Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies — Everything You Did, Didn’t, and Still Don’t Know

Covering more than 100 years of film history, navigating decades of shifting cultural morals and the endless battles over proprietary in art, Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies tackles a lengthy and contentious subject matter with a variety of broad and detailed strokes. It would, perhaps, be more beneficial to call the film a history of nudity in Hollywood, however, due to the exclusive coverage of America’s history with the salacious subject. A few European titles are given mention later on in contextualizing the push to end the puritanical practices of Hollywood’s self-imposed censorship in the late 1960s, which is understandable considering the already monumental task of covering all of Hollywood’s history with provocative material, let alone commenting on the rest of the world. The documentary takes a primarily chronological approach to unveiling the licentious history of nudity on film, starting with informative examinations of its rise alongside the birth of commercial cinema as we know it, way back in 1915. Long before nudity was being used as the primary selling point for exploitation films in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we see how independent filmmakers took on the exhibition of busty female figures as a key marketing gimmick to combat Thomas Edison’s total monopoly on the film business. This educational and often untold history of early Hollywood is backed by a number of highly qualified film historians who provide a brief but fairly comprehensive history of the demand for censorship after a series of earth-shaking scandals in Hollywood during the 1920s. 

The history of Hollywood’s censorship is intrinsically linked with the depiction of unfettered sexuality in films, or rather, the lack thereof, in most cases. Skin spends plenty of time detailing this period of Hollywood history, covering the birth of the infamous Hays Code, its flaccid enforcement, the proceeding era known as the Pre-Code, its inevitable undoing, and eventually its replacement by the current modern rating system. The pulling back of the curtain in early Hollywood provides the most value and insight from a historical perspective. Because of the more conservative nature of the time, and the general misconception that older films operated off of a more Victorian mindset when it came to sexuality, this is an often overlooked period of sexual expression in film. But as we can see from this well-constructed portion of the film, early Hollywood was rife with unabashed depictions of illicit acts and ideas. From the glimpses of bare breasts from major female stars Clara Bow and Claudette Colbert in Wings (1927) and The Sign of the Cross (1932) to the fully nude Hedy Lamarr prancing around in Ekstase (1933), some truly revealing films are showcased here with fascinating insights to the cultural context surrounding them, and the eventual push to ban such films from ever being made again — for a time anyway. 

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Claudette Colbert in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross.

The mostly clothed periods of the ‘40s and ‘50s are all but skipped, only doubling back briefly to talk about the notable exceptions of Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Mamie Van Doren, whose appearance in the film is much appreciated in providing a firsthand account of nude performance in the late 1950s. We then come to the 1960s, where the studio system quickly crumbled and made way for the independent and international markets to take over. A lot of what’s covered here is fairly old hat. Anyone already briefly familiar with Hollywood history will be aware of the rise of exploitative elements in film after the eradication of studio censorship, and particularly the unrestrained nudity that was being widely accepted with the radical cultural changes of the day. This is where the brief mentions of European films such as Peeping Tom (1960) and Blow-Up (1966) are given quick acknowledgements. This is also where the flimsy structure of Skin begins to unravel. 

As the title indicates, Skin is a comprehensive historical examination of nudity in film. But history is more than just a recounting of which films display nudity and how much is shown. While the first thirty minutes of the documentary contains a careful balance of cultural context and the behind-the-scenes enforcement of nudity on the screen, increasingly the documentary drifts away from this integral background information and focuses almost exclusively on listing the various important films which featured nudity at the time. Less and less historical experts appear to weigh in on how nude scenes were practiced and the purpose of their implementation, as we are inundated with a mob of actors, directors, producers, and agents, all of whom are utilized to relay amusing anecdotes about what it’s like to perform or participate in a nude scene without further examination of the forces behind their institution. Part of this can be traced to just the sheer volume of film history needing to be covered in a timely manner, but another part is the overabundance of films and filmmakers chosen to contribute to the subject matter. One could easily achieve a more thorough examination of a filmic period by choosing to focus on one or several films instead, with passing reference to other important works as opposed to dividing precious amounts of screentime to a number of superfluous or repetitive films. This deluge of celebrity experiences clogs the film with a number of light-hearted recollections from the likes of Malcolm McDowell, Peter Bogdanovich, Pam Grier, Camille Keaton, Joe Dante, and many more, but it also leads to a significant downplaying of the uncomfortable, underlying issues prevalent in this history of nudity on film. 

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Marilyn Monroe performing a nude scene for the uncompleted Something’s Got to Give.

Rampant sexual abuse, exploitation, and external pressure is an inseparable aspect of nudity in film that director Danny Wolf attempts to skirt past despite showcasing a clear understanding of the intrinsic link. The film opens with an examination of how the #MeToo movement was spurred by allegations of sexual misconduct throughout the movie business and specifically how innumerable actresses were coaxed into performing non-consensual acts for roles in movies or, alternatively, face being blacklisted forever. This troubling truth is largely dropped after the opening minutes but the film can’t escape the reality despite efforts of suppression. Linda Blair’s testimony in receiving horrible physical abuse during the filming of Chained Heat (1983) is clearly heard, but the film quickly moves on without properly dealing with the ramifications of such irrefutable acts. More disgustingly, one interviewee does his share of victim blaming in the infamous case of Maria Schneider’s accusations against Marlon Brando and Bernado Bertolucci during Last Tango in Paris (1972). The controversy remains a topic of much contention and debate to this day, but for a film purportedly on the side of a women’s movement in support of validating all voices of proclaimed victims of sexual assault, Skin decides to advocate for the dismissal of one of the most notorious cases of alleged sexual misconduct in film history.

Despite this grievous oversight of an ongoing issue surrounding the topic of discussion, there are a number of insightful anecdotes yet explored as Skin moves on from the salacious seventies to the increasingly libidinous sex cravings of the Eighties. As the most prominent female filmmaker in the documentary, a favorable amount of attention is given to director Amy Heckerling and her touchstone teen comedy, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). The iconic fantasy sequence of Phoebe Cates discarding her crimson bikini top to the pulsing track of The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo” is covered in earnest, and so, too, is the more delicate subject of adolescent sexual inexperience through the lens of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, which has often been left behind when discussing the film’s legacy. She also provides a much appreciated insight into the hypocritical side of nudity on film, as she recalls how the studio forced a more tame rendering of this awkward sexual encounter to avoid the depiction of excessive male nudity, thus saving the film from the treacherous X rating. The candid bitterness with which she recalls this butchering of her vision showcases the further exploitation of female nudity for male audiences while rejecting equivalent male depictions under tenuous justifications.

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Director Amy Heckerling speaking for Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies

The problematic depiction of history frustratingly continues with deceptive framing of Cerina Vincent’s acceptance of playing an entirely nude role throughout Not Another Teen Movie (2001). Her testimony betrays an uncomfortable resignation to a degrading role she never wanted to audition for, with the studio and filmmakers pressuring and pushing her into a situation she was clearly uncomfortable with, but by constantly cutting to more jovial talking heads, and using the comical nature of her footage from the film to downplay her critical account, it’s all too clear the film seeks to avoid controversy by capitalizing on the humorous and titillating nature of nudity, and ignoring the more uncomfortable aspects of its history. The film flimsily directs itself towards a flacid conclusion, skipping over the entirety of the 2010s aside from the passive commendation of tacit nudity in Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). The film circles back to an empty examination of nudity in the frame of the #MeToo movement, proving the hollow framing device to be a shallow excuse for exploring a pertinent subject matter that doesn’t actually need a modern parallel to be relevant. The history of nudity in film is a point of great interest without needing to find a flimsy thread of connectivity to modern social movements.

The biggest issues holding back Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies from being a truly commendable document of an extensive historical subject, aside from its irresponsible neglect of deep-seated issues within the film industry connected to nudity and the subjugation of women for their bodies, is the general bloat that comes with bringing in too many voices for a single topic of discussion. While the extent of the subject certainly requires a bigger pool of experts and firsthand accounts, a more structured approach to telling this ongoing history is certainly in order if you want to streamline it for a single film. The first half is full of fascinating, often overlooked aspects of film history and the various ways in which sexuality was utilized for both artistic and exploitative interests, and the ways in which those endeavors were quashed by a puritanical system. For those who are already well-versed in the broad acts of American film history, the rest may not be quite so informative, and may even frustrate with what is left unsaid. But for those yet to be initiated, Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies manages to fulfill its intent of being a comprehensive overview of the depiction of nudity in American films, even if it does flounder with the more uncomfortable facts of its actualization.

5/10

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Avid film enthusiast. I watch, write, collect, and dissect all things film and film history. Proud resident of the beautiful Pacific Northwest, I relish in sharing my thoughts and critiques with all of you wonderful people out there in the dark.

Twitter: @DavidAPunch
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