ReelThoughts: April 14, 2011

"The 2011 Nudity Column"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


It's not that there isn't nudity in films any more. Quite the contrary; approximately 50% of R-rated movies on average have toplessness, bottomlessness, or something in between. What's different in the '10s is that it's rare for one of the leads to show one of the infamous "three Bs." A lot of that has to do with "no nudity" clauses in contracts. Although most actresses (and more than a few actors) are willing to do nude scenes, it will cost additional money. That's how things work. Want to see a nipple? That will be $100,000. So, unless a nude scene is critical to the film or the performer can be convinced to do it without a surcharge, it usually doesn't happen.

I blame it on the Internet. Ever since the mid-'90s, nudity has become commonplace. It has lost the mystique it once had. The touchstones of my youth are gone. For me, growing up in the '70s and '80s, there was a thrill in a forbidden peak. Okay, so I was a little beyond "in olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking," but I understood the sentiment. I was 12 years old - scandalously young to some - when I acquired my first Playboy magazine. And, no, at that age, it wasn't for the articles. A friend, who was 15 at the time but looked 17 or 18, bought a couple of issues at a 7-11 type store (back when those venues sold "girlie magazines"). It was a fifteen minute walk home and my heart was racing with anticipation the whole time. Had I ever seen a naked woman before? Yes. But this was different. God bless Hugh Hefner.

A few years later, I discovered Cinemax. To be precise, I discovered Cinemax After Dark on Friday nights. It was entirely accidental. My parents didn't have cable; they relied on a rotating roof antenna to get good reception and weren't thrilled about the cable channels (which, at the time, were rather limited). My neighbor across the street had a full package - HBO, CInemax, and something called PRISM, which showed movies like HBO but also showed all of the Phillies games not on free TV (about 60 per year). I was on very good terms with this neighbor. I cut his lawn, raked his leaves, took care of his dogs when he went to North Carolina on vacation, and spent uncounted hours sitting and talking with him on long summer evenings. He gave me an open invitation, and a key, to use his TV whenever I wanted to watch a movie or a Phillies game. He never came home on Friday or Saturday nights until 2 or 3 in the morning, so I usually availed myself of his hospitality on those evenings. One night, during a late-innings rain delay, I started flipping through channels and that's when I discovered Hardbodies. Terrible movie, great nudity. From that point on, my Fridays were double-bills: a Phillies game followed by Cinemax After Dark. (I was 16 years old at the time - almost 17 - so I was almost old enough to see R-rated movies in theaters without being encumbered by my father. I'll never forget dragging him to see Conan the Barbarian - how humiliating!)

Although the Internet didn't make Playboy and Cinemax After Dark obsolete, it diminished their importance and impact. Some would argue that today's casual attitudes toward nudity are healthy and, for the most part, I agree. Still, when I look back with nostalgia on some of my early glimpses of the naked form, I can't help but wonder whether today's teenagers aren't missing something. I recall reading a recent survey that 90% of 14-year old boys had seen at least a picture of a naked woman. Not surprising. 60% of them had seen a "live" naked girl or woman (and not a family member). That, at least to me, is unexpected. Where's the thrill in seeing a Playboy model if you can catch a glimpse of the girl-next-door in her birthday suit? It certainly diminishes the allure of seeing an actress naked in a movie.

For many years in the post-Hays Code era, it was likely that, if a movie was rated R for nudity, one of the naked bodies would belong to one of the leads. Now, more often than not, the stars keep their clothing on while bit players are brought on board simply to show a nipple or bun. Nude scenes like those done in 2010 by Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, and Kirstin Dunst are the exception more than the rule. What's true for Hollywood isn't true around the world, however. In France, for example, there's no such thing as a "non-nudity clause" and it might be difficult to identify an adult actress who has not appeared naked at least once. At the Toronto Film Festival in 1998, I interviewed Julie Delpy. When the subject of nude scenes came up, she seemed bemused at the occasional reluctance of American actresses to disrobe. "It's easier being naked - you don't have to worry about the wardrobe."

For some American actresses, it's about modesty - at least to a point. Natalie Portman, Jessica Alba, and Scarlett Johansson will probably never bare everything. For others, it's a matter of getting over the first hurdle. Michelle Williams, Christina Ricci, and Anne Hathaway were all reportedly terrified of their first nude scenes. All are now multiple "repeat offenders." Ricci commented about After.Life that, after a while, being naked on the set was second nature. Over the course of Love and Other Drugs, Hathaway went from being "a little nervous" to "completely comfortable." Kirsten Dunst, whose first clothes-free scene to make it to the screen was in All Good Things, will be back for more in 2011 with Lars von Trier and Melancholia. (Dunst reportedly filmed a topless scene for Crazy/Beautiful that never made it into the final cut. The deleted scene may have been destroyed at the actress' request.)

Outside of the small group of hold-outs, nearly every actress is willing to appear nude if her price is met. Halle Berry supposedly got a huge bump in pay for her topless scene in Swordfish and that may have started the "flash for cash" contractual clause. When making The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh cast porn actress Sasha Grey because she had no contractual stipulations about appearing naked and, because of the improvisational nature of the project, he didn't know how much flesh would need to be shown (not much, as it turned out). Rather than navigate the minefield of inflated salary demands, most directors would rather assume their leads will be clothed and, if they want nudity, hire models to do some background stripping.

The new frontier for nudity is cable pay-TV. Initially, HBO's game plan was to buy the rights to theatrical features and show them on TV about a year after their first runs. It was a way for those who didn't go to theaters to see movies before they made their way to network TV. Home video, however, undermined HBO's market, so it began generating its own content. In due course, Showtime, Starz, and others followed. For the most part, the series produced by the pay-TV networks are saturated with nudity and sex. And, quite often, the actors getting naked on those shows are the ones with significant roles: Anna Paquin in True Blood, Eva Amurri in Californication, Emmy Rossum in Shameless, Mary-Louise Parker in Weeds, Lucy Lawless in Spartacus, and so on...

The advantage cable TV has when it comes to naked celebrities is that these shows can be picky. They don't go after specific actors for roles; the actors come to them. The would-be stars know from the outset that a full no-nudity clause is not an option; if they're unwilling to disrobe, there's no point in trying out for a role. HBO, Showtime, and Starz maintain their market share by presenting "edgy" content that cannot be shown on either non-pay TV or free TV, and that means copious amounts of sex, nudity, violence, and profanity. So, although pickings may be slim in theaters for those who crave more than a quick flash of a famous breast, there are other options. Oh, and for those who are truly old-school, there's a rumor that Playboy is still being published. Sadly, however, Cinemax is trying to lose its "Skin-a-max" reputation and go legit.


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