Even in a time when galaxies of explicit sexualities are mere keystrokes away, there is something about nudity in mainstream, non-pornographic entertainment that continues to enthrall. Maybe it is the thrill of transgression, the flash of the bare in an otherwise clothed context. Maybe it’s a sort of wish fulfillment in seeing the mortal flesh of superstars who hold godlike positions in Western culture. Maybe it’s this simple: Scarcity has a tendency to leave people wanting more, and in the absence of increased commodity, there is discourse. And discourse upon discourse. Director Danny Wolf makes use of dozens of talking-heads to discuss dozens of unclothed cinematic landmarks in his new documentary Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies, which is now available through video on demand.
The doc features stars who have dropped trou (Malcolm McDowell and Sean Young among them), directors whose films have featured nudity (like Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Amy Heckerling and The Last Picture Show’s Peter Bogdanovich), intimacy coordinator Alicia Rodis, and journalist/critics like The Hollywood Reporter’s Tatiana Siegel and Variety’s Amy Nicholson. The MPAA’s now-retired ratings chief Joan Graves shows up to recite the association’s oft-repeated speaking point: They are not a board of censors. Of course, the group’s ratings can effectively censor a film whose targeted rating it falls short of (thus requiring cuts in order to meet it), but this, like a lot of things in the doc, goes uncontested. In shuffling through so much information and film history, Skin has only so much time to do so much, even within its rather hearty two-hour-plus duration. (There is, however, during the credits sequence, a great anecdote from Gremlins director Joe Dante, who says he and collaborator/B-movie god Roger Corman would submit their movie to the MPAA, make the suggested cuts, and then reinsert them before the films were distributed to theaters since the MPAA didn’t follow up once it had assigned its final rating.)
Skin is not quite the embarrassment of riches that a more streamlined and A-list populated movie on the subject might have been, but it is a well of fun facts and trivia that’s captivating throughout. Fun fact: The Catholic Church had a rather visible hand in early movie censorship endeavors. Fun fact: 1934's Tarzan and His Mate marked the first use of a body double during a nude swimming scene. Fun fact: An American cut of 1969's Women in Love excised much of the movie’s notorious naked-wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates so that viewers saw its inception and then the pair lying panting on the floor as if to imply sex had taken place between the men. Denying the full context made the film open to an interpretation that was much more explicit than its original form.
In tracing the history of nudity on film from the medium’s earliest days in the late 19th century to today, Wolf has given himself a Herculean task that ideally would have had more focus or more space (like a docuseries). As is, Skin works as a visual podcast, bombarding you with pithy anecdotes and examples. Nonetheless, there are some big ideas that stick out, affirming the subject’s importance. One commenter notes that Americans tuned their mores to what was happening on film, and in retrospect, it certainly does seem to be the case that sexual freedom and expression have become more common overall, as it has in mainstream film. In this respect, compressing so much in a relatively short amount of time works to show us how head-spinning progress can be.
Most enlightening are the discussions from actors who have appeared nude on film. In reviewing her ’70s work, particularly in the women-in-prison B-movie subgenre, Pam Grier says matter-of-factly, “They didn’t have wardrobe; we just had T-shirts.” Bruce Davidson of Last Summer, a movie credited for trailblazing male nudity on screen, talks about his uncle seeing his movie and reminding him that he had once diapered the ass that was 20-feet high on the screen. Private School’s Betsy Russell, who was 19 when that movie was released in 1983, relays her rationale for going topless: “When am I ever going to look this good again? Why not have it on film for the rest of time?” She does not seem to regret her decision almost 40 years later. Sean Young, who recalls No Way Out director Roger Donaldson asking her to show him her breasts after casting her just to make sure they were acceptable, is less happy go lucky about appearing nude on screen: “The double edge always in show business is: You want to be attractive enough where people want you to be naked but you want to work with people that aren’t going to abuse it.”
Skin also provides a unique vantage point on the intricacies of art and commerce and their strange-bedfellow intersections. Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge describes the studio’s quota on nude scenes: “Atlantic Releasing said... ‘Well you know we made them agree you’re going to show naked breasts in four scenes in this movie.’” Amy Heckerling, meanwhile, was told if she included a penis in Fast Times, she’d get an X-rating, despite actor Jennifer Jason Leigh baring her breasts in the same scene. Valley Girl actor E.G. Daily is singularly ambivalent on how such studio mandates affected her: “I don’t want to be the pair of boobs for that distribution deal. I want to be the pair of boobs because it matters to the scene.”
But for a documentary that is so stuffed, Skin has a few too many empty calories. Maria Schneider’s claim that the rape scene in Last Tango in Paris made her feel raped in real life is ultimately dismissed by the author Charles Taylor: “If you go back to her interview, it really is… That’s a leap from what she’s saying. I mean, she stayed in touch with Brando. They were friends.” (What goes unmentioned is that she cut all ties with the film’s director Bernardo Bertolucci, who took varying degrees of accountability for Schneider’s feeling of violation in interviews, but also said that he kept information from the actor, like the use of butter as lube.) I Spit on Your Grave star Camille Keaton praises her character and says that the infamous rape-revenge flick shows “women that they can be strong and that they can face their attackers,” but what Skin does not contend with is the widespread criticism that in its prolonged rape sequences, Spit presented sexual violence for the sake of titillating its audience. Even if the reached conclusion is that such claims are baseless (as is more or less argued by Carol J. Clover in her seminal text Men, Women, and Chain Saws), surely the unsavory devices adjacent to onscreen nudity are worth a moment or two.
Instead, Skin is a largely sunny view of a complicated phenomenon. It is at times so simplified as to be misleading. Sharon Stone’s leg-uncrossing scene in Basic Instinct is shown and discussed as iconography, but the actor’s allegation that it was, in fact, shot by Paul Verhoeven without her consent goes unmentioned. Jamie Lee Curtis’s refusal to do nudity until later in her career is addressed, but her expressed negative feelings about doing so (which she wrote about in response to Seth MacFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boobs” song at the 2013 Academy Awards) are not:
I am an actress who has bared her breasts in films to satisfy the requirement of the role I was asked to do — lucky to do, for in my case, those films were significant in my career. I didn’t like doing it. I didn’t ask if I could do them topless. I did what was asked of me for the part I was playing. Mostly asked by men.
As Skin sprints through the ’90s to today, its heavy gloss creates a blinding glare. Shannon Elizabeth claims that as a result of going nude in American Pie, “I ended up getting a three-picture deal with Miramax.” Given all we know about Harvey Weinstein, at least an additional sentence or two on how that went would have been useful. Erica Gavin says that seeing herself on a big screen in Russ Meyer’s 1968 flick Vixen prompted her anorexia. And scene. Rena Riffel, who appeared in both mid-’90s high profile stripping movies, Showgirls and Striptease, says that appearing nude in movies ruined her personal life and that she gets “nudity-shamed” all the time. At one point she asks, “Was I just being taken advantage of?” But Wolf is content to just leave the question hang in the air when a more rigorous investigation could have really illuminated this.
Skin circles around potential exploitation, but with the brevity that it approaches all else. The problem with keeping such material breezy is that it runs the risk of perpetuating the very exploitation it suggests. Skin does ask some hard questions, and it does tease out ethical ambiguities of the ultimate fashion that never goes out of style, but the doc mostly seems intent on entertaining. There is surely a cake-and-eat-it-too aspect to the filmmaking here, as the parade of bare breasts (and assorted other genitalia) that shows on-screen is potentially much louder than any discussion of it that’s underway.