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.)