“That’s not art. A striptease isn’t art. It’s too direct. It’s more direct than art.”
That line from Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” sums up a lot of feelings people seem to have about nudity in film. The history of painting and sculpture is full of nude portraiture, which is regularly and comfortably classified as art. But the nude scene in movies is rarely discussed alongside a Canova marble statue or Manet’s “Olympia.” Movies blur the boundaries between “real life” and artistic indirection so thoroughly that people discuss nude scenes in movies as practically everything but art. It’s “content” that deserves an “advisory,” or something akin to “porn,” however the Supreme Court is classifying that these days.
As many have noted, the very nature of the actor’s job demands the audience look at them. So when nudity enters the (literal) picture, it complicates the relationship between viewer and viewed. Are we somehow invading their privacy? Are they invading ours? What should we feel about this parasocial interaction, particularly when it is presented in an overtly sexualized context?
At times, it can be difficult write about onscreen nudity in anything but jokey terms, especially since nudity has become a fixture of comedy. Nudity is most frequently used in mainstream entertainment as a punchline. It’s been a quarter-century since nudity was a central feature — and dramatic plot point — of what was then the most widely popular Hollywood film in decades: “Titanic.” Bared skin in a similar manner in a top blockbuster in 2023 or any other recent year seems unlikely. Although, the unsettling reaction nudity can elicit in audiences is once again getting explored with some frequency in the horror genre; see scariest scenes in the hugely popular “It Follows” and “Hereditary” for starters.
So maybe we should take nudity seriously again. One place to start that reassessment is to look at the history of the nude scene since the silent era. The best nude scenes convey vulnerability, intimacy, eros, and so much more. Below is an incomplete timeline of the nude scene throughout cinema history. All are movies that wouldn’t have the same artistic impact without these moments.
Christian Blauvelt, Christian Zilko, Jude Dry, and Kate Erbland contributed to this story.
[Editor’s note: This list was first published in March 2022 and has been updated multiple times since. It is a living document and will continue to see changes over time.]
“Intolerance” (D.W. Griffith, 1916)
It may surprise today’s viewers just how liberated many silent films are in their depictions of sexuality. In the U.S., the self-censorship of the Hays Office wouldn’t come about until the late ‘20s (and wasn’t enforced at all until Joseph Breen took charge in 1934). Silent movies and early sound films have all manner of transgressive content. D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” features a full-on orgy with women wearing see-through fabrics or bathing in the nude. (Later on, during the Siege of Babylon, there’s a kiss between two men.) Some of that libertinism would pop up again in Griffith’s later “Orphans of the Storm,” and it would carry on through the early sound era with Claudette Colbert famously taking a nude bath (though only seen from the back) in asses’ milk in 1932’s “A Sign of the Cross.” But even a couple of decades earlier, Griffith was pushing boundaries in his own right. —CB
“The Last Picture Show” (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)
Courtesy Everett Collection
Peter Bogdanovich’s wistful black-and-white portrait of the end of an era for two high school seniors and longtime friends (Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms) remains best known as the hallmark of the director’s career. The film also launched the start of Cybill Shepherd’s career, when Bogdanovich’s then-wife Polly Platt thought Shepherd would be perfect for the role of Jacy Farrow, the smartest and prettiest girl in any room of the film’s declining northern Texas oil town.
But one scene got the film banned in part of the very state in which the film was set. After a Christmas dance, Jacy is invited to a skinny dipping party, uncomfortably undressing on the diving board as rowdy teens splash around below. Shepherd was 21 years old at the time of filming, but as her character is still in high school, this was met with ire from the public. “Last Picture Show” was actually deemed obscene by the city of Phoenix, requiring it to be judged by a federal court, which ultimately ruled the movie safe for viewing. Still, it was 1971, and so even the suggestion of nudity, let alone the full monty, managed to shock casual moviegoers. —RL
“Don’t Look Now” (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
Courtesy Everett Collection
One of the most infamous sex scenes of the 1970s is a fugue of grief and hope. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie — neither overly eroticized with the lighting and staging here, and you would never confuse this for a porn film — seek solace in each other’s bodies after they’ve just had an epiphany about the death of their young daughter, who they’ve been mourning for months. It may be cinema’s greatest “sexual healing” scene, and the way director Nicolas Roeg intercuts their lovemaking with post-coital shots of them dressing and preparing to go out afterward somehow got it past censors in the U.S. and U.K. Salacious stories about Christie’s boyfriend Warren Beatty wanting control over the edit and rumors that the scene featured unsimulated sex dominated the narrative, but it’s really a deeply felt scene about two people finding hope in each other after the darkest time of their lives. —CB
“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (Amy Heckerling, 1982)
Courtesy Everett Collection
Ah, nothing feels like summer more than pent-up hormones and a little red bikini. Judge Reinhold’s teen fantasy in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” includes an infamous topless moment featuring Phoebe Cates stripping off her teeny crimson two-piece. The 1982 classic film also stars Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker, Robert Romanus, and even a cameo by Nicolas Cage. Director Amy Heckerling made her feature debut with the dark comedy take on the pressures of adolescence; while Heckerling went on to helm the iconic (and nudity-free) “Clueless,” David Lynch reportedly was offered “Fast Times” first. And the film wasn’t Cates’ first time going “Fast.” She previously bared her breasts in “Paradise” when she was just 17. “The topless scene in ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ was funny, which made it easy,” Cates said in 1982. “In this business, if a girl wants a career, she has to be willing to strip. If you’ve got a good bod, then why not show it?” Cates also revealed in 2018 during an interview with former co-star Leigh that it was “not that big of a deal,” per Leigh’s advice. Not a big to her, but a big deal in the history of bikini drops. —SB
“A Room with a View” (James Ivory, 1985)
©Cinecom Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
It may be the ultimate in high-collared, petticoat-wearing, “tennis anyone?” escapism, the Merchant-Ivory classic that’s basically what every British period drama on “Masterpiece Theatre” has aspired to be ever since. “A Room with a View” is also the greatest of its kind because it’s so much more than those twee trappings. Case in point: When Julian Sands, Rupert Graves, and the immortal Simon Callow strip naked and frolic in a shallow Surrey pond. “Let’s have a bathe!” Grave asks his companions. The full-frontal escapade is an example for the ages of letting loose and communing with nature, and of British cinema’s greater willingness to feature male nudity than that of the U.S, ever since Ken Russell’s “Women in Love” was a male nudity milestone in 1969. —CB
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