Friday, February 10, 2006

More naked actresses---because February is sweeps month

Following up on yesterday's post.

As someone who has made a movie featuring gratuitious scenes of female nudity, I believe that most female nudity in the movies is gratuitous.

The question of how much pressure actresses feel to get naked on camera is separate from the question, "Why should they?"

I think it's also separate from the issue of the double standard. Should more men be asked to get naked on screen? The polls are open. I'd guess that if they were asked, most actors would have the same attitude as most actresses. Eventually. It could take some getting used to. A generation might have to pass in which older actors who'd gotten into the game when regular male nudity wasn't a job requirement left the stage to be replaced by younger actors who'd grown up knowing they'd might have to do nude scenes all in a day's work, just as happened for actresses in the 60s and 70s, and just as it was for the actresses of the time, there might be a period when there was pressure and coercion.

The aspiring male actors I knew in college mostly professed to being relaxed about the prospect of getting naked on stage someday---"Whatever it takes, man." But the truth was the prospect was not as imminent for them as it was for the actresses I knew.

Now, of those four young actresses who told me the limits of their modesty, only two went on to have professional careers of any length, and only one of them ever had to appear even topless on the job (professionally---you can't really count my student film) during the 10 or so years she was in the business. But three of the men I was friends with became professionals and two of them had to do nude scenes and the other one could have done one if he'd wanted---he was in a wild production of The Jacobean revenge tragedy, The White Devil, by John Webster, that featured at least half the cast getting naked on stage.

Jacobean revenge tragedies are silly affairs that start out ridiculous and grow more and more absurd as the dead bodies pile up. Their plots often turn on issues of illicit sex, usually adultery, but frequently incest, brother-sister incest being the most popular combination. So adding lots of gratuitious nudity to the sex and violence is thematically and stylistically justifiable. It depends, of course, on how you stage it.

And here's an important part of the question for actors and actresses of whether or not to appear naked.

Being naked isn't anything in itself. It depends on what you have to do while you are naked. It's one thing to take a shower, undress for sex, skinny dip, or just walk across the set for some reason the director deems essential to his artistic vision. It's quite another to have to simulate sex and another to have to do what the lead actress in that production of The White Devil had to do, which was to stand fully naked, facing the audience straight on, and masturbate to a picture of her murdered husband.

That, by the way, was one of the least risible and shocking moments in the play. It was also one of the dullest, even though the actress was gorgeous and, um, believable. Actually, all the sex, violence, and nudity got tedious. I had fun counting the number of people in the audience walking out throughout and trying to gauge from their faces whether they were leaving because they were offended or because they were bored.

The guy I went to school with played a character who was foully murdered in Act II or III. (A character who is foully murdered describes most of the dramatis personae of The White Devil, I think.) The script calls for his bloody corpse to be dragged on stage by his revenge-seeking brother. The director decided that the corpse should be stark naked.

The actor decided that it shouldn't.

The director said it would be.

The actor said "Over my dead body."

The director said, "Fun-nee." But he gave up. The corpse was dragged out fully covered in a zip-up body bag with one naked, blood-streaked arm sticking out.

Got a good laugh.

I can't recollect anymore if the actress had veto power over her scene. I think I remember the actor saying the director gave her the option of wearing a nightgown but not of passing on the auto-eroticism.

The fact is that actors aren't asked to get naked as often as actresses and I'll bet they have more freedom to refuse, mainly because male nudity is still considered transgressive in some way.

I believe the first actress Jack Nicholson asked to star opposite him in his remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice was Meryl Streep. If it wasn't Streep, it was a young actress of equal seriousness and repute. It wasn't Jessica Lange, who wound up playing the part, though. Whoever it was, when he approached her he told her that the part would require her to get naked for some explicit sex scenes. She said she was fine with that---as long as Nicholson got naked too.

He cast Lange.

That was a generation ago and I don't know how the dynamic would play out now, if say it was George Clooney asking Keira Knightley to star in his movie. (It's funny that Nicholson is still an enforcing agent of a double standard, this one for older stars. Diane Keaton and Kathy Bates both got naked in recent movies Nicholson kept his clothes on in.) The important point is that Nicholson, a serious artist if a deeply unserious man, thought that it was artisitcally justifiable to include a realistic sex scene in which only the woman was naked.

Or shown naked.

If he could wear some clothes, why couldn't she?

To put this more generally, if the guys can keep their clothes on in movies, why can't the girls?

Men shower. They have sex. They skinny dip. They even walk across rooms naked.

But apparently they don't do any of these things naked in movies, even get naked.

And if they don't have to, why do the women?

Well, because the scripts call for it.

And why do the scripts call for it? Is it artistically and thematically justified? Is it necessary to the plot?


Back in the days before cable, video, dvds, and NYPD Blue and the relaxation of standards for network television, it was usual for people making a movie to make two versions, one for the theater, the other for television. Up until recently, if you saw the movie my girlfriend's sister did a nude scene in on television, you saw her wearing her skirt and a bra. (You also heard her co-stars cursing a lot less and saying things like shoot instead of shit.) Before that, it was a regular practice to film two versions of a movie, one for American theaters, and one that featured nudity and more explicit sex for European audiences.

Usually, when you watched the TV version the changes were laughable. But they didn't do serious harm to the movie as a work of visual storytelling. Which is a way of saying that the nudity (and the cursing) in the theatrical versions were not necessary.

That doesn't mean they were gratuitous.

There is a difference between unnecessary and gratituitous. Unnecessary scenes, nude or otherwise, may be artistically, thematically, and stylistically justifiable. Writers and directors have to ask themselves if those scenes will also be effective.

(Being able to justify their inclusion on the grounds that they are "realistic" is irrelevent. Movies aren't real life. Everything in them is artificial. Whether or not a real person in a real life situation would be naked at that moment doesn't mean that an actor playing a fictional version of that situation needs to be.)

There might seem to be a lot of nudity in the movies---and increasingly on television---but when you look over an individual actor or an actress's career you will see that he and even she has done very few nude scenes. It's not just the case that as soon as they get the box office clout most actresses start refusing to do them, although that happens often. It's that most serious movies (artistically serious---comedies are serious business) don't waste time on scenes that aren't needed or that don't advance the plot or deepen our understanding of the characters or the movie's themes.

Most nudity in movies is gratuitous and most of it appears in un-serious movies, in movies that aren't about anything much more than putting people in the seats of movie theaters holding jumbo size sodas and giant barrels of popcorn.

Young actresses and actors whose careers survive early appearances in schlock and who go on to work in serious movies are rarely called upon to strip off again.

Movies that aspire to be taken seriously and include gratuitous nudity are hurting themselves.

Blue Girl mentioned that she finds nudity in movies distracting. I do too. Because it usually is just a distraction. To get it in, the moviemakers have to stop their stories dead in their tracks or send them off on tangents that are hard to return from.

Yes, people in real life shower, have sex, skinny dip, and walk across the room for no good reason naked. But they tend to do it when they are not in the middle of more important matters, when they can take a break from the stories of their lives.

When a movie shows us a character showering, having sex, skinny dipping, or walking naked across a room for no good reason, it's usually---although not always---because the movie's taking a break from its own story, and that's distracting.

As much as I might enjoy seeing Keira Knightley or Scarlett Johansson naked (I can't see Uma, she says she won't do any more nude scenes) there's a time and a place. I'd rather see whether or not Keira realizes that Mr Darcy loves her or if Scarlett's going to get murdered (Don't tell me!!!!!!) in Match Point.

In Twilight, Reese Witherspoon strolls into a kitchen topless trying either to tempt or just completely unnerve Paul Newman, I'm not sure which, it's not that good a movie. The scene may or may not be a conscious rip-off of a similar scene in Shampoo in which Carrie Fisher's character sets out to seduce Warren Beatty.

Now, when she was 19, Carrie Fisher had a much better figure than Reese Witherspoon had at 21 and far more lovely breasts. And from what I've heard about Fisher at that age, I don't think she'd have been all that modest about showing those lovely breasts on screen. But she does that scene in a white tennis outfit and is still more powerfully sexual than Reese managed to be topless. And Witherspoon is by far the better actress. The talent difference between the two scenes though isn't in the young actresses' skills or their breasts. It's in the directors' and writers' skills.

Warren Beatty, who co-wrote Shampoo with Robert Towne, and Hal Ashby who directed it, understood that it wasn't necessary for Carrie Fisher's character to get naked to seduce Beatty's character. Beatty, being a great appreciator of women as sexual beings---and according to Julie Christie and Annette Bening as human beings---knows how much power they can exert with just a look, a gesture, a wiggle, or a flounce of skirt. Furthermore, he knows that the very nearness of a luscious 19 year old can unnerve a man. Ashby directed the scene accordingly and it's very sexy.

Robert Benton, who directed Twilight, is a good director, but I think he got lazy with this scene. He let Witherspoon's naked breasts do the job that Witherspoon herself could very easily have done. Furthermore, Newman's character was supposed to be close to his own age, an old man afraid he is losing his strength and competence and reason to live---lazily symbolized by his being impotent. Reese could have walked in wearing a parka and caused a guy like that to panic. As it is, she's coming in from the pool, so she'd have been wearing a bathing suit, more than enough to do the job on Newman's ego. The scene would have worked better if she'd strolled on wearing both halves of her bikini. Then it would have been a scene about Newman's sexual anxieties. Instead, it's a scene about what small tits Reese Witherspoon has.

In The Wedding Crashers, Vince Vaughn's character is woken up in the middle of the night to find Isla Fisher tying his wrists to the bedposts. That's not what wakes him up though. Fisher's character wakes him gently by tickling his lips with her nipples. It's a shot of the one of the most spectacular breasts I've seen on or off the screen, absolutely stunning, but not distracting (except that I immediately suspected a body double at work) because although it's not strictly necessary it's effective storytelling.

Fisher's character is wild, wilder than Vaughn's character suspects, which means she's wilder than up to till that point the audience knows. Tying him to the bedposts shows she's kinky. But using her breasts like that shows she is truly sexy and that she wants to please and to be pleased, not just dominate.

You can make the case that she could have shown this by waking him with a kiss or that she could have been wearing sexy underwear and teased him awake with a taste of her latest purchase from Victoria's Secret.

Personally, I'm more distracted when a director sets up a scene calling for gratuitious nudity and then lets the actors cover up or frames the shot to hide the nudity than by actual gratuitous nudity, but I'm not sure having Fisher wearing a pretty bra wouldn't have done the trick just as well. But the scene isn't just there to show us her character's wild side or her passionate side. It's there to set us up for the two characters to fall in love. Vaughn is shocked when he opens his eyes to find her breast so close to his face, of course. But part of his shock is how beautiful she is. This is the moment when he finds out just how crazy she really is but it's also the moment when he begins to realize he likes that about her and likes her. And part of the point of the scene is to make us see her as he's seeing her and be just as shocked that she is actually a beautiful and tender-hearted young woman not just a comic freak.

As beautiful as the topless shot is, even more beautiful are the shots of her naked back and rear end (although again I was distracted by suspicions of a body double. Fisher seemed to have grown a few inches taller and become broader in the shoulders.) and part of her beauty is her vulnerability in the moment of her apparent dominance.

Her nudity isn't necessary, but it's effective, and possibly more effective than having her wearing something would have been. It's justified thematically and even helps move the story along. On top of which it's realistic, although that doesn't count for much since Wedding Crashers is hardly a realistic movie.

Twilight is more realistic and in real life spoiled daughters of movie stars sunbathe topless around their parents' pools and some of them may not bother to reach for their tops or their towels before wandering into the house to get a drink from the fridge. And Robert Benton may have told himself, and her, that Witherspoon's naked breasts were thematically justified. But having her appear topless wasn't necessary to the plot or the development of the characters and it wasn't as effective as having her appear clothed but acting would have been.

One more example and then I'm going to let you go to work.

Wings of the Dove ends with a sex scene in which Helena Bonham Carter becomes I think the only serious actress to show as much of herself on screen as Jenna Jameson.

It's startling.

But not distracting.

And not gratuitous.

The movie is coming to a close and Bonham Carter's character, Kate Croy, is desperate. She's realized that Merton Densher doesn't love her anymore, that he's planning to leave her. She is frantic and wants to do something, anything to keep him. Kate's problem is that she has been up to this point playing it very cool, too cool. She has been cynical and pragmatic and for her purposes it's been necessary that she downplay her own emotions, which has had the effect of hiding from herself as well as from Densher how much she loves him.

Now, you could say that because the movie is based on a Henry James novel and Henry James' novels are set in Henry James' time, the late 19th Century and early part of the 20th, and people back then were more sexually reticent, a good option for Kate would be to take him to bed.

The director's problem, though, is that he's already showed us that the two of them have had sex. What's more, they've been using sex to keep each other at a distance. They slept together at a time when that was a really big and transgressive deal as a substitute for revealing the depths of their feelings.

The director, Iain Softley, had to come up with something intense, revelatory, and quick, because he has very little time left in his movie, the story has reached its denouement. There is no time left for any extended dialogue in which Kate can tell him how she feels. Softley might have been able to come up with something symbolic she could have done.

But he decided on another sex scene but a very different one. This time the characters would be nakeder. Since nudity is not as revealing to contemporary audiences as it might have been to real life versions of Kate Croy and Merton Densher, Softley needed something more, something that would reveal the extent that Kate was going to show Densher her true self. Bonham Carter helped him with that by showing much more of herself to the audience than the audience for that sort of movie would have been expecting.

So I think the nudity (and Linus Roache is more naked than most serious male actors ever get) and the explicitness of the sex are artistically justified, effective, and finally necessary to telling the story.

Kate offers herself completely to Densher and he rejects her anyway. He'd rather live with the memory of the dead Milly Theale than with the very much alive and in the flesh Kate.

So, here's your homework for the weekend: Give me an example of a great nude scene or sex scene, gratuitous or not. Alternatively or in addition, give an example or two of the most gratuitious scenes you can think of.

On the subject of male nudity and the vanity of actors, Gregory Thelen left this funny comment on yesterday's post.

tigtog, who doesn't agree with me that the double standard is a separate question, left a link on yesterday's post to the second best thing I've read about the Vanity Fair cover.

The best thing I've read is the Siren's comment, which I'm going to post whole here, because some people just don't have time to search through the comments:

It's a typical Leibowitz cover, overretouched and making the subjects look about as come-hither as the smoked-fish counter at Russ & Daughters. Actually, the smoked-fish counter is eminently droolworthy. What I wouldn't give for some of their sable right now ...

Where was I? The actresses are very beautiful and as a fair-skinned lass myself I am personally ecstatic to see such acres of alabaster, tan-free skin. But their expressions are glassy-eyed and vacuous and Tom Ford's pose just looks like a staged version of a Fashion Week air-kiss. It makes me cringe. I don't know why VF, an admirable magazine in so many ways, persists in posing ravishing young actresses in ways that make them look like tired call girls.

And don't forget. Nominations for the Swimmy Awards are still open over at Nite Swimming. Cali dem wants to know your picks for the best political song, movie, and book you heard, saw, or read last year.


At 5:22 AM, Blogger George Forgan-Smith said...

I think I have seen that over at Would that be right?


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