There's a moment in Frangois Truffaut's "Shoot the Piano
Player" when a young woman has slipped out of her clothes and into bed, gearing up to make love. We've already seen her breasts, but her partner
reaches over and pulls the sheet modestly around them, saying mischievously, "That's the way it is in the movies, exactly like that."
It must have been such a funny little jibe in 1960, in a French movie (and everyone knew how racy those foreign films could be) made by a director enamored of American movie tradition. But what's surprising about the joke is that almost 40 years later, it's more apt than ever.
Supposedly there's more sex, and more nudity, in the movies today than ever before. But if there is, where is it? It's everywhere, if you listen to people at the extreme end of the spectrum, including fundamentalists and other stay-at-home cultural know-it-alls who think they know the content of most contemporary movies even though they actually go to very few. But even longtime serious moviegoers may not have thought much about the way sex is dealt with in contemporary movies, compared with the latitude filmmakers had in the late '60s and '70s. Concerned parents are often troubled by a vague sense of dread about the culture in general, but they don't always see a wide enough spectrum of movies to know exactly how sex is currently dealt with -- or, more frequently, not dealt with.
The issue of nudity in the movies also comes loaded with baggage left over from feminist attitudes of the '60s and '70s; some women would still argue that every woman who appears nude in a movie is being objectified. And others -- like the Boston Phoenix columnist who wrote an open letter to Susan Sarandon after "White Palace" came out, denouncing her for looking so good and giving such a great on-screen blow job that she only made the rest of us feel bad -- use movies as lightning rods for their own insecurities. It's convenient to denounce beautiful actresses, especially naked ones, as the natural enemy of womankind's self-esteem. But would it be preferable to have a culture geared toward not hurting our feelings? What's more, the women who feel most threatened may not have thought about all the ramifications that restricted nudity in the movies -- or excessively Puritan attitudes toward it -- could have on the art form in general.
The truth is that nudity is more of a dirty word in Hollywood than ever before. Starting with the advent of AIDS in the early 1980s, Hollywood's attitudes toward sex in the movies have become increasingly constricted; sex is rarely dealt with as frankly or with as much freewheeling ease as it was in the movies of the '70s. And anyone who's followed the movie industry with even half an eye open over the past 10 years or so knows that the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board is almost completely intolerant of sex. The release of James Toback's 1998 "Two Girls and a Guy" was held up while Toback battled the ratings board over a love scene that it said would earn the film an NC-17 rating; the board accepted the scene after Toback ended up making a few barely perceptible cuts, but the episode is indicative of how hard the MPAA is willing to dig its heels in when it comes to issues of sex.
There are probably plenty of people who simply say, So what? Who cares if there are fewer exposed body parts to look at in the movie theaters, especially in an age when too much casual sex in real life is liable to kill you? Maybe we've circled back to a time when all we need are symbols and suggestions -- a lingering fade to black, for example, to suggest that a couple are about to embark on a night of mad, passionate sex, like we used
to get in '30s comedies. (There's something distressingly backward, though, about making a conscious choice to handle sexual content this way
simply out of cowardice -- rather than out of necessity, as was the case with moviemakers in the '30s.) And there's some truth to the notion that naked skin isn't necessarily erotic by itself -- you really don't have to see everything in order to get turned on.
But the moviegoing climate in America today smacks a little too much of prudery, prissiness and, above all, fear. Nudity is handled much more gracefully and naturally in European movies, and is accepted much more casually by audiences. For an actor or actress, it's simply part of what
goes with playing a role: Samantha Morton's nudity in the superb 1998 English film "Under the Skin" is so essential to the character's situation that it's anything but shocking. The nudity we see in contemporary American movies is often so carefully and artfully shot -- with sheets and blankets fastidiously arranged just so, lest we catch a forbidden glimpse of a breast or a penis -- that sometimes it barely registers. There's so much
calculation to it that it ends up having no meaning.
If female moviegoers are the ones who are made to feel uncomfortable at the sight of a naked actress on-screen, they should also consider that cultivating a climate in which women's bodies are kept under wraps, revealed chastely and tastefully or not at all, isn't the answer to making
them feel better -- if anything, it's only likely to make them feel more objectified. Mainstream American movies that deal with women's sensuality (or anybody's sensuality) in any significant way are rare, and the ones that do are either brutally misunderstood by audiences, slapped with an NC-17 rating or both -- as was the case with Philip Kaufman's 1990 "Henry and June." The more strictures placed on filmmakers and the actors they work with -- either by the ratings board, by the studios who are cowed by it or, more indirectly, by audiences -- the smaller their window for portraying experiences that actually reflect our own.
The vast majority of established actresses will not do nude scenes, presumably out of fear that they won't be taken seriously as practitioners of their craft. You can hardly blame them, given the fact that there's a nation of moviegoers out there -- many of them women -- who believe that ambitious young actresses will do anything, including take all their clothes off, just to get attention. While it's true that there's no shortage of actresses in revealing clothing on the magazine stands, it's
hardly fair that the amount of skin they're willing to expose should be so readily held against them,
regardless of their talent.
Actresses can be as judgmental about their
peers as anyone. "I see these young women who are so overtly sexual," says Reese Witherspoon in the May Allure. "The pictures they pose
for, and the outfits they wear, with their boobs pushed up like earmuffs. And it's like, that's wonderful, hon, when you are 20 years old, but what
will you do when you are 35 and your boobs don't want to go that way anymore? Where does your self-worth or personal pride come from then?" That
comment is particularly depressing, and puzzling, from an actress who's shown that it's possible to convey straightforward sexuality
without shortchanging your brains. (She herself has done a nude scene, in "Twilight.")
And although we're all supposed to have gotten past judging a woman's worth by her sexual behavior, in the minds of much of the contemporary moviegoing
public, a woman who takes her clothes off on-screen becomes something other than an actor -- the word "slut" comes immediately to mind. Many moviegoers seem to expect purity out of actresses, often at the expense of other qualities (fearlessness, tenderness, the ability to read a line as if they mean it) that are far more valuable.
This isn't to say that women should be the only actors to peel down. One of
the chief complaints of woman moviegoers is that we see don't get to see
enough naked men, and it's a valid one -- though if you consider a man's
penis to be the counterpart to a woman's clitoris, you have to admit that a
man who bares everything is committing a bolder act than an actress who
merely removes her shirt. (What's more, the freedom to do male nudity is an
even tougher battle for filmmakers and actors to fight: The ratings board
of the MPAA may be relatively tolerant of breasts, but the sight of a penis
sends it around the bend.) Women also frequently complain that the
actresses we see nude are all one "type." While I see nothing wrong with
the aesthetic pleasures of watching a lithe young body on a movie screen, I
also recall how lovely (and how moving) I found Isabella Rossellini, with
her rounded tummy and Titian thighs, in "Blue Velvet." And I wonder what an
actress with the presence and bearing of Camryn Manheim (of TV's "The
Practice") would bring to a nude love scene.
That said, though, there's also a whiff of unfairness in the argument that
if a woman with an "imperfect" body (Kathy Bates, for instance, in "At Play
in the Fields of the Lord") does a nude scene, it's laudable as art, an
actress performing her craft, a different thing altogether from, say,
Sharon Stone's sly (and, in some scenes, completely nude) performance in
"Basic Instinct." Stone is one actress who did nude scenes earlier in her
career but who now refuses -- understandable, considering that "Basic
Instinct" turned her into a marked woman. But why should actresses -- young,
relatively inexperienced ones as well as those who are more seasoned -- be
made to feel that the decision to strip down will weigh heavily on their
image? That's a sure way to turn the question "To bare or not?" into one
that plays right into Hollywood's (and movie audience's) prudery, dragging
the focus away from the more important question of whether or not the
actors are effective in the scene.
The dividing line between those who will and won't do nudity ends up
creating a kind of pecking order among actresses. The unspoken
understanding is that it's only the low-rent actresses, and the desperate
newcomers, who take their clothes off. Once an actress has achieved a
certain amount of cachet, she's much better off keeping every stitch on. I
could hardly believe it when I learned that Charlize Theron -- an actress
who'd received positive notices from a number of critics for her role in
"Devil's Advocate" and who had enough of a buzz on her to land a spot on
the cover of the terminally hype-conscious InStyle magazine -- had been
featured in a nude spread in the May Playboy. It seemed to be an
unprecedented move -- and a brave one -- for a young actress who'd already
gained some notoriety. The perception that all hot young Hollywood
actresses are willing and eager to take it all off to jump-start their
careers is simply a fallacy. Very few actresses with healthy careers (Drew
Barrymore is the one exception who springs to mind) are willing to bare it
all in a magazine; it's the actresses desperately trying to resuscitate
their livelihood (for instance, Judy Norton, who played Mary Ellen on "The
Waltons" and later -- much later -- appeared in Playboy) that you see doing nude
The Theron pictures in Playboy were so tasteful and inoffensive -- some of
them rendered in satiny black and white, focusing as much on her
magnificent legs as on her breasts (I've seen racier-looking photographs in
ads for women's shaving cream) -- that it would be easy enough to believe
that the actress had posed for them specifically for Playboy. But if you
read the magazine's contributors section, you learn that the photographs
were taken during Theron's "days as a model." What looked like an unprecedented
move -- a bold choice, a chance for an actress to prove she has no problem
admitting that her sexuality is just one of any number of appealing things about
her -- was probably just another instance of "recently discovered" nude pix.
I was disappointed.
There's something dispiriting about the way an actress's willingness (or
not) to go nude denotes her place in the hierarchy of her peers. In a
minage ` trois scene in last year's
"Wild Things" -- a hugely enjoyable
movie, and an example of good, trashy fun that's also intelligent,
uninhibited and witty -- relative newcomer Denise Richards exposes
her breasts, while Neve Campbell, clothed chastely in a black tank top,
gets to pour champagne on them. (In the middle of all this, Matt Dillon
does the stock thing that every guy in a minage ` trois scene does: shows
how he's barely able to contain his good fortune.) When Campbell finally
does remove her shirt, she's shot from the back.
To be fair to Campbell, she does engage in a lengthy lesbian kiss on-screen,
and she doesn't shrink away from her character's nastiness. In other words,
she takes a fair amount of risk for being such a well-known actress. But
while I like both actresses' performances in the movie, I give Richards
extra points for her chutzpah. Nude scenes are extremely difficult for
actors, presenting a special set of challenges to their skill and
professionalism. (Not to mention that many actors are likely to feel the
same shyness that most of us mere mortals feel about showing off our
bodies.) Actors and actresses often claim they choose not to do nude scenes
for personal reasons. But it's clear their reasons are tied to more outside
factors than they'd care to admit: They may wonder whether they'll get cast
again, or whether they'll be expected to take their clothes off every time.
They may wonder whether they'll be remembered for their acting in a
specific scene or simply for the fact that they appeared nude in it (an
issue that Julianne Moore, an actress with an extraordinarily broad range,
is probably all too aware of after her "bottomless" scene in Robert
Altman's "Short Cuts"). And no actor -- least of all a woman -- wants to be
branded as cheap. It's the "respectable" actors who are honored with
Yet there are a few small rays of hope. Nicole Kidman, an actress who has
enough clout to set her own terms, attracted a certain amount of attention
for her willingness to appear nude onstage (if only facing away from the audience) in "The
Blue Room." And when I saw "Shakespeare in Love" last year, I could hardly
believe my eyes when I saw Gwyneth Paltrow's breasts, in her big love
scene with Joseph Fiennes. I've since looked at the scene again and noticed
how easily the shots could have been reframed to keep those breasts safely
out of sight. There's no question that they represent a conscientious
choice, both on the part of director John Madden and of Paltrow. An actress
with the visibility and critical acclaim that Paltrow had, even before her
Oscar nomination and win, doesn't need to show anything she doesn't
want to. And especially for someone like Paltrow -- who, among the public,
seems to be more frequently maligned for her privileged upbringing and
patrician good looks than she is
evaluated as an actual actress -- that
single flash of skin represents a small act of bravery. Of the current crop
of actresses, she's probably the last one I'd have expected to reveal so
much of herself.
But she did, and now she's got her Oscar as well. Of course, the people
who claim that actresses are baring themselves all over Hollywood are never
going to believe that she's done anything unusual at all. They're too busy
complaining about having to suffer the naked breasts of Michelle Pfeiffer,
Sandra Bullock and Meg Ryan in movies that somehow none of the rest of us have seen.
In the mainstream movies that most of us see, though, the ridiculously and artfully draped
sheet is still the order of the day. That's the way it is in the movies,
exactly like that.