Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies

Let's be honest about something: We've all enjoyed cinematic nudity at some point. Maybe for reasons of pure titillation, maybe because the use of nudity in a scene made it feel profound. Regardless, it's often something that makes us sit up and take notice. The documentary Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies is exactly what it sounds like – an examination of how cinema has used naked people throughout the decades. Perhaps obviously, it isn't boring.

Director Danny Wolf starts off in the earliest days of motion pictures, as D.W. Griffith included nudity in Intolerance, then moves on to the pre-code era, when well-known actresses like Hedy Lamarr and Claudette Colbert shed their clothing for roles. The impact of the Hayes Code, which put stringent limits on what could be said/shown onscreen, is examined, as is the eventual creation of the MPAA ratings code we're all familiar with today. Film critics and filmmakers – including Kevin Smith, Joe Dante, and Amy Heckerling – appear to comment on these issues, as well as to discuss the use of nudity in their own work.

Skin provides a good history lesson on cinematic nudity. What comes across is that the amount audiences would accept shifted according to the culture. In certain times, like the '60s and early '70s, there was a more liberal view of it, thanks to the sexual revolution and the “porno chic” fad kicked off by Deep Throat. In other times, nudity was more taboo, as local censors clutched their pearls and literally snipped entire sequences out of pictures. The look at how Hollywood avoided that problem by deciding to police itself via the MPAA didn't tell me anything I didn't already know, but for those who haven't already studied the issue, it will be informative.

Some of the specifics Skin gets into are smart. Mariel Hemingway, Malcolm MacDowell, Cerina Vincent, Shannon Elizabeth, and Diane Franklin are among the stars who weigh in on how being nude in films helped or hurt their careers. Appearing naked put a few them on the map; a couple found themselves typecast in roles that required them to shed their clothes. This is one of the documentary's major points: done gratuitously, nudity can be a career-killer, yet done right, it can make someone a star (i.e. Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct).

Another shrewd angle is looking at the effect of the #MeToo movement on movies. The days of asking, for example, an actress to reveal her breasts during an audition are (thankfully) over. An increased awareness of sexual inappropriateness is changing what happens on film sets, where “intimacy coordinators” are now present during love scenes to choreograph the movements in a way that the actors are comfortable with. A director can no longer turn the camera on and tell the performers to “go for it” during a sex scene. Everyone has to be on the same page.

There haven't been any particularly notable nudity-related issues in the movie world since the creation of the NC-17 rating back in 1990. For that reason, Skin's final hour basically morphs into just a rundown of famous nude scenes from films of the past thirty years. Nothing substantive is left to say after a while. Nevertheless, it's always entertaining, thanks to extensive use of clips and some great anecdotes from the various interview subjects.

Like I said, it's not boring.

out of four

Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies is unrated, but contains adult language and near non-stop nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.