Even those who consider themselves experts in the subject will find a provocative treasure trove of images and anecdotes in “Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies.” Danny Wolf’s documentary is a breezy, open-eyed, and often encyclopedic compendium of all the ways the cinema has celebrated, exploited, and negotiated the power of the naked body. The film opens with a montage of actors and directors (Sean Young, Eric Roberts, Peter Bogdanovich) recalling the first movie they ever saw that had nudity in it, and that allows the film, in its early moments, to leap through some of Nudity’s Greatest Hits (“Ecstasy,” “Last Tango in Paris,” “The Blue Lagoon,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”).
As it moves back in time, one of the documentary’s fascinations is the way it’s constantly juxtaposing big Hollywood movies and European art movies and softcore exploitation films and everything in between. That, of course, is just as it should be. Aesthetically, there’s a world of difference between “Vixen” and “The Virgin Spring,” yet nudity, as “Skin” captures in its lively and disarming way, is the great leveler: the thing that makes us all gawk, no matter what the context.
If there were a naked person on the street, most of us would stop and look. Nudity on film, likewise, taps into a hard-wired entanglement of awe and fear and everyday beauty and curiosity. Even serious films like “Blow-Up” and “Last Tango” draw deeply on our voyeurism; even Russ Meyer’s tawdry drive-in fare can offer the grunge version of an erotic aesthetic — a fleshpot vision of the world. “Skin” presents a historical parade of eroticized images, some of which are memorably sexy. But it also captures how nudity in the movies is really about the parts of life that usually get covered up.
The history of nudity on film is marked by two great pop-culture dramas. The first one goes back to the early days of cinema, when movies were emerging from the 19th century — but, shockingly, they were a lot less puritanical than we think. The first films, before anyone thought about shaping them into stories, had lots of casual nudity. And in the period around 1915, Audrey Munson, playing an artist’s nude model in silent films like “Inspiration” and “Purity,” became the most famous actress in America. But Munson tried to commit suicide by drinking mercury (she survived, and lived for the next 74 years, though mostly in a sanitarium), and that raises a question: Did appearing nude in a vast popular medium — at that point, an unprecedented act in human life — create feelings in an actress that were metaphysically disturbing?
“Skin” has been made with a post-#MeToo consciousness, which means that it’s always asking questions — the right ones — about the politics of nudity on film: what it’s actually like for the performers; the choices they felt they did or didn’t have; what passing through the looking glass of nudity in showbiz does to a person. When Marilyn Monroe died, in 1962, it was several weeks into the filming of “Something’s Got to Give,” a comeback comedy for which she had shot a nude scene (the one pictured above) — which would have been the first in any Hollywood studio film since the dawn of the Production Code. Did that do a number on Monroe’s psyche? In “Skin,” actresses from Sylvia Miles to Mariel Hemingway to Mamie Van Doren testify to how doing nude scenes toyed with their souls.
At the same time, the film captures how raw and free the cinema could be before the Code, from the nude extras in the Babylon debauchery scenes of D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” (1916) to the bared breast of Clara Bow in the first Oscar-winning best picture, “Wings” (1927); from Hedy Lamarr scampering through the wilderness in the revolutionary “Ecstasy” (1933) to the first use of a body double in “Tarzan and His Mate” (1934), when a model stood in for Maureen O’Sullivan during a nude underwater swimming scene. But the Code, designed by Will Hays, with the laces tightened by the religious scold Joseph Breen, outlawed nudity in the movies for the next 30 years.
This, of course, was the other great drama, the one that built in tandem with the cultural revolution of the ’60s: the slaying of the dragon of Victorianism, which happened at the movies. “Skin” shows us all the films that, collectively, kicked open the door, from Brigitte Bardot in “And God Created Woman” (1956) to the nudist-camp and nudie-cutie films that had begun to flourish on the underground margins (Francis Coppola directed several of these) to Meyer’s “The Immoral Mr. Teas” (1959), the rare softcore fantasy made with visual wit (it was a groundbreaking hit), to the “Psycho” shower scene to the studio picture that finally broke the nudity barrier in 1963: “Promises, Promises,” with Jayne Mansfield lolling around topless.
Then it was on to “Blow-Up” (the flash of Jane Birkin’s pubic hair was a first) and “I Am Curious (Yellow)” and “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider” and “Midnight Cowboy,” the women-in-prison films and Pam Grier thrillers, and at that point the naked genie was out of the bottle. We hear a funny story about how the extended nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in “Women in Love” (1969) was trimmed down for American audiences, and as a result of the trimming it became — by implication — a sex scene (which it had never been). The X rating, though, was ultimately a folly, co-opted by the porn industry (because it hadn’t been copyrighted). Yet it hardly mattered since nudity in the movies was now everywhere.
Erica Gavin, the star of “Vixen,” is interviewed in “Skin,” and she tells the dark story of seeing herself in that movie for the first time, and how it spurred her to a bout of anorexia, which resulted in her starving herself down to 76 pounds. The Hollywood actresses we hear from who appeared in later films, many of them studio sex comedies, are all over the map about their experiences. Yet there’s no denying that what might be called the golden age of nudity in cinema was marked, at moments, by a glorified peepshow mentality. Malcolm McDowell talks about the insanity of shooting “Caligula” (the most high-end porn film ever made), and Sean Young is eloquent on the absurdity of shooting the limo-sex scene in “No Way Out,” where she had to have her clothes off and Kevin Costner could keep his on (but, according to Young, he was the one nervous about shooting the scene). By the time the documentary gets to “American Pie” (1999), there’s something a little depressing about realizing that we’re seeing, in the nude scenes, a kind of mainstream sleaze redux — another go-round of “Porky’s.”
Yet the reality the documentary captures is that nudity in the movies, even in any one scene, is rarely just one thing, at least to the audience. Quite often at the same moment, we are prurient and we are innocent. We are objectifying and we are identifying. We are detached and we are curious blue. We’re gawking at others and we’re looking at ourselves.