Inside Hollywood’s Long, Strange History of Movie Nudity
The new documentary “Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies” aspires to be the definitive doc on movie nudity. Here’s why it falls short.
Though I might like to claim otherwise, I’m no expert on big-screen T&A&D. Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies, however, makes a bid for being the definitive documentary on the subject. Driven by a cornucopia of film clip and talking heads—led by actors, directors, historians and critics—it delivers a thorough chronological timeline of cinematic nakedness. Too bad, then, that when it comes to actually delving into the most interesting aspects of its topic, Danny Wolf’s non-fiction film proves, ahem, skin-deep.
Debuting on VOD on August 18, Skin is most valuable as a survey of movie nudity, ranging from the seminal 1887 work of Eadweard Muybridge to the mainstream BDSM fantasies of 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey, with just about every other notable example in-between at least briefly mentioned. That means that whatever film first aroused you likely appears in Wolf’s doc, be it silent film star Audrey Munson’s Inspiration (1915), Mae West’s sexual innuendo-laced 1930s output, Cecille B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932), Jayne Mansfield’s Promises! Promises! (1963), Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Tinto Brass’ Caligula (1979), Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992), or Paul Weitz’s American Pie (1999). For every generation, an iconic unclothed moment is vividly revisited here.
Guided by nothing more than interviews, movie footage and promo materials, and a few decade-denoting clapboard title cards, Skin supplies a handy timeline of cinema’s fascination with nudity, which sprang to life almost as soon as the medium itself was created. From the get-go, it was seen as such a natural selling point that famed directors such as DeMille and D.W. Griffith peppered their epics with plenty of pressed flesh. That all came to an end, at least temporarily, when states began regulating film obscenity by censoring movies as they saw fit—meaning different versions of the same feature could appear throughout the country. In order to reclaim control of their product, Hollywood concocted its own set of decency guidelines: the Hays Code, which sought to placate conservative moviegoers (and officials) with chaste rules, thereby pushing naughtier material to the independent fringe.
Said situation began to radically change in the 1960s, when the emergence of the American counterculture—and the domestic proliferation of European art cinema—ushered in a new attitude toward undressed big-screen bodies. Skin covers this transformative moment with the same concise clarity it brings to every phase of its 130-year story. Bolstering its account are insightful comments from critics Mick LaSalle, Amy Nicholson and Charles Taylor, as well as from numerous actresses who disrobed for the camera, including Mariel Hemingway, Pam Grier, Traci Lords, Shannon Elizabeth and Diane Franklin. Along with relevant movie scenes of the nudity in question, Wolf’s documentary is akin to a competent overview, taking time to address, and provide fleeting insight into, each era’s most important and influential touchstones. And in revealing quips from the likes of Heckerling, Malcolm McDowell, Joe Dante, Eric Roberts and Kevin Smith, it offers up behind-the-scenes tales that shed light on Hollywood’s screwy love-hate relationship to carnality.
Unfortunately, so determined is Skin to be comprehensive that it invariably skims over every fascinating stop along its route. Even setting aside the fact that it primarily focuses on mainstream moviemaking—porn’s introduction and explosion is a peripheral and fleeting object of consideration—Wolf’s non-fiction history lesson quickly raises, and discards, most of its more intriguing threads. Nudity’s status as a commercial draw—and the attendant pressures placed on actresses—is routinely brought up, albeit in anecdotal, rather than analytic, fashion. The same goes for the double standards between male and female nudity; women’s fears of losing jobs if they didn’t comply with nudity, and concern that they’d be typecast as nude actresses if they did; nudity’s different function in comedy, drama and horror; and the way in which nudity plays off of sexual, social and gender expectations, to alternately startling, humorous or erotic effect.
Emblematic of Skin’s shallowness is the prominent role it gives to executive producer Jim McBride, founder of the “Mr. Skin” website, which specializes in screengrabs and clips of film and television nudity. Hearing McBride gush about his favorite nude scenes, or about ones that made him feel “uncomfortable,” is, on the face of it, uninformative, since he has nothing insightful to say about them. But worse is that his own legacy—as a man who reduces all on-screen nakedness to mere titillating masturbation content for online customers—is left unexamined. Given that various actresses and scholars mention the systemic power dynamics inherent to this issue, and how nudity both reflects and shapes cultural attitudes toward sex, McBride’s own questionable work is another potentially rich investigative avenue sidestepped by director Wolf.
Every potentially promising matter in Skin—including the #MeToo movement, which is tackled in bookending snippets—is no sooner uttered then shoved aside so we can get to the next highlight from a “Nudie Cutie,” women-in-prison B-movie, rape-revenge fantasy or prestige X-rated affair like Midnight Cowboy. Wolf flirts with intriguing ideas, and then opts to not seal the deal. Why, for instance, have Sean Young jokily opine about Blue is the Warmest Color (a film whose stars accused the director of misconduct), and then fail to use that feature as a launchpad for a larger exploration of cinematic sexual exploitation? Without such deeper digging, Skin exposes itself as less of an inquiry than an inventory.
Even the question of what makes something sexy, which is fundamental to this entire conversation, is largely ignored in favor of dry remarks about movie nudity’s evolution. To be sure, that alone makes Wolf’s doc a worthwhile venture, at least as a starting point. But it also renders it nothing more than an introductory primer for those who don’t really know much about movies, highlighting lots of films and filmmakers—such as Russ Meyer and Roger Corman, both of whom are only superficially discussed here—that budding cinephiles should seek out in a far more in-depth manner.