Rewinding 2008: Naked in the Multiplex

December 25, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

It's time to start looking back at 2008. This year, I'll start this three-part series with a look at screen nudity. Before getting to the specifics, let me establish some parameters and provide a few definitions. For the purposes of this column, I'll only be considering wide releases - films that showed on at least 500 screens. This cuts down on the question of whether an indie that played in a single theater in New York City and depicted lots of naked people should be "in play."

There are two kinds of nudity: "PG-13 nudity" and "R nudity." Regardless of whether or not I agree with how the MPAA classifies the "adultness" of naked flesh, it's a reality that those who live in the United States have to cope with. So, PG-13 nudity refers to bare backsides and partial side views. For the most part, it's teasing more than revealing. There can be PG-13 nudity in an R-rated movie. This typically happens when the film earns its stripes for other reasons (profanity, violence) and the nudity is a throw-in. R nudity refers to something frontal and/or reasonably explicit. The MPAA has lately been using the term "graphic nudity" in some cases. It's a rather silly description but it typically refers to full frontal.

My first observation about female nudity is that, while the number of movies featuring it during 2008 remained relatively constant when compared to 2007 and 2006, there was a marked shift in the quality of the nudity. Many instances of R nudity were essentially throw-ins: extras or irrelevant characters taking their clothing off for no purpose other than to titillate or provide a moment of humor. Significant nudity - something topless/frontal from a major star or an actress playing an important part in a movie - was scarce. In fact, I could only find ten instances of it: Penelope Cruz in Elegy, Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler, Zoe Kazan in Revolutionary Road, Laura Ramsey in The Ruins, Julianne Moore and Alice Braga in Blindness, Katie Morgan in Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Kate Winslet in The Reader, Emily Watson in Synecdoche, New York, Amy Smart in Mirrors, and Cynthia Nixon in Sex and the City. Peek-a-boo or other PG-13 nudity from major actresses included Amy Adams in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Angelina Jolie in Wanted (the aforementioned R rated movie with PG-13 nudity), Eva Mendes in The Spirit, Kristen Bell in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Kim Cattrall in Sex and the City, and Anna Faris in The House Bunny. Overall, not impressive numbers. For those with an appreciation of the female form, not the best year by any means.

However, it appears that male nudity is becoming more accepted in the mainstream. When I say this, I'm not referring to butt shots, which have been prevalent for years as punch lines to jokes in bawdy comedies. No, this is full frontal stuff. Letting it all hang out. Blame it on Judd Apatow. There were four very obvious instances of it this year, and none of these are what anyone could pigeonhole as an "art house flick." They all played (or will play) in a multiplex near you: Jason Segel (the lead) in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jason Mewes in Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Gilles Marini in Sex and the City, and David Kross in The Reader. So, while things still aren't even when it comes to full frontal male vs. full frontal female nudity, strides have been made in that direction. It's also worth mentioning that, with the exception of Sarah Marshall, the movies showing male nudity were careful to balance things off with equally explicit female nudity.

2008 also may be the year when art-porn went out of style. To the best of my knowledge, no art-porn films were distributed. ("Art-porn" referring to arty films with some level of hardcore content.) This category, which had been growing in popularity in recent years, came to a screeching halt in 2008. Even at the Toronto International Film Festival, where films of this sort are almost always available, things were tame. In fact, in a possible reflection of the industry in general, there wasn't a lot of nudity to be found at the film festival.

To a degree, it appears that nudity has migrated from the big screen to the little one. Not network TV. Ever since the Janet Jackson debacle, the networks have been scared to show anything resembling a nipple or a butt dimple. (Charlotte Ross' NYPD Blue disrobing, which is now a classic on-line video clip, could never have aired post-Nipplegate.) However, HBO and Showtime have taken up the banner. In fact, arguably the biggest instance of female star nudity in 2008 occurred not in theaters but on HBO's True Blood, where Anna Paquin performed a topless sex scene. Talk about setting Internet forums on fire... Overall, True Blood became known for its nudity, as did David Duchovny's Californication, and those weren't the only shows. In 2008, although the quantity of flesh in theaters may have been down, the amount on TV was definitely up.


It could be an anomaly, but I don't think so. I think the PG-13-ization of multiplex theaters and the reduction in distribution of movies for adults have contributed heavily to what I believe may be a trend. Right now in the United States, nudity is not acceptable in movies with less than an R rating. (I believe this will eventually change, but probably not overnight.) It's not that many actresses are unwilling to appear nude in a movie, but the parts simply aren't there. Few serious actresses will turn down a part because they're asked to bare a breast (or more), but opportunities along those lines, which were plentiful 10 years ago, are slimmer today.

If nudity was to be decoupled from the "adultness" of a film, there would be more of it. If a fully naked woman could appear on screen in a PG-13 movie, filmmakers would not shy away from showing such things. Recent studies have indicated that the views of young Americans about sex and nudity are becoming increasingly more liberal, so there's hope that there may be a cultural shift close to the horizon. For now, however, while a glimpse of stocking may no longer be shocking, we're not at the point where "anything goes."