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Oscar’s Penis Problem: Why Does the Academy Ignore Actors Doing Full Frontal?

Nightmare Alley Power of the Dog
Nightmare Alley: Kerry Hayes/ 20th Century Studios; Power of the Dog: Courtesy of Netflix

If you want to win an Oscar, does it help to have a nude scene? That depends on if you’re competing in the best actor or actress category.

In the past, we’ve seen victories for actresses who bare it all onscreen — such as Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball” (2001) or Kate Winslet in “The Reader” (2008). Still, there haven’t been as many accolades for men who do the same. Just look at Michael Fassbender’s performance as a sex addict in “Shame” (2011), which was egregiously ignored despite critical acclaim.

This year, there seems to be one thing that several of the best male performances of the year have in common — full-frontal nudity. Benedict Cumberbatch coats his nude body in mud before his hand discreetly drops his phallus in Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog.” At the same time, Bradley Cooper’s manhood is submerged but visible in a bathtub before Toni Collette reaches for it in Searchlight Pictures’ “Nightmare Alley.” They’re considered among the frontrunners for best actor.

Red Rocket Suzanna Son Simon Rex

Simon Rex’s visceral work as a former porn star in A24’s “Red Rocket” is on the long list of best actor hopefuls. Still, it includes an extended streaking scene with the 47-year-old running through the streets of Texas City, Texas. At the Cannes Film Festival, where “Red Rocket” premiered in July, the actor declined to elaborate on whether it’s really him or wearing a prosthetic in the scene. But does it really matter?

Harvey Keitel knows what it feels like to be overlooked by AMPAS all too well. He landed some of the best reviews for Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant” (1992), which won him an Independent Spirit Award, and Jane Campion’s “The Piano” (1993). The latter drama picked up eight Oscar noms, but nothing for Keitel’s soaring work. He’s fully nude in both of the movies.

When it comes to actors showing it all, Hollywood has been a bit conservative. Directors and cinematographers have navigated various ways to shoot blink-and-you-miss-it nudity (even “The Full Monty,” with its four Oscars nominations in 1998, didn’t live up to its title). That helped past nominees such as Edward Norton (“American History X”), but not Ben Affleck (“Gone Girl”). Mark Wahlberg, who wore a prosthetic in “Boogie Nights” (1997), also didn’t feel any Academy love.

The truth is, there’s no rhyme or reason for what will work with voters when it comes to nudity. These issues can be traced back to the MPAA. Showing a penis in your film typically has been an express pass to a “no rating,” which means that United States exhibitors won’t show your feature. But they receive an “R” rating when breasts and lady parts are displayed.

In 1968, MPAA had the “X” rating to designate explicit and excessive violence and sexuality in films. In 1990, NC-17 replaced it to prevent anyone under 17 from being admitted, regardless of parental accompaniment. Society’s acceptance of unfamiliar imagery and themes have made many fearful of what art can “possibly influence upon youngsters” as what was given to the only X-rated best picture winner “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), which was later changed to “R” in 1971.

But, of course, it’s the studios’ job to sell to Oscars voters that any such nudity is in the name of art and not gratuitous. The one actor who seems to have walked this line? Viggo Mortensen. He disrobed in “Eastern Promises” (2007) and “Captain Fantastic” (2016), and voters still invited him to put on a tux to the Oscars for both those films.

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