ReelThoughts: August 15, 2011

"Barenaked Actresses"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. But now, heaven knows, anything goes. (Cole Porter)

For boys of a certain age (my age, that is), many experienced their first glimpse of the mature, naked female form via Hugh Hefner's glossy magazine. In its heyday of the '70s, Playboy was the Mecca of Flesh (outclassing and outselling its numerous, smuttier competitors). I couldn't say when the process of airbrushing started. Maybe Hefner always engaged in it. I can't remember whether any of the playmates in the late '70s or early '80s showed freckles or birthmarks or other "unsightly" blotches. However, I do recall the first time I realized something was a little "off."

I was a sophomore in college when my girlfriend brought the most recent issue of Playboy to my dorm room. Although our sole purpose for buying the magazine (like that of everyone who ever purchased an issue of Playboy) was to read the articles, we couldn't resist peeking at the centerfold. Except for the staple through her navel, she looked okay to me. My girlfriend studied her critically, then asked, "Notice something strange about her?"

I looked at the picture. "She has fake boobs?"

"No. Well, yes, but that's not what I mean."

After a few more (wrong) guesses, she put me out of my misery. "She's too perfect. Flawless skin. No one has skin that clean. Even makeup doesn't completely cover blemishes." So there it was. The centerfold had been airbrushed. What we were seeing wasn't her - it was a cleaned-up, sanitized version of her.

Although I haven't consulted him, I feel confident stating that Hef's argument would be that he sells fantasy, not reality, and there's validity to that perspective. Playboy isn't about the girl next door. It's about the girl next door as she appears in men's dreams. The magazine never would have been as successful if it had showcased average-looking women with tiny breasts and birthmarks that looked like Belgium.

In the early days of nude photography, before airbrushing became popular, models were positioned in ways that would hide anything "unsightly" from the camera. How much more convenient for anyone if the negative could be "adjusted" so everyone had perfect skin?

In movies, pre-Hays code, there was some nudity, although it was not copious. Then the prudes in Hollywood slammed shut the gate on anything "immoral" and American movies became a bastion of "good taste." For decades, anyone wanting to see a moving image of a nude woman would have to look elsewhere: a peep show, a blue movie, or a foreign film. In the '60s, however, nudity began to creep back into mainstream American theaters.

There have always been two kinds of actresses: those with no qualms about taking it all off and those who (for one reason or another) won't reveal anything more than can be seen in a bikini. For the most part, only high-profile actresses have been able to dictate no-nudity terms. Lesser-known actresses or those with lower profiles are given a "take it or leave it" option in which they either strip or are passed over. As in any kind of commerce, it's a matter of who has the power. If the director wants a particular actress, she can dictate terms. If an actress is desperate enough for the role, she must accept what the filmmaker wants.

Some actresses don't care. Helen Mirren, for example. Charlotte Rampling. Kate Winslet. Anne Hathaway. Just about anyone with a French accent. Some actresses view their birthday suit as just another wardrobe change. But what happens when a director really wants an actress and she has an iron-clad "no nudity" clause in her contract? Enter the body double.

The problem with the body double is that, most of the time, the way a double is photographed (no clear shot of her face) makes it obvious that we're not seeing the actresses' body. If the angles are awkward or the cuts are inelegant, it can take the viewer out of the moment. Most accomplished directors, however, know how to use doubles so they create the illusion that the actress (or at least the character) is nude. The key is to use the double sparingly and perhaps also to coax the actress into revealing a little more than she might initially have expected to show.

Now, however, in this age of digital manipulation, we have come to the next permutation of cinematic nudity. In future years, The Change-Up might not be remembered for much, but it is the film when "digital nudity" emerged as a viable solution to actress modesty and an alternative to the imperfect body double.

Four women seemingly appear nude (or semi-nude) during the course of The Change-Up, including well known actresses Leslie Mann and Olivia Wilde. While Wilde has previously done a topless scene (in Alpha Dog), Mann is a nudity virgin. Despite what our eyes apparently tell us, she remains one. In fact, to one degree or another, all the naked flesh to appear during the course of the body-swap movie is fake. That includes Mann's impressive breasts and Wilde's nipples. On set, Mann wore a bikini top and Wilde wore pasties. All the "naughty bits" come from the imagination of the computer artists. Their work is convincing but not fool-proof. If the viewer isn't looking for fakery, he probably won't spot it. However, anyone forearmed with knowledge will immediately recognize that there's something artificial about Mann's bare breasts. Too big? Too firm? Too perfectly round?

The Change-Up may be the game changer, but it's not the first time CGI has been used to peel away clothing. Machete comes to mind. In that film, director Roberto Rodriguez seemingly did the impossible by getting Jessica Alba to disrobe for a shower scene. Alas, the actress was clothed when cameras were rolling; the flesh was painted in afterward. Rodriguez and Alba were open about how the effect was achieved; undoctored stills were released. They are testimonies to a job well done. I never would have guessed. Everyone would have been fooled except Alba didn't want audiences thinking they had really seen her naked.

The technology can also be employed in reverse, although it boggles the mind why a filmmaker would want to cover up nudity, since it can often be difficult to attain. One of the earliest instances of this (perhaps the earliest) occurred with Stanley Kubrick's final movie, Eyes Wide Shut. To avoid an NC-17 rating, figures were digitally added to obscure some of the more graphic images of an orgy. The decision to go this route was controversial not only because it was done after Kubrick's death (although supposedly with his "blessing") but because the added avatars were obviously fake. This was not a great moment in cinematic pioneering.

More recently, Natalie Portman became a victim of reverse-nudity computer animation. There's irony here because the notoriously modest Portman is a likely future candidate for CGI clothing removal. In this case, however, her thong-covered butt proved to be too racy for a "general audience" trailer for Your Highness. The computer artists came to the rescue by adding a less revealing bikini bottom. (The thong remains in the actual film.)

All of this raises some interesting questions. Would an actress have to give her consent for her form to be altered to depict computer-generated nudity? Would some actresses still object on the grounds that audiences would believe they are seeing her naked? Would an actress be given final approval over how her "naked" body looked? Could older films be touched up to add nudity? And what about the actresses who are still willing to do nude scenes - would they be forced to agree to being given a digital tune-up?

Perhaps this is all much ado about nothing. Some would argue that since movies are all about fantasy and illusion, why should it matter if "real" nudity is done away with? Boobs are boobs, regardless of how they are brought to the screen, and some people find animated nudity as stimulating as the real thing. (Insert obligatory hentai reference here.) Is it less distracting to have a women display CGI breasts while reclining in bed after sex than it is to have her tuck the covers under her chin? Could better actresses now accept racy roles because they are no longer required to bare more than they feel comfortable with? Legitimate questions, yet I can't help but feel that the gradual replacement of actual nudity with the computer generated variant violates something sacred. Seeing Katie Holmes and Reese Witherspoon topless (to name a pair of pairs) were big events. CGI nudity will take away such moments for future generations. The thrill of discovery (at least of a form) will be gone. And when an actress claims it's really her, we won't believe her, and there won't be any way for her to prove it.

I love technology. But sometimes it can be damn frustrating.


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