A lively look at how nudity in the movies can be art or exploitation. Sometimes in the same moment.
Even those who consider themselves experts in the subject will find a provocative treasure trove of images and anecdotes in “Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies.” Danny Wolf’s documentary is a breezy, open-eyed, and often encyclopedic compendium of all the ways the cinema has celebrated, exploited, and negotiated the power of the naked body. The film opens with a montage of actors and directors (Sean Young, Eric Roberts, Peter Bogdanovich) recalling the first movie they ever saw that had nudity in it, and that allows the film, in its early moments, to leap through some of Nudity’s Greatest Hits (“Ecstasy,” “Last Tango in Paris,” “The Blue Lagoon,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”).
As it moves back in time, one of the documentary’s fascinations is the way it’s constantly juxtaposing big Hollywood movies and European art movies and softcore exploitation films and everything in between. That, of course, is just as it should be. Aesthetically, there’s a world of difference between “Vixen” and “The Virgin Spring,” yet nudity, as “Skin” captures in its lively and disarming way, is the great leveler: the thing that makes us all gawk, no matter what the context.
If there were a naked person on the street, most of us would stop and look. Nudity on film, likewise, taps into a hard-wired entanglement of awe and fear and everyday beauty and curiosity. Even serious films like “Blow-Up” and “Last Tango” draw deeply on our voyeurism; even Russ Meyer’s tawdry drive-in fare can offer the grunge version of an erotic aesthetic — a fleshpot vision of the world. “Skin” presents a historical parade of eroticized images, some of which are memorably sexy. But it also captures how nudity in the movies is really about the parts of life that usually get covered up.
The history of nudity on film is marked by two great pop-culture dramas. The first one goes back to the early days of cinema, when movies were emerging from the 19th century — but, shockingly, they were a lot less puritanical than we think. The first films, before anyone thought about shaping them into stories, had lots of casual nudity. And in the period around 1915, Audrey Munson, playing an artist’s nude model in silent films like “Inspiration” and “Purity,” became the most famous actress in America. But Munson tried to commit suicide by drinking mercury (she survived, and lived for the next 74 years, though mostly in a sanitarium), and that raises a question: Did appearing nude in a vast popular medium — at that point, an unprecedented act in human life — create feelings in an actress that were metaphysically disturbing?
“Skin” has been made with a post-#MeToo consciousness, which means that it’s always asking questions — the right ones — about the politics of nudity on film: what it’s actually like for the performers; the choices they felt they did or didn’t have; what passing through the looking glass of nudity in showbiz does to a person. When Marilyn Monroe died, in 1962, it was several weeks into the filming of “Something’s Got to Give,” a comeback comedy for which she had shot a nude scene (the one pictured above) — which would have been the first in any Hollywood studio film since the dawn of the Production Code. Did that do a number on Monroe’s psyche? In “Skin,” actresses from Sylvia Miles to Mariel Hemingway to Mamie Van Doren testify to how doing nude scenes toyed with their souls.
Original publication 18 August, 2020
Posted on NatCorn 1st September 2020
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