Thursday, February 09, 2006

Because I can't resist the temptation to write about pretty young actresses getting naked

Salon has a new bloggishy section called Broadsheet---well, it's new to me---which seems to be devoted to, among other things, resenting the fact that there are women in the world men want to see naked and some of these women are willing to let men see them that way.

Ok, that's probably an unfair snap judgment based on the very first two posts I read. One is about the cover of Vanity Fair's new Hollywood Issue, which features Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson nude. The other is about Uma Thurman's recent knighting by the French---I didn't know the French still bestowed knighthoods---to honor her great contributions to society by having been born beautiful. In both posts the writers don't see anything fun or amusing about the situations or consider the possibility that Knightley, Johansson, and Thurman might have had some say in what was going on and even enjoyed themselves.

(Shakespeare's Sister sent me the link, knowing my feelings about Uma.)

Like I said, there is no sense in either post that the actresess might have been happy and willing participants in what both writers clearly regard as degrading affairs. What there is is the unfortunate habit some feminists have of treating women who do things they themselves don't approve of---taking jobs as strippers, marrying men and bearing their children, voting Republican, being born beautiful and talented enough that glossies with huge circulations want them to pose for their covers and European nations addicted to wine and cheese and having a reputation for producing the most beautiful women in the world decide to honor them as if they are one of their own---as hapless victims and mindless accomplices in their own oppression and exploitation.

Page Rockwell sneers at those silly French for praising Uma for her "grace and sensuality" and her "classic and disconcerting beauty," pretty sorry reasons for admiring a movie star, if you ask Rockwell. She herself admires Thurman for being "savvy enough to take this fawning in stride." Rockwell, though, can't take it in stride and she scorns the French on Uma's behalf for their condescension and sexism. Smith herself knows the real reason to honor Uma Thurman.

"She kicks ass," Rockwell says triumphantly, linking to the official website for Kill Bill, and thereby she reduces Thurman's career to the most atypical of all the roles she's played, defining her by a movie that negated both her beauty and her talent and used her as puppet in Quentin Tarantino's creepy and ultra-violent video game fantasy.

(Yeah, I know, it was an movies that are creepy ultra-violent video game fantasies.)

Tracy Clark-Flory doesn't find the Vanity Fair cover objectionable so much as risible. But she harumphs as she comes to the defense of Knightley's and Johansson's dignity:

A number of Hollywood actors also posed for the issue, but no word yet whether they were also asked to bare all. Interesting that no matter their level of fame or success -- Knightley received a best-actress Oscar nomination for "Pride and Prejudice," while Johansson received a Golden Globes supporting-actress nomination for "Match Point" -- it's women who still face pressure to strip off their clothes.

There is definitely a double-standard when it comes to male and female beauty in Hollywood. (Is it really true that the female leads in Brokeback Mountain get nakeder than the male leads? I wouldn't be surprised.) A young actress is far more likely to be asked to take her clothes off and if she has any qualms about it and wants to refuse she has to worry that she'll lose the gig and her career will suffer if she says no. She wouldn't want it to get around that she is "difficult to work with."

I think there's less pressure than there used to be, for several reasons, one of them being the rising use of body doubles. A disappointing fact of life for makers of movies is that talent and beauty are not always located in the same body and the kinds of pretty faces the camera loves often sit atop unphotogenic figures---this is more the case these days because of a far more pernicious pressure young actresses face than having to get naked: having to be stick-figure skinny. I don't understand this one. The camera puts on 10 pounds excuse doesn't explain it, because the camera always put on 10 pounds, and at one time it was ok for actresses to be 120 pounds and look 130 on camera. Now they are supposed to be 90 or so and look 100. Why did the standard for female beauty go from voluptuous to skeletal? But it did, and this creates a problem. You don't want the audience to mistake a nude scene for a CARE commercial. But with a body double and some judicious camera placement and editing, a character who in her clothes looks anorexic turns out to be built like a centerfold when she's naked.

At any rate, when an actress reaches a certain level of box office appeal, she can tell any director or producer who wants her to show her tits on screen to go boil his head.

And both Keira Knightly and Scarlett Johansson have reached this level.

On top of which, they don't work for Vanity Fair.

So why did they pose naked for the cover?

Because they're actresses!

Actresses, and actors, tend to be uninhibited.

The reason there is so much more female nudity in the movies isn't simply that actresses are unfairly pressured. It's that actors are unfairly not asked.

The pressure on an actress who wants to maintain her modesty to bare all comes more from the fact that plenty of other actresses don't even have to be asked before they'll get out of their clothes.

I once sat in on an audition session a friend of mine was holding for an off-off (off) Broadway play he was directing. The play had a scene in which the lead female character bared her breasts. One of the actresses who came in to read for the part, and knew the play, insisted on reading that scene and without prompting, unbuttoned at the proper moment. My friend stopped her before she got her bra unhooked.

She got the part. Not because my friend was impressed by her can-do spirit. He knew her already and had worked with her. He had her mind for the part from the start, because she was good. But he also knew that when the time came he wouldn't have to pressure her to take her top off.

And---here I get to play Six Degrees From Kevin Bacon and tell you that I am three degrees away---I dated a girl whose sister, who wasn't an aspiring actress but who happened to be in the right place at the right time, got a part in a movie (with Kevin Bacon; I'm not telling you which one because you might be able to identify her from the details I'm about to give). She had one scene, a sex scene with the male lead, and she had to get naked. (Great body. Her sister was prettier though.) She did it, reluctantly, she informed her family, and if she'd known she would have to do it she wouldn't have taken the part!

That's what she told her father anyway.

She confided to her sister that she had known from the start, and while she was a bit scared at first, she decided it would be ok because several of the other actresses in the cast also had nude scenes.

Back in high school and college I spent a lot of time in the company of aspiring actors and actresses. All of them had come to terms with the fact that at some point in their future careers they would would be required to get naked on stage or in front of a camera. Some of them had resolved never to do it, whatever consequences it had professionally. Others resigned themselves to having to do it. And others not only didn't mind but began looking for opportunities to practice. Of course I was glad to do my bit to help them.

(Question: What am I missing here? One of my fondest memories from that period of my life is of being the only man in a conversation that included four of my actress friends discussing how naked they'd be willing to get when the time came. Only one of them felt she could do a complete nude scene. The other three decided they were willing to appear topless or wholly naked in profile, but they would not do full frontal and they would not show their rear ends. This struck me as odd. I understood about frontal, but I would have thought that going topless would have been more intimidating than appearing bare-bottomed. But they were insistant. I didn't get it then, and I don't get it now.)

Once upon a time, in the 1960s and early 1970s, when gratuitous nudity was the next new thing in Hollywood, many actresses were pressured, some to the point of being coerced, to do nude scenes. But that followed a, rare it turns out, period when pretty young actresses could expect to make movie after movie without even having to take a sweater off. Silent movies regularly featured nudity, male and female---Gary Cooper did a nude scene in one of his earliest films---and even into the thirties, semi-nudity and heavily implied nudity weren't an unusual part of a starlet's job. This is why there are so many nude and semi-nude glamour shots floating around of actresses from that period. And every aspiring actor and actress who has come of age since about 1970 has had to take into account the prospect when planning their careers. So whatever pressure there is isn't so much on actresses already in the business as on those still in high school and college and it works in such a way that they either give up the idea of becoming actors or resign themselves to having to do it or accepting the consequences of refusing.

I suspect that some who had decided they were willing to do it discover that they aren't as uninhibited as they thought when the time comes. Then whether or not they go through with it depends on the workings of their own consciences and egos, and fears, and the sensitivity of their directors. I wouldn't count on there being a whole lot of sensitive types in Hollywood, but, like I said, this is what body doubles are for.

But the truth is most people who go into acting have a strong streak of exhibitionism in them. From the beginning actors have had to do things in performance that aren't done in polite society or that polite society keeps hidden. One of the reasons we go to movies and plays and watch television is to spy on people doing things we aren't allowed to watch them do in politie society. Sometimes this has been nothing more than kissing on stage or showing a little leg, but it's been enough to get actresses a reputation that's barely above that of prostitute. At other times they've had to get naked or nearly so. But at all times it's included exposing themselves emotionally.

To act the part of a madman or a murderer, a whore or a betrayed wife, a cad or a violently jealous husband, a lover, a saint, or an angel of vengeance, requires an emotional nakedness that can be more terrifying and more demanding than simple physical nudity. It's harder to bare the soul than to bare your ass, and I think a lot of people get out of acting more because of that than because of any nude scenes they may or may not be asked to do. Actors who have no inhibitions about doing graphic sex scenes completely naked can't open themselves up convincingly enough to pull off a tender love scene.

My guess is that Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal didn't have anywheres near as much trouble playing gay men in Brokeback Mountain as they did portraying those men's pain, which is why they're both nominated for Academy Awards.

Getting naked is easy compared to the real hard work of acting. Particularly if you're young and good looking. This is why I don't believe producers and directors have to do very much pressuring to get young actresses to take off their clothes. Actually, point a camera at most people and they lose all their inhibitions, and the rise of digital photography has probably created a whole generation of closet centerfolds. I know a few housewives with portfolios of nude glamour shots---for their husbands' eyes only of course. I'm sure that if digital cameras had been available when I was in college I'd have quite a collection of "artistic" nudes of all my old girlfriends, even the ones who weren't aspiring actresses.

As for the Vanity Fair Hollywood Issue? I think Clark-Flory is right to sneer, the whole concept sounds stupid. How many Hollywood Issues does Vanity Fair publish a year anyway? Feels like 5 or 6. And the cover is depressingly unerotic. Maybe it looks different on the news stands, but online it looks as though Knightley and Johansson were made up and lit to look Corpse Bride white, and they are posed and photographed in a way that accentuates their slenderness to the point of their appearing stretched out like rubber dolls that have been played with too hard. Actually, they don't look like themselves at all. They look like cgi animated versions of themselves created for a movie in which they are turned into vampiresses.

If either actress is sorry she did the photo shoot it's probably because of how the pictures turned out, not because she felt pressured into doing it in the first place. Frankly, I doubt they minded it at all, even if there was some pressure from their publicists or studio or whoever might have clout enough to pressure the likes of them.

They are actresses, after all, pros. Knightley is a former model who did her first nude scene when she was 16. They might both be humble people but they aren't modest, and they don't need to be. Both are incredibly beautiful and probably proud of the fact and in the immortal words of the recently knighted Uma Thurman in her role as Ulla in The Producers:

"If you got it, flaunt it."



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