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Sodom on the Pacific & Flesh on the Screen: Skin-A History of Nudity in the Movies (2020)

Tittering, tongues-a-wagging, gasping, pearl-clutching, moral horror, lewd titillation, minor amusement, and total disinterest are all just some of the key emotions that audiences, especially Western ones, have towards nudity. If you think outside any of the religious and societal constructs you have been raised with, it’s almost comical. Everyone is born naked and in a world that has housed horrors ranging from war and mutilation to Bob Seger’s “Still the Same,’ being shocked by the sight of the unharmed human body feels pretty low on the things you should be offended by list. But when you’re raised in a culture that not only automatically equates mere nudity with sex, which itself is often viewed with an eyeline tearing up with perverse repression, the sight of bare breasts, bums, and loins is going to evoke some striking emotions.

The use of unclothed epidermis in cinema, mostly in Hollywood, is the focus on Danny Wolfe’s documentary, Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies (2020). From a mere glance, this seems like a nice and simple theme for a documentary but like a sapling that quickly grows sturdy with a multitude of limbs covered in leaves both thriving and decayed, this is not a simple undertaking. If you’re going the full Ken Burns route, then you have enough space to stretch out and cover various countries, over and underground films, as well as the various faux (ie. any censorious entity ever) and real (ie. actors and actresses being manipulated, harassed, and abused) moral issues attached to it. But how many non-Ken Burns films and filmmakers have that kind of leverage and space given to them? Few, if any. Granted, given how many super-mainstream superhero flicks tend to be just as long, if not longer, than some of the more languidly paced arthouse fare, who knows? Skin is just a wee bit over two hours, which is a healthy running time but for a film with such a bigger than expected breadth, it had to have been incredibly daunting for all those behind it.

From the beginning, Skin’s strongest suit is some of the key actors, actresses, and directors that chime in throughout, with the two kings in the deck absolutely being Joe Dante and Malcolm McDowell and the queens? Brinke Stevens and Sean Young. Dante and McDowell both could be discussing the grilled cheese sandwich they made the other day and it would be as equally riveting as them discussing the nudity in The Howling or the events leading up to the infamous nude fight scene in Lindsay Anderson’s …If. All documentaries should have these two cats, because I genuinely want their insight and opinions on practically everything. Whether it’s cold fusion, cold cream, or cold cuts, get Dante and McDowell on it, pronto.

Stevens and Young, while not nearly used as much as the aforementioned kings of Skin, are a wholesale delightful hoot. Stevens is best known for being one of the premiere scream queens that emerged out of the 1980s. (Seriously, if you grew up in the 1980s and didn’t know who Stevens, Linnea Quigley, or Michelle Bauer were, then you were decidedly not a monster kid and/or a fan of USA’s Up All Night.) Stevens, in addition to being one of the charismatic lovelies who was often cast running from various killers and creatures in B-movie filmdom, sports an incredible sense of humor, referring to herself as the “cleanest actress” in Hollywood due to the multitude of shower scenes she has been in. As for Young, in addition to being always a welcome sight and a fine actress in every movie, glows with the absence of any fucks to give and bless her for it. 

The film has a strong start with its intro, which plays out as a mini-montage of the assorted interviewees talking about the first time they ever saw nudity in a movie. This section strangely reminded me of the 1989 cult documentary, Heavy Petting, which is certainly a positive! The best part is Eric Roberts saying his first was possibly Caligula (1979) and that he was around twelve when he saw it?!? I adore Roberts and have always acknowledged him as the superior actor out of his lineage, but he was born in 1956. Granted, memory is a fool’s game that gives three strikes and you’re out to us all, but it does not sound terribly likely. One thing I would be remiss if I did not mention is that in this montage, one of the talents mention a “porno” as their first experience in seeing onscreen nudity and the example clip used? Fucking Debbie Does Dallas, the most tepid example of the genre that’s notable only for the carny-savvy ballyhoo of its lead actress, Bambi “Eyes of a Killer” Woods, being an actual Dallas Cowboy cheerleader. Spoiler alert. She was a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader the same way Eric Roberts was an adolescent when he saw Caligula. I do try to strive for objectivity but once you actually see great films of that era, you too would resent Debbie being the crazy-eyed title everyone mentions. Shit, at least Deep Throat had Damiano, Harry Reems, and a kickass theme song. 

Objectivity is something that is harder for me than just loathing a terrible film while viewing Skin. The further I watched, the more it hit me that I was possibly not the right demographic for it. When you’re someone whose passions rule you on a deep researching level, things like documentaries and especially the dreaded bio-pics can be tricky. No one should ever want to be to that nerd nitpicking others’ work on the internet. Whether it’s people having serious arguments about the science of fast-running zombies, getting upset about a BBC adaptation portraying a fictional supernatural character that feeds off the living as bisexual or crying about how The Last Jedi literally ruined their childhood aka #NotMyLuke, this should be every culturally passionate person’s fear. 

When this film mentions the nudie cuties and its patron saints Russ Meyer and Doris Wishman, it will play better to someone who doesn’t really know about the genre. They even briefly mention the “ghoulies” aka the all the too brief nudie cutie subgenre with monsters which is some honest oh-my-god-put-this-shit-straight-into-my-veins-right-now goodness but they skip the roughies. Roughies were a far bigger and nastier subgenre that would find heirs in both adult cinema and non-explicit B-films as well throughout the 1970s. But that’s where you rent That’s Sexploitation (2013) and not Skin. The former is truly a valentine for both cult film lovers and the cool-curious set combined. Skin is more of a primer for a straighter audience.

This isn’t too say that it is without entertainment and good research. Seeing deeper cuts are referenced throughout, including Audrey Munson, who was a famed artist’s model and the first fully nude actress in a non-stag American film and discussions of 1969’s semi-obscure, disturbing-coming-of-age tale, Last Summer. This all helps give the film some flavor. The latter especially since it is accompanied with Bruce Davison, who was one of the two male leads in Last Summer and has a funny story about his relatives seeing the film at a local drive in. In fact, it is the interviews with the assorted actors throughout that is Skin’s number one strength. Having to assemble performers ranging from Mamie Van Doren to Muriel Hemingway could not have been an easy feat but bless the film for attempting and achieving it. Skin also features a number of film writers and historians, including such notable personalities like David Del Valle, Thomas Doherty, and Mike McPadden, with these three also being the strongest talkers.

Strangely, for a film that does highlight the disparity between female and male nudity and the pressure that actresses have felt to bare their bodies, the talking heads that aren’t actresses and the odd film industry person is a bit of a sausage fest. I have seen women better represented at every Rush concert than in this film. (Keep in mind, I do actually love the band Rush, but you understand my point. It’s an environment that billowed with balls.) There’s one critic from Variety, who is barely there to the extent that I can’t even remember her name and apparently didn’t even record it in my notes, who is featured and that is about it. C’mon, movie. There are so many ladies, not to mention more working-class male writers, out there, that would have injected some more knowledge and verve in the proceedings. The fact that the movie awkwardly shoe-horns the “Me Too” movement in the beginning and the end makes this imbalance even more striking.

The other disconnect is the film’s treatment of adult cinema. Porn chic is briefly namechecked, followed by some ninnying about how adult movies ruined the X-rating as opposed to highlighting the fallacy and eternally limp organization that was and is the MPAA. For a film that is centered around the subject of nudity and is brimming with many visual examples of it, including quite a few that are sexual, to have a slight nose-in-the-air towards adult is just weird. It feels akin to how Hollywood’s snobby attitude towards erotica, despite the behind-the-scenes activities of the “legitimate” business often being more tawdry and exploitative than any adult set in the 1970s and 80s. I would certainly feel safer letting Radley Metzger or Rinse Dream watch my houseplants versus Harvey Weinstein. For a film that has some strong cards in the deck and features the great Paul Fishbein, who founded Adult Video News back in the early 1980s, as one of the writers, it comes across a bit disproportionate.

A few subjective grievances aside, Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies is an entertaining primer that gives you the chance to learn while getting the gift of hearing Malcolm McDowell talk and reminisce, which is always a sign that someone up above loves us at least a little bit. With a two-hour running time, realistically it would be impossible for the film to better cover some of the attached subjects, whether it’s roughies, art house, and yes, Me Too. So, schedule a triple-feature with Skin as the first title, This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006) as the second, and then cap it all with Frank Hennenlotter’s That’s Sexploitation and you’ll be instantly smarter than the average bear in your neighborhood.

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About Heather Drain

Heather Drain is a fringe culture writer who has written for Dangerous Minds, Video Watchdog, Lunchmeat and Cashiers du Cinemart. She has also been a contributor to The Rialto Report, The Projection Booth, Paracinema, Cinema Head Cheese and, on occasion, as a guest writer at both Rupert Pupkin Speaks and Turner Classic's Movie Morlocks blog. Heather currently writes for Art Decades as well as her own site, Mondo Heather, and is the Music & Culture Editor at Diabolique Magazine.

One comment

  1. Brinke Stevens has one of the sexiest gruff, buff voices in the history of the world. I would watch a film just for that, and have. Sort of.

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