am slightly disappointed that pasties were needed at all. If you recall, to cite another example, Jessica Alba appeared nude in Robert Rodriguez' Machete, only she had her clothes digitally removed from the supple shower scene she appeared in. This is especially baffling, as she was artfully covered anyway; no nipples or genitals to speak of. A nude scene is easiest and cheapest gimmick in film history. Are we really going to make it all about digital effects now? Well, I suppose it’s happening with blood. Why not boobies as well? *sigh*
So if you’re a struggling young actress debating whether or not to disrobe on camera, I ask that you go with your heart, and make the decision you’re most comfortable with. But know that even if you strip for the noblest of reasons, and you later find that scads of icky fellas are compiling your breasts on celebrity skin websites, and you feel a little gross and regretful – well, know that there is still a purity to the act of dirtiness. That there is a grand cinema tradition of meting out human bodies for the titillation of all.
UP NEXT: Bibbs reveals why every movie needs sex, finds the one flaw in internet pornography and explains why we really should have seen Jessica Alba naked by now…
FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:
There’s an old altruism that says, “Sex sells.” What a crock. These days popular culture is moving so far away from actual sex that they might as well break up altogether. The idea of sex sells – that is to say, “sexuality” sells – but sex itself has been completely ghettoized in the last ten years or so. Pornography may be inchy-squinching its way back into mainstream popularity again, thanks in part to the “ironic” enjoyment of the big budget parodies out these days, but it’s still pornography. The depiction of actual sex, even nudity, in the mainstream seems more minimal than ever, largely because – and not despite, as Witney says – of the proliferation of sex on the internet.
Once upon a time you had to go to a movie theater to watch a movie of people naked or having sex. Then came home video, but even then you still had to go to a store. It wasn’t entirely convenient to satisfy our prurient interests. Cable television offered some titillation, but mostly of a softcore Skinemax variety (someone really needs to release a box set of all the movies where Shannon Tweed played a sex therapist; it’d be a monster), so throughout the 1990s and even the early 2000s we still got some mainstream sex-fueled movies out there, of the Basic Instinct and American Pie persuasions at least. But nowadays we can see hardcore pornography on our damned phones at a moment’s notice. Anything we want: push of a button. Nobody has to know about it, even the guy at the video store who you just know is minding his own business (I’ve worked at video stores and I assure you that guy does not care about your foot fetish). And you sure as hell don’t have to feel the shame of getting turned on in a room full of strangers at a movie theater. Movies can’t compete with internet porn to satisfy our sexual needs, so they appear to have stopped trying altogether, and sex has quickly moved back into the bedroom where it supposedly “belongs.” That sucks.
Sucker Punch really pissed me off in this regard. Zack Snyder’s film was about a girl trapped in a brothel (in a fantasy sequence, but it’s the bulk of the film) who is the sexiest dancer in the world. Prostitution. Sexy dancing. That’s the plot, and we saw neither over the course of the entire film. If you saw the trailers or posters for Sucker Punch, and you probably did since they were everywhere, then you probably noticed all the sexy young women in fetish outfits that the marketing department was selling. But the actual movie seemed scared to actually commit to that. (There’s a director’s cut on DVD now which I haven’t seen, but even if that fixes every problem in the movie the issue still remains, since clearly someone thought mainstream audiences wouldn’t sit still for sex in a theater.) I’m not sure what the point of Sucker Punch was, exactly, but it sure as hell represents a microcosm of mainstream sexual panic when you have a plot entirely based on sexuality but the filmmakers don’t have the freedom – or worse, enough interest – to actually depict any.
Do movies need sex and nudity? Yes. Not every movie needs them, but most do, on one level or another. Sex is an intrinsic part of the human experience. Unless you’ve taken a vow of celibacy, every one of us is encouraged to have sex at some point, if only after we’re married. We think about sex. We seek it out. We care about sex. If we’re attracted to somebody, we want to see them naked and probably have sex with them, even if on a practical level we know we won’t, can’t or shouldn’t for one reason or another. It’s how we’re hardwired, male and female, to one extent or another. On this week’s B-Movies Podcast Witney gave the Top Five Celebrities He Wants To See Naked. It’s a fair question. Celebrities are sold to us as sexual objects on posters, magazine covers and more, so projecting some sexual desire onto them is normal.
Many actors are trepidatious about actually appearing nude in a movie, even if it’s part of the plot. I actually get that. Whether it’s thoroughly tasteful or even utterly decadent, the context of the actual story ceases to matter once someone takes screen grabs of your naked body and puts them on the internet. That’s when all the expert storytelling in the world falls away and you just wind up in someone’s “Spank Bank.” Just a naked picture to be ogled. I can only imagine how frustrating or even wretched that must feel. I’m not sure CGI-enhanced nudity is any better. Body doubles are perfectly reasonable – Rachel Nichols used one in the upcoming Conan the Barbarian, and it’s mighty effective – but in the end audiences are still thinking about the actual actress sexually, since they’re playing the character we’ve come to want to see nude, and are on all the promotional materials.
If you’re an actor or actress and don’t want to be naked on camera, good for you. Seriously. It’s your body, do with it as you please. But be wary of roles that ask nudity of you. Whether it’s thoroughly justified by the story, like many of the movies Witney mentioned (Secretary is a personal favorite), or just to titillate, it’s in there for a reason. Every time I see half-hearted non-nudity – as discussed in our B-Movies Extended on the topic of movie pet peeves – it drives a dagger into my heart. Witney mentioned Jessica Alba’s CGI-enhanced nudity in Machete. I’m more concerned about her complete lack of nudity in Sin City, in which she played the sexiest stripper in the dirtiest town in the world… who never took her clothes off. Not once. Doesn’t make sense, and her dramatic reunion with Bruce Willis loses most of its dramatic power in the supposedly shot-for-shot adaptation of Frank Miller’s series as a result.
Let's walk through it: An old man saves a little girl who idolizes him. Years later he thinks he’s coming to a virginal sexual abuse victim’s rescue, only to discover that she has grown up and taken power over her own body – and the desires of any man attracted to her – by appearing publicly nude. When she jumps on him for an innocent hug, completely naked, the complex and vaguely disturbing relationship between the two characters is perfectly illustrated. I submit that the fact that our hero doesn’t recognize her in the first place has less to do with the fact that she grew up and more to do with the fact that she grew into a fully sexual being, which he doesn’t associate with the little girl he once knew, so her nudity informs the scene on a variety of levels. Keeping Jessica Alba clothed diminishes the inherent drama so much that the scene loses much of its power, even if you can still get the gist of it. If Jessica Alba won’t appear naked, more power to her. Get someone who will. The story, believe it or not, demands it.
Look, I like seeing attractive people naked. Most people do. And we can get that from porn, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need it anywhere else. Movies tell stories about the human experience, or at least dramatize our fantasies. And sex is a part of that. Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception is completely sexless despite taking place in the human subconscious, and although I consider it a brilliant film, Satoshi Kon’s extremely similar (and similarly brilliant) movie Paprika (1996) is more thematically rich for acknowledging and visualizing our sexual preoccupations. The worlds depicted in Paprika are stranger but also more relatable than Inception’s, because they feel like they could be the insides of our own heads. And really, that’s the point of any story… to get inside the head of somebody else. And that head – whoever’s it may be – has sex in it. That aspect of the human condition shouldn’t be brushed aside just because we can get a context-free hardcore sex scene for free online.
I also note with interest that nudity in film almost always boils down to female nudity, which is, at best, only 50% of the kinds of nudity available. You can get away with the occasional bare breast shot and still walk away with a PG-13 (Titanic, for example), but flash one penis and boy, oh boy, there is no leeway whatsoever. While it would be a stretch to call full male nudity "taboo" – The Hangover Part II was very popular and had more than its fair share of penises – there are significantly fewer examples of male nudity to analyze than there are of the opposite sex. When a woman gets naked in a movie, it's generally pretty much accepted. If a man gets naked in a movie there almost always seems to be a few nervous titters heard throughout the theater, and almost always from men, in my experience. I imagine this boils down to gender issues on a larger scale, since it seems that, often, men are less comfortable with same sex nudity than women are, making filmmakers wary of making so much of their audience uncomfortable. The lack of male nudity is an issue, since again it's precluding a part of the human experience for marketing reasons (understandable perhaps, just not to be celebrated), but it seems like part of a bigger problem to me than just an issue of whether nudity should be kept in the filmmakers' tool box or not.
In short (too late, blah), the point is that nudity from any gender has equal potential storytelling value, for both tawdry and artistic purposes. Witney covered some of the richer examples, I suppose. If it makes you feel better, I’ll make any actor a deal: if I see you naked in a movie, you can see me naked too. (For standard admission price, of course.)