Movies

Review: Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies

Prurience revisited.

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Looking back on the cinematic sexy-wars of the last century from the promised land of total pornography we inhabit today must be a little puzzling for young cinephiles. Was there really a time when people got bent out of shape by the lewd wisecracks of Mae West, the rather basic butt-baring of Brigitte Bardot, the epic but completely covered-up bosom of Jane Russell? Yes, kids, it's true.

This long-gone era is enlighteningly surveyed in a new documentary called Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies. Given the credits of some of the film's producers (Paul Fishbein was a founder of Adult Video News, the porn industry trade mag, and Jim McBride is an internet archivist better-known by his nom de website, "Mr. Skin"), you might expect the movie to be raunchier than it is. Yes, there are plenty of boobs and bottoms on display here, in pictures ranging from the 1933 Ecstasy (Hedy Lamar striking a blow for naked forest-scampering) and the 1927 Wings (Clara Bow flashing a breast in the first movie to win an Oscar) up through the 1974 Big Bad Mama (Angie Dickinson totally, as they say, nude), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Phoebe Cates's topless-red-bikini scene), and the incomparable Showgirls and American Pie (about which good-natured lust object Shannon Elizabeth has a few words to say).

But Skin also has considerable straight narrative history to impart. Reaching back to the turn of the last century, it shows that moving-picture pioneers like Edward Muybridge and Georges Méliès incorporated glimpses of nudity in their work without a second thought. D.W. Griffith's 1916 Intolerance branched out into orgies, and filmmaking remained a relatively freewheeling proposition until the 1930s, when the industry cooked up the buzz-killing Motion Picture Production Code, a self-regulating dodge to head off government censorship. The MPPC started a long slow collapse in the 1950s, with the arrival of, among other things, primitive softcore movies called "nudies." (Francis Ford Coppola launched his career with a 1962 nudie called Tonight for Sure, and the late Russ Meyer explains here how he shot The Immoral Mr. Teas, his big 1959 nudie hit, in four days for just $24,000.)

The movie is filled with fun stories, most of them fairly well-known but so what. The 1979 Caligula started out as a dignified historical drama with a script by Gore Vidal and a fancy cast that included Malcolm McDowell, John Gielgud, and Peter O'Toole, but it was turned into a flat-out porn film with additional shoots by the movie's producer, Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione. Oliver Reed and Alan Bates's non-erotic nude wrestling scene in the 1969 Women in Love was clumsily reedited by nervous producers to dispel any gay overtones—and ended up having nothing but gay overtones. And then there was teenage Brooke Shields, who won the first Golden Raspberry Award—for worst actress—for her lightly attired performance in the 1980 Blue Lagoon.

Things are said to be different on the movie-nudity front these days. Now sex scenes are being shot under the watchful eyes of people called "intimacy coordinators," whose job is to protect female actors from unwanted exploitation, and presumably to head off anything along the lines of Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange's super-believable rutting in the 1981 The Postman Always Rings Twice. This is all good, surely. But when one of these intimacy coordinators pops up here to say, "We are thrilled to be part of the solution," you can't help reflexively wondering exactly which problem they mean.

(Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies is available on YouTube, Fandango, Vudu and other on-demand sites.)

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  3. Nude Movie Review: A History of Clickbait on the Internet

  4. Hooray for porn!

  5. So, in 2020 we can see, in close up, all kinds of genitalia and friskiness, but we have modern puritans screaming about on-screen smoking. What does that tell us?

    1. Blazing Saddles said the N word, must ban it!

  6. “You can hardly see them nipples”

    “And these guys are REALLY looking”

  7. It was the Great Depression, in my opinion. The austerity caused the American public to push back against the excesses of the Roaring Twenties. Skirts got longer, and movies cleaner. NOT that the movies were smut fests before then, but they wanted them toddler friendly. This was also the era of prohibition and social planning.

    Most of the “nudies” weren’t salacious at all. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, for example, was a very serious work of science fiction and social commentary. Ecstasy embarrassed Hedy Lamar for decades after, but it was quite tame romp through the forest, meant to project innocence rather than lusty cavorting.

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  10. “Now sex scenes are being shot under the watchful eyes of people called ‘intimacy coordinators,’ whose job is to protect female actors from unwanted exploitation”

    Why only actresses? Aren’t men also getting nude and expected to be nude? There are exponentially more penis shots in films and almost never any vagina/vulva shots in any Hollywood production. If women were the ones exploited, we would be seeing more vag than peen, yet the opposite is true. Even the lead actor of Fifty Shades of Grey was attacked for not showing his penis in the films, while the actress of the same films didn’t show her vagina and yet she was not attacked at all. Double standards – against men.

  11. Seems like there is very little nudity in movies these days. Then you get something like Red Sparrow where Jennifer Lawrence briefly shows some obscured side boob, and people act like its so sleazy and exploitive. For awhile cable shows had nudity, but now they just show a lot of sausage and dude ass. Because equality or something. It doesn’t work when you have unequal definitions of nudity. A shirtless man is safe enough for a Pepsi add but a shirtless woman is scandalous. I miss 70’s films when you had regular nudity. And 80’s and 90’s ones. The Italian flicks of the 70’s were the best.

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  15. I suspect that the first porn film was made within minutes after the invention of the movie camera, and that a vast catalog of that early smut is lost to history.

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