Nudity in film has been around as long as the movies themselves — you just have to know where to look. Starting with the hedonistic pre-Code Hollywood all the way through the power-checking #MeToo moment, Danny Wolf’s comprehensive new documentary “Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies” unpacks the political, artistic, and social landscapes that allowed nakedness to happen, or not, on the big screen. Both a riveting entertainment and an almost encyclopedic recounting of the lascivious and lewd in cinema, this nonfiction deep dive is a must-see for cinephiles, especially those with a predilection for depravity, and should send even the most learned moviegoer home with plenty of material to revisit or discover anew.
“Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies” opens with the idea that Hollywood, way back when, was far less prude than it is now — “the Sodom of the pacific,” one critic says — dating all the way back to D.W. Griffiths’ problematic early movies. But before the Hays Code made nudity in films a moral concern through its censorship guidelines, there was also no protection for actors, which is to say nothing in the way of human resources for the performers. If you were asked to strip, you’d better damn well do it, even if it wasn’t part of the script. No intimacy coordinators here. This paved the path for the culture of the casting couch that dominated Hollywood for the rest of the century and beyond.
As the Hays Code went into effect in the early 1930s (whether studios complied or not), American audiences had to get their rocks off via European films, and often in otherwise “adult” movie theaters. Gustav Machatý’s 1933 Czech erotic drama “Ecstasy” was a midnight staple, infamous for its brazen nude scenes featuring Hedy Lamarr, and also a closeup on her face during an orgasm at a time when female pleasure onscreen was unheard of. “Skin” employs critical testimonies, with modern-day luminaries such as film critic Amy Nicholson, to contextualize this movie and just how revolutionary it was at the time. (It appears to be unavailable to stream, save for an apparent bootleg on DailyMotion.)
Once the Hays Code was replaced by the MPAA ratings system in 1968, an explosion of more lascivious content flooded screens, enabling the X-rated “Midnight Cowboy” to win the Best Picture Oscar in 1970. “Skin: A History of Nudity” gets some candid interviews with former MPAA ratings chairperson Joan Graves, one of the film’s many informative talking heads, who provides some unique anecdotes, such as the ado over how to rate James Cameron’s “Titanic” given a prominent (but not necessarily sexualized) nude scene with Kate Winslet. “It was all PG-13s except for one or two of the fathers,” Graves says of the vote on the ultimately PG-13 movie.
While “Skin” does enough historical hand-holding through its timeline to potentially exhaust an expert historian, there are plenty of wild and entertaining tidbits, such as unfiltered interviews with exploitation sex symbol Mamie van Doren, or with Linda Blair, who some years after “The Exorcist” starred in the 1983 tawdry women-in-prison entry “Chained Heat.”
Malcolm McDowell offers his typically plain-spoken commentary about his early reputation as the most naked actor in Hollywood, from his debut “If…” to “A Clockwork Orange” and, most notoriously, Tinto Brass’ “Caligula.” Probably the biggest porno of all time, “Caligula” is the one movie where McDowell says he refused to be naked, leaving those duties to the rest of the cast of the film, a pageantry of licking, sucking, and fucking, and overall debauchery focused on the rise and fall of the anarchic Roman emperor.
Actress Mariel Hemingway also provides frank interviews about a double bill of films where she was asked to appear nude: Robert Towne’s 1982 athlete drama and Bob Fosse’s 1983 “Star 80,” a film about the life and death of former Playmate turned ill-fated actress Dorothy Stratten. Hemingway admits she wouldn’t have been cast if she hadn’t had boobs — and Fosse thought she was too tomboy-ish to play the bombshell Stratten — and so she got silicone implants. But, Hemingway insists, she did it for herself, much in the same way Demi Moore did years later for “Striptease.” And speaking of Dorothy Stratten, her onetime lover Peter Bogdanovich also talks about his 1971 “The Last Picture Show,” featuring a briefly nude, but most definitely nude, Cybill Shepherd. Bogdanovich admits to being uncomfortable during the filming because, at the time, he was falling in love with her, and would soon leave his longtime wife and collaborator, Polly Platt, for the ingenue.
While “Skin” doesn’t do any formally daring loops, at two hours and 10 minutes, it’s a consistently engaging record with colorful input from each of the interview subjects, well-edited and with plenty of titillating footage. Oddly, very little time is spent on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” which in 1960 stunned audiences with its suggestions of sex and nudity. But “Skin” is after more brazen depictions of nakedness, not so much what was implied, but what was shown and how graphically and when, and why. “Skin” is an incredibly organized movie in that regard, and appears eager to leave its audience with lots to watch and read. That includes even the more puritan viewers, who probably won’t be running out to catch the “butter scene” from “Last Tango in Paris,” but there’s enough here for all manner of tastes and fetishes to experience.
“Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies” is now available on demand from Quiver Distribution.