‘Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies’ Review
Actress Hedy Lamarr is still remembered today for so many reasons. Often described as the most beautiful actress of all-time, she turned down the lead roles in both Gaslight and Casablanca (both eventually went to Ingrid Bergman). Her best-known role was in Samson and Delilah (1949), and she was the inspiration for both Disney’s Snow White and Catwoman in the original “Batman” comics. Married and divorced six times, she’s in the National Inventors Hall of Fame for being co-inventor of ‘frequency hopping’ technology that is still used today for cell phones. Beyond all of that, some may know Ms. Lamarr is considered to have performed the first (non-pornographic) onscreen female orgasm in Ecstasy (1933). And what better way for director Danny Wolf to open his documentary chronicling nudity in movies than with the actress whose career started with such a bang?
We hear a bunch of industry folks recall the first time they saw nudity on the big screen, and some actors and actresses look back on the first time they appeared nude in a movie. For the most part, director Wolf takes us in chronological order through the various stages of film nudity, dating back as far as 1887. However, he wisely includes a prologue dealing with the present-day status of power dynamics, the #MeToo movement, and, of course, the Harvey Weinstein case. There is a stunning collage of those who have been accused of improper and/or illegal behavior – the faces are familiar, but, sadly, there are too many to name. We are even informed that today, actors and actresses typically have very detailed contractual protection in regards to nudity.
The steady stream of talking heads includes perspectives from authors, casting directors, film directors, art historians, professors, film critics, and, as mentioned, actors and actresses. Before breaking into the segments divided by decades, we are provided a history lesson on the early years. For me, this was the most interesting chapter as it details the infamous Hays Code, the Catholic Legion of Decency (that “C” rating is pretty rough!), and the 20-year reign of Joseph Breen (the Breen Light was needed for go-ahead). There is also a brief profile of nude model Audrey Munson and her fascinating impact on statues, print, and cinema, and ultimately a tragic life spent mostly in an asylum (she died at the age of 104). This early segment also features the “secret” behind Chesty Morgan playing Double Agent 73, the rise of “Monster Nudies” and “Nudie Cuties,” and an interview with Mamie Van Doren. It concludes with Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman (1956) starring Bridget Bardot, effectively ending the Hays Code era.
As the film treks through the eras, in the 1960s we see the impact of Janet Leigh’s shower scene in Hitchock’s Psycho, and Marilyn Monroe proves nudity doesn’t kill a career. This is also the time of European influence on American cinema, and 1968 began the MPAA ratings system, with Brian DePalma’s Greetings (with Robert DeNiro) as the first Rated X movie (since edited to an R), and Midnight Cowboy becoming the first mainstream movie to carry an X rating.
Director Joe Dante talks us through much of the 1970s as porn films like Deep Throat changed the landscape. It’s also the era where Carnal Knowledge proved true movie stars could appear nude, and the decade that gave us Last Tango in Paris and The Last Picture Show. On the lower budget scale, this was peak Roger Corman time (the great Pam Grier is interviewed), the height of Drive-in movies (including the cult favorite I Spit on Your Grave with Camille Keaton interviewed), and the notorious Caligula with commentary from Malcolm McDowell.
Director Blake Edwards had the honor of ending the 1970s with Bo Derek as a perfect “10,” and kicking off the 1980s by having Mary Poppins (his wife Julie Andrews) appear topless in S.O.B. The 80s takes some heat for serving up plenty of lame music and movies, but there were some memorable moments as well. Eric Roberts and Mariel Hemingway spend some time talking about Star 80 and Personal Best, the latter which was the first mainstream film to feature a love scene with lesbian athletes. A highlight here is director Amy Heckerling ruminating on her classic Fast Times At Ridgemont High.
The 1990s revived the “erotic thriller” genre (Basic Instinct), as well as the NC-17 rating, of which Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June became the first recipient. The 1990s were also the decade of Bad Lieutenant, The Crying Game, Boogie Nights, Showgirls, and American Pie (the re-birth of the teen sex comedy). So, honestly, no word can possibly describe such a diverse group of films with nudity. The decade could easily support its own documentary.
There is some insightful commentary surrounding contemporary cinema, including Fifty Shades of Grey, and the inclusion of older actors and actresses in the “action.” Some of the best commentary during the film comes from Diane Franklin, Sylvia Miles, an old Russ Meyer interview, Liz Goldwyn (Samuel Goldwyn Jr’s daughter), Malcolm McDowell, and film critic Richard Roeper. But it’s director John Cameron Mitchell who provides the most searing observation on contemporary cinema when he states (paraphrased) – today the left would say any nudity or any sex scene is exploitive. And that’s the core of the debate. In this “post-Weinstein” era, what is the “right” way to tell these stories and show these characters in a realistic manner, and yet do so in a way that isn’t exploitive, or puts actors or actresses in a situation that they feel uncomfortable or will regret? Proper conduct by those in power and straight communication between all involved seems like a good start. What would Hedy have to say?
Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies is available on iTunes.