When are nude scenes essential in film, and when are they gratuitous, designed not to advance a plot but to snatch more from the wallets of hungry, titillated viewers? Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies takes this question seriously, exploring Hollywood's working conditions before the business developed clearer expectations about the need for contracts detailing how much breast or cheek an actress must show to earn her paycheck.
Some roles, like Erica Gavin's portrayal of a nymphomaniac in Vixen! (1968) or Sylvia Miles' lusty Manhattan cougar in Midnight Cowboy (1969), would feel wrongly puritanical without some skin. Nudity can be a crucial storytelling tool in certain contexts. Yet Miles explains that the requisite toplessness was sprung on her, not agreed upon beforehand. The late Maria Schneider, discussing a harrowing depiction of rape in the movie Last Tango in Paris (1972), said she was likewise unaware of what the scene would entail and felt powerfully humiliated by it.
Hollywood used to be a place where consent didn't reign regarding the touchy topic of screen nudity, but this documentary suggests that might be changing for the better.