Naked Addicts and Clothed Strippers

April 18, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

There's a curious trend in recent movies that I have noticed: strippers keep their clothes on while addicts take them off. This is by no means a hard-and-fast rule, but it has struck me as a curious development. I have a few thoughts about what it means (not very deep ones, admittedly), but I'll get to those later. First, the background...

Not all that long ago, it was pretty much accepted that if an actress played a stripper, she would be expected to take her clothing off. Make sense, right? Go back to the '90s and films like Striptease, Showgirls, and Dancing at the Blue Iguana. These three films combined offered nudity from several prominent actresses: Demi Moore, Gina Gershon, Elizabeth Berkley, Jennifer Tilly, Daryl Hannah, and Sandra Oh. (Moore's performance received a lot of publicity at the time since she reportedly got a boob job in preparation.) Recently, however, high-profile actresses playing strippers have been more coy.

In Closer, Natalie Portman gyrated seductively in a g-string but went no further than teasing the audience. Reportedly, she filmed a topless scene but she and director Mike Nichols didn't feel "right" about using it and had the footage destroyed. In Sin City, Jessica Alba's stripper danced around in a skimpy costume, but it displayed less than the toplessness called for in the script. Apparently, since Alba wants to be known as a "serious" actress, she wasn't willing to do the nudity and pointed to a clause in her contract to back her up. Finally, in the recent Grindhouse, Rose McGowan, playing a stripper named Cherry, kept the naughty bits covered. (She's in a sex scene, but it's not revealing and could have been a body double.) There's also Isla Fisher's Luvlee Lemons in The Lookout, but I'll give that film a pass because Luvlee isn't shown performing.

What is the world coming to when a movie-goer can't see flesh from strippers? Well, there's an alternative: go to a movie that deals with addicts. Granted, some of the most memorable movies about addiction don't feature nudity - consider The Man with the Golden Arm or Traffic (to name a couple of many). Things started changing with Darren Aaronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, in which Jennifer Connelly (no stranger to screen nudity) did her most explicit clothes-free work. More recently, we have seen Vera Farmiga (Down to the Bone), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Sherrybaby), Abbie Cornish (Candy), Christina Ricci (Prozac Nation), and Sienna Miller (Fatory Girl).

It takes a certain amount of courage for an actress to perform a nude scene, especially if she's from the United States, where there's an unreasonable prejudice against the naked body. Therefore, actresses who appear unclothed in anything but an overtly artistic endeavor risk gaining a reputation as someone who can be pursued for T&A scenes. This is what happened to Sharon Stone after Basic Instinct. There are indications that Stone could have done serious work but after she spread her legs in Basic Instinct, no one wanted to see her in anything where she wasn't naked.

The lack of nudity in recent stripper movies may be rooted in the fact that the directors believe their films to be inherently strong enough that the T&A element might be a distraction. So, instead of looking for the best actress who will appove a nude scene, they look for the best actress period, and if she won't take her clothing off, they work around it. Movies like Striptease and Showgirls need the nudity. Without it, they don't have anything to offer. Closer and Sin City are more substantive. (The latter, interestingly enough, features nudity, but not from the stripper.) Grindhouse is more difficult to explain since it is exploitative by intent, and McGowan's unwillingness to disrobe is odd since she has done topless scenes in previous projects.

Nudity in addiction movies, however, carries no stigmas. These are dark, serious films that address a major issue. No one is going to stereotype an actress for appearing naked in one. In most cases, the nude scene is organic to the story since it reveals something about the character. For Prozac Nation, Ricci had a "no nudity" clause in her contract but waived it because she felt the scene of her naked on her bed near the beginning illustrated something important about the woman she was playing. In general, nudity in addiction movies is meant to suggest that the character in question has moved beyond the norms of societal behavior in more ways than one.

There is no correlation between appearing nude in a movie and not being taken seriously as an actress (a study I did last year showed that 81% of Best Actress nominees have done at least one nude scene), but that statement doesn't take into account the nature of the nudity. Perhaps Jessica Alba has it partially right - appearing naked as a stripper is not a good way to advance one's standing as a credible performer. Where she's missing the point, however, is that a blanket prohibition against nudity can be a roadblock. A serious actress must be open to all roles. She may turn down nudity in one role because it could be detrimental to her future prospects, but accept nudity in another role because it advances them or because she believes in the project. Thus, it's conceivable that we'll see an actress taking her clothing off as an addict but keeping everything on as a stripper.