The dong show: Top 10 moments in male full-frontal

Ewan McGregor! Jason Segel! Vincent Gallo! The men who dared to put the penis in pop culture

By Thomas Rogers - Sarah Hepola

Published July 9, 2009 10:16AM (EDT)

It's become a cliché for conservative critics to argue that our society is hypersexualized. From Miss USA's topless photo scandal to "True Blood's" steamy sex scenes, we certainly see plenty of naked people these days. But in popular culture, and movies in particular, there's been a rather conspicuous double standard. Sure, boobs and vaginas are great, but where, egalitarians might ask, are all the penises?

Male nudity is so verboten in film that even one that centers on its exposure -- "The Full Monty" -- didn't have the (excuse us) balls to live up to its name. Mr. Skin, an online database of movie nude scenes, doesn't feature male nudity at all. We joke all the time about the mighty John Thomas, but rarely does it get any real screen time. As film scholar Laura Mulvey argued in her famous essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," it probably has something to do with men's discomfort seeing other men's bodies on a movie screen -- a discomfort that "Brüno," Sacha Baron Cohen's follow-up to the penis-y "Borat," aims to exploit. Cohen's floppy member practically gets its own billing.

To mark the release of "Brüno," we've assembled our list of the best moments in male full-frontal nudity -- ranked in terms of cultural significance and our, well, personal appreciation. Of course, there were many that didn't make the cut: Richard Gere in "American Gigolo," Gerard Depardieu's numerous erections in "The Last Woman," approximately one-third of "The Dreamers," Kevin Bacon's shower scene in "Wild Things," "Eastern Promises'" naked knife fight and "The Hangover's" somewhat, er, unexpected closing credits. Here, in descending order, are the big wieners.

10. Harvey Keitel, "Bad Lieutenant," "The Piano"

It's safe to say that seeing Harvey Keitel naked wasn't on anyone's bucket list. A short and stocky scrapper with a face made for a mug shot, Keitel is certainly not the kind of blushing boy toy whose cheesecake pictures are passed greedily around the Internet, which makes his enthusiasm for going starkers all the more endearing -- or upsetting, depending on your perspective. But Keitel's willingness to flap his man meat -- first as a cop wrestling with his own dark psyche in "Bad Lieutenant" and later as an Englishman going native among Maoris in Jane Campion's "The Piano" -- is a key part of his Stella Adler method intensity, the evidence of a man gunning to let it all hang out, literally.

9. Vincent Gallo, "Brown Bunny"

Critics were hopelessly divided on Vincent Gallo's meditative film: Roger Ebert famously dubbed it "the worst movie in the history of Cannes" while Charles Taylor, writing (about a re-edited version) in Salon, called it a "gentle, lyrical road movie." Along the way, Gallo did himself few favors, proving to be the kind of preening artiste who would both place a hex on Roger Ebert and sell his sperm online. But the only thing that could possibly upstage Gallo's weird behavior and the critical tussle the movie evoked was its much-touted blow job scene, in which the ever-brave Chloë Sevigny performed unsimulated fellatio on Gallo, earning the film that scandalous scarlet letter, X. Like the movie itself, the sequence is more subdued than it sounds, but "subdued" isn't how we'd describe the giant billboard of Sevigny's head in Gallo's crotch that was erected -- ha ha -- on Sunset Boulevard (and eventually removed). In the end, the dick most remembered from "Brown Bunny" might be Gallo himself.

8. Ensemble, "Shortbus"

For his follow-up to "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," John Cameron Mitchell set out to create a smart and explicit film about sex and relationships. The end result may not have been the smartest of films, but boy was it ever sexually explicit. "Shortbus" tells the story of several attractive New Yorkers, both gay and straight, single and coupled, whose paths converge at the salon/sex club from which the film takes its title. Mitchell collaborated with the cast to create the story lines -- a woman looks for her first orgasm, a male couple searches for a threesome -- and their resulting sex scenes are completely unsimulated and pretty darn steamy. The most significant penis-focused moment, aside from the couple's inevitable three-way, includes a zoom lens and a memorable display of auto-fellatio. The film nails the sexually liberated hipster aesthetic unlike any other film before or since.

7. Dr. Manhattan, "Watchmen"

As the release date for Zack Snyder's mega-budget adaptation of the beloved graphic novel about a band of alternate-reality superheroes approached, one question had fans (and bloggers) aflutter: Would audience members be treated to the sight of Watchman Dr. Manhattan's glowing blue super junk? In a bold move on Snyder's part, the answer was yes. Superhero audiences aren't generally known for their nonchalance toward male nudity, and yet there it was: a bright, flaccid, computer-generated appendage, attached to one of the film's titular heroes. It's likely the most high-profile animated penis in mainstream American film (except, perhaps, Bart Simpson's bizarre full frontal in "The Simpsons Movie") -- and surely the most expensive.

6. Ben Stiller, "There's Something About Mary"

It's hard to believe it's been more than a decade since the Farrelly brothers turned semen into hair gel -- and then box office gold -- but it's unlikely than any man has forgotten the film's most notorious scene, in which a fumbling high school student (played by Ben Stiller) arrives to pick up his prom date, only to zip up his pants in a moment of panic and catch his testicles in the zipper. The gag itself was hardly anything new, or particularly funny, but what made the Farrellys' version memorable was their decision to cut to a close-up shot of the character's mangled junk. It's the shot that cemented the director-brothers as the new godfathers of gross-out comedy, and helped bring the genre to a new level of lowbrow.

5. Ewan McGregor, "The Pillow Book," "Young Adam"

Before he became Obi Wan, Ewan McGregor was known for an entirely different light saber. Although his manhood made its ever-so-brief debut in "Trainspotting," that humble flash couldn't prepare us for the star quality it exuded in 1996's "The Pillow Book," the dreamy erotic Peter Greenaway film that is equal parts celebration of pen and penis, in which McGregor spends large swaths of screen time wearing nothing but Japanese lettering. By the time McGregor dropped his drawers for the steamy, sexually explicit 2003 Scottish thriller "Young Adam," he had established a reputation as the leading actor most likely to let his dong dangle. Or, in the case of "Young Adam," stand proudly at half-mast.

4. Jason Segel, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"

One of the lower-key releases of the Judd Apatow rom-com factory, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is a surprisingly sweet and funny film about a TV composer's (Jason Segel) attempt to get over his TV star ex-girlfriend. In its first 15 minutes, it includes one of the most stinging breakup scenes in recent romantic comedy history, and, not coincidentally, one of the most notable moments of full-frontal male nudity. As the actress-girlfriend breaks the news that she's been seeing somebody else, the composer's towel drops (he's wearing nothing but), and the audience is treated to a prolonged shot of Segel's penis. It's partly a tactic to elicit shock laughter, but there's also a tenderness to the moment: It manages to capture the embarrassment of being dumped with a chilling effectiveness, and, given the film's nuanced take on masculinity, represents an unexpectedly bold move for a mainstream movie.

3. Entire cast, "Caligula"

In 1979, Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione's foray into big-budget filmmaking brought to the sword-and-sandal historical film precisely what it had always lacked: fellatio, explicit castration scenes, orgies, pedal-powered crotch-slapping contraptions that make hilarious "thwacking" sounds, batter-lubricated sodomy, and awkward dancing -- oh, the awkward dancing. "Caligula" was the first film to combine A-list stars (Peter O'Toole, Helen Mirren, Malcolm McDowell) with hardcore sex scenes, and is as memorable for its sheer awfulness as its over-the-top, um, everything. At least you can't fault Guccione for holding back. Thirty years later the film remains one of the most bizarre combinations of the highbrow (Gore Vidal wrote a draft of the screenplay) and offensively low-brow ("thwack," "thwack," "thwack") ever put to film.

2. Jaye Davidson, "The Crying Game"

The "big secret" of this 1992 Neil Jordan movie turned out to be the full-frontal shot of the decade. Who knew a taut intellectual thriller about the IRA would be the biggest finger in the face of traditional gender roles since John Waters? The "spoiler alert" police are a well-established brood by now, but for a few short months, people held on to this plot twist like Dick Cheney. (Spoiler alert 17 years later: The sexy female siren, Dil, turns out to be a he -- or, more specifically, a transwoman. And our hero still falls for her.) Eventually the surprise leaked -- especially when Jaye Davidson was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor.

1. Mark Wahlberg, "Boogie Nights"

The real starring member of Paul Thomas Anderson's 1997 ensemble about the decadent, dazzling 1970s porn industry turned out to be a prosthetic, which gloriously unfurled in the film's final moments, the '90s art-house equivalent of "rosebud." Anderson based his saga on the doomed life of adult film superstar John Holmes, rumored to be packing more than 13 inches. And casting Mark Wahlberg -- an actor who was, at the time, better known for voguing in his Calvin Klein tightie whities -- was a sly bit of meta-casting. But anyone who's experienced the full-throttle greatness that is "Boogie Nights" knows it's much more than clever winking and jiggling boobies. It's surprisingly tender. In a movie wallpapered with casual raunch and naughty bits, Anderson and Wahlberg give the final reveal of character Dirk Diggler's most prized possession something that is lost in all those countless on-camera bump-and-grinds -- real meaning.

Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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