We've Got Hollywood Covered

‘Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies’ Film Review: The Naked Truth?

The filmmakers fit 150 different clips of on-screen exposure into the two hour movie, but they aren’t as completist when it comes to issues surrounding nudity


As the new documentary “Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies” points out, 2020 is a risky time to make movies that feature female nudity, particularly if it’s of the gratuitous kind. But, as “Skin” doesn’t say but does demonstrate, it’s also a risky time to make movies about onscreen nudity, even if you try to emphasize that it’s a work of scholarship not titillation.

To be sure, the film from writer-director Danny Wolf and writer Paul Fishbein (the “Time Warp” series of docs about cult films) takes a historical approach to the subject of on-screen flesh. It’s a chronological account that makes copious use of authors, critics, academics and even an art historian to talk about the place of the nude in art.

But it also illustrates the points they make with plenty of breasts, bums and penises. And its attempts to deal with issues like male/female power dynamics, nudity riders, intimacy coordinators and the repercussions of #MeToo movement can at times feel a little halfhearted compared to the zeal with which famous flesh is exhibited and often celebrated.

The film is certainly entertaining and even educational, with filmmakers and actors like Peter Bogdanovich, Malcolm McDowell, Amy Heckerling and Sean Young offering revealing (pardon the pun) looks at their adventures on the front lines. But it’s hard not to think that even as the filmmakers fit those stories plus clips from around 150 different movies into the 2-hour, 10-minute running time, they aren’t always as completist when it comes to important issues surrounding on-screen nudity.

And at a time of increasing consciousness about the ways in which the exploitation of women is baked into Hollywood’s DNA, the Quiver Distribution release runs the risk of occasionally seeming insensitive rather than just informative.

“Skin” does, however, acknowledge those issues at the beginning of the film, suggesting that we may be entering a new age when it comes to nudity. Its main concern, though, is documenting the old age, which it suggests began “probably 20 minutes after they invented film,” with Eadweard Muybridge’s early motion studies from the 1870s that often included nude figures. Later, pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès filmed a woman (who would later become his wife) nude from the back, while some independent filmmakers in the mid-1910s used films about a nude model to wrest attention from bigger-budget Thomas Edison productions.

For its opening stretch, the film is a history lesson with lots of interesting tidbits thrown in — among them the fact that the first-ever Academy Award winner for Best Picture, “Wings,” includes a quick glimpse of screen queen Clara Bow’s breasts. In the early days of the talkies, local censorship boards caused the nightmare of studios having to make different cuts for different states, which led to former U.S. postmaster general Will Hays writing the Motion Picture Production Code — though he did so mostly as a public relations ploy, with no intention of actually enforcing its decrees against nudity or immorality of any kind.

The “Pre-Code” movies of the early 1930s — which actually were made after the Code was written but before it was enforced — are another fruitful area for “Skin,” but Hollywood nudity dried up after Joseph Breen stepped in and began to zealously enforce the Code. The film deals with the ’40s to some degree, but it quickly skips ahead to the ’50s, when the Code began to weaken and flesh became a popular draw for films that ignored it altogether. There were nudist camp movies that had no sexual content and pretended to be educational, then “monster nudies” in which costumed creatures invariably chased women in various stages of undress, then comic “nudie cuties.”

Closer to mainstream, Marilyn Monroe showed that nudity can help a career and Brigitte Bardot showed it could be profitable with Roger Vadim’s “And God Created Women” — and within a decade, the Production Code was dead, replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings system, which was concerned with labeling nudity, not banning it.

At this point, the film scrolls through a large number of “landmarks” of exposure, and it begins to get a little tiring, as its array of (predominantly male) talking heads describe one nude scene after another (with visual accompaniment, of course). It doesn’t help that one of the most prevalent voices — and an executive producer of the film — is Jim McBride, creator of the Mr. Skin website, who often sports something of a gleeful smirk every time he describes a favorite nude scene.

Still, Peter Bogdanovich’s stories about the nudity in “The Last Picture Show” and Malcolm McDowell’s about how he inadvertently became the poster boy for male frontal nudity make the movie more interesting; it’s generally better when the people talking about these movies are the ones who made them rather than the ones who are analyzing their importance to the world of on-screen nudity.

The final hour of “Skin” is a dizzying compendium of exposure, jumping from serious works of cinema like “Midnight Cowboy,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Last Picture Show” and “Last Tango in Paris” to women-in-prison flicks, from Blake Edwards’ Hollywood satire “S.O.B.” (in which Julia Andrews famously flashed her breasts) to “The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood,” from a teen classic like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to a straight exploitation movie like “Private School.”

That last film is one of several that seems to get an inordinate amount of attention, largely because their actresses did interviews for the documentary. (The X-rated “Alice in Wonderland,” the Traci Lords vehicle “Not of This Earth” and Kevin Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” are others.)

But Wolf and Fishbein are trying to cover the whole spectrum here, both the classy and the cheesy. They do so with enthusiasm and energy, a seemingly inexhaustible pile of film clips and an apparent desire to turn this into an alternative history of Hollywood. To a degree, they succeed, though they also seem to skirt issues that ought to be addressed, among them is the fact that any on-screen exposure will live forever on the internet, completely divorced from the original context. (Of course, McBride is one of the guys who specializes in making sure exposure lives on, and so is another of the film’s talking heads, Celebrity Sleuth publisher Barry Kemelhor.)

We get a few glimpses of a darker side: Russ Meyer actress Erica Gavin talking about how seeing herself nude onscreen drove her to near-fatal anorexia, “The Last American Virgin” actress Diane Franklin admitting that actresses today thankfully have more options than she ever did. But “Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies” is less interested in interrogating its subject than in exploring it, and creating an overview that can include “Intolerance” and “Boogie Nights,” Alfred Hitchcock and Russ Meyer, Hedy Lamarr and Sharon Stone, Claudette Colbert and Pam Grier, Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in “Women in Love” and Sacha Baron Cohen and Ken Davitian in “Borat.”

It’s a movie with a lot of memorable moments, even if it may not be the movie for this particular moment.