Nudity in movies can express a lot of things, and one of them is unpredictability. In Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “Boogie Nights,” an Altman-esque epic set in the San Fernando Valley during porn’s pre-VHS 1970s heyday, an early nude scene acts like an exclamation point, popping up at a moment when you’re absolutely not expecting a flash of full-frontal female nudity (even if it is a movie about porn stars). The scene occurs when porn impresario Burt Reynolds brings home young busboy Mark Wahlberg and introduces him to one of his stars, played by Heather Graham, who quickly whips off her onesie, exposing her nubile frame and jolting an audience that, up until this point, had been exclusively dazzled by the brisk characterization and virtuoso camerawork. Graham, for her part, is effervescent and charming and goddamn flawless as the girl next door gone to the dark side.
“Take This Waltz”
Sarah Polley‘s second film, “Take This Waltz,” is equal parts brilliant and frustrating, a look at how the comfortableness of a steady relationship can curdle into something much uglier. And while there is one sequence that certainly has an amount of kicky sexuality (an amazing sexual montage set just as our main character enters a new relationship), the other nude scene is so plain that it almost feels like commentary on the nude scene itself. Even though everyone is naked, it’s the anti-nude scene. It involves Michelle Williams, Sarah Silverman and Jennifer Podemski, all in a locker room shower, talking about bathing. They’re all completely naked, but the scene has the matter-of-factness of an Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk sequence: it’s all about the dialogue, the three women just happen to be naked. And nobody looks like a movie star, with Polley’s camera capturing the women in a wide master, looking natural and real.
“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”
Nudity can provoke, titillate or disarm, but it can also be used as a punchline. This is exactly what writer/star Jason Segel and director Nicholas Stoller had in mind for the sequence where Segel, trying to inject a little daylight fun into his relationship with hottie television personality Kristen Bell, instead ends up being dumped, but still refuses to put on clothes. The sequence starts off goofy, but somewhat relatable, and ends up kind of melancholic and sad, yet still awkward and relatable — in hindsight it’s kind of miraculous. And Segel is a real trooper. It takes a lot for anyone to let their junk hang out onscreen — it’s another thing altogether to do that and actually encourage people to laugh at you/it.
“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”
For an entire generation, this might be the single most memorable topless scene of all time. Judge Reinhold fantasizes about “Gremlins” star Phoebe Cates. He imagines her emerging from a swimming pool, dripping wet. She’s wearing a bright red bikini, and takes off her top. Right as he’s about to, well, finish, someone walks in on him in the bathroom, fantasy abruptly over. The sequence is really funny but also pretty sexy, (we’d be ashamed to say it, considering how young Cates was, and how young her character is supposed to be, except for the fact we were that age or younger when we first saw it). The startling thing is, in Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe‘s movie, this sequence isn’t even the raciest – Jennifer Jason Leigh, after all, has unprotected sex and has to get an abortion. In one of the most beloved high school comedies of all time.
Once again, what makes this sequence exceptional is its banality: in Robert Altman’s sprawling “Short Cuts,” he shoots a dialogue scene with Julianne Moore where she’s not wearing anything below the waist. It’s kind of shocking in how casual it is, and adds a singular, unplaceable importance to the sequence, a weird energy that probably couldn’t be captured any other way. Moore, for her part, is fearless. It’s one of those sequences, perhaps like the one in “Trance,” that you can’t imagine an actress ever saying yes to, but they did, and in both cases something truly exceptional is brought to both the role and the moment as a result.