Taking It All Off (Part Three)

February 27, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

So what does it all mean? Damned if I know. So here are few musings and guesses. Feel free to disagree. This is 100% opinion.

The roughly 80% for Lead Actresses seems like a high number. My guess is that it's higher than that of the actress population as a whole. So does that mean that talented, high-profile actresses take their clothing off more than their colleagues? I would argue that's probably the case. But it comes with the territory. The better an actress, the less likely it is that she'll have hang-ups about doing scenes that require disrobing. There are some notable exceptions, like Julia Roberts and Cate Blanchett, but on the whole, it seems to be that the middle-of-the-road (talentwise) actresses are the ones most skittish when it comes to doing naked scenes. (Obviously, those in the bottom tier can't be picky, and many end up appearing in exploitation flicks where nudity is a primary requirement to be cast.) Pick any ten actresses who have never done a nude scene and you're likely to find that most of them are (1) not near the top of their craft and (2) they're not Canadian or European. In terms of major film industries, only China and Bollywood lag behind the United States in terms of keeping things hidden. (Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, arguably China's biggest female stars, have yet to bare anthing worth noting.)

What about the gap between Lead Actress nudity (about 80%) and Supporting Actress nudity (67%)? It's significant enough to be more than a statistical anomaly, and recurs frequently (although the gap has diminished greatly in recent years). I think two things contribute to it. Supporting actresses generally have less screen time than lead actresses. This reduces the likelihood that they're going to have the opportunity to get naked. Secondly, many supporting actress roles are those of mothers, grandmothers, and daughters - all outside the normal prime ages for nudity. For every Jessica Tandy (Camilla), Kathy Bates (About Schmidt), or Helen Mirren (pick a movie - any movie), there are dozens of less than "physically ideal" actresses who stay buttoned up. My guess is that the supporting actress percentages are pretty close to those of the general population.

One statistic that surprised me is the low percentage of actresses who are nude in their winning roles. I'm not sure what this means. I don't think the Academy is biased against nudity, but it may be that the more "prestigious" films don't feature many naked bodies. Often, when an actress wins an Oscar for a performance in which she disrobes, it's one of those "courageous" parts (Charlize Theron in Monster, Halle Berry in Monster's Ball, Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry, etc.) The only one who would qualify in 2006 is Felicity Huffman, but I don't think she'll win.

As to the question about whether nudity for Oscar-winners is increasing or decreasing, the numbers suggest it hasn't varied much over the past 27 years. There are indications it has been trending upwards in recent years, but it will take another three or four Oscar ceremonies to determine whether or not this is a "blip." I'll keep tracking things, and perhaps provide an annual update. It gives me something to do around Oscar time rather than write the usual boring column about who should win versus who will win.

A few final thoughts about screen nudity in general... Clearly, while there are some American actresses who have problems with nudity, either for moral reasons (Renee Zellweger) or because they're not comfortable with it (Julia Roberts), most serious actresses are willing to do what's best for the role. In England, Italy, and France, it's difficult to find an actress with more than six films on her resume who hasn't done a nude scene. There are a few in the U.K., but I went through a list of my 12 favorite French actresses, and discovered that all of them have done nude scenes. So if you want the certainty of being able to seeing your favorite female celebrity take it all off, choose someone who's French.

Comments, of course, are welcome. I have already gotten a few (including a confirmation that Imelda Staunton has done a nude scene.) I may follow up on this study in a week or so, after collecting all the e-mail. In the meantime, I have to grit my teeth and write my annual Oscar prediction column, so everyone can laugh at me if I make too many wrong calls.