'Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies': Film Review

SKIN: A HISTORY OF NUDITY IN THE MOVIES- Publicity still 3 - H 2020
Quiver Distribution
A lively but bloated survey.
8/17/2020

This new doc covers more than 100 years of male and female nudity onscreen, with interviews from actors Malcolm McDowell, Mariel Hemingway and Pam Grier and directors Peter Bogdanovich and Amy Heckerling.

The title may sound incendiary, something left over from the Russ Meyer era, but Danny Wolf’s Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies turns out to be informative and even-handed as well as entertaining. Meyer’s movies are inevitably included in this freewheeling documentary survey of nudity from the silent era to the present. But there are more surprising and enlightening segments as the director careens through more than 100 years of cinematic history and much of the flesh (male as well as female) exposed over the decades.

The film wisely begins by acknowledging changes wrought by the #MeToo movement, including nudity riders in studio contracts and a brand new field of intimacy coordinators on set, and it provides a quick rundown of the many celebrities accused of sexual harassment or worse. But it also incorporates interviews by a couple of actresses who champion the nudity that they performed, and we meet female critics and female filmmakers who provide a balanced and sometimes sardonic view of their adventures in the skin trade.

Essentially the film takes a chronological approach, beginning with the very earliest moving pictures of nudity in the 1890s and then acknowledging some achievements in silent film, including the Babylon sequences in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. There is a fair amount of attention given to the pre-Code era, when Claudette Colbert took a revealing milk bath in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (also featuring a scene with a gorilla menacing a scantily clad damsel in distress). A seminal film from that era was not created in Hollywood: Hedy Lamarr streaked across the screen in Ecstasy, which film critic Amy Nicholson praises as one of the first movies that showed a woman experiencing sexual pleasure.

Other critics and authors, including Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times, Kyle Anderson from Nerdist and THR’s Tatiana Siegel, provide personal memories and trenchant insights into some landmark controversial movies. The gallery of talking heads also includes professors, art historians and Joan Graves, the recently retired head of the MPAA ratings board. But perhaps the most entertaining insights come from actors and filmmakers.

Directors Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante, Kevin Smith and John Cameron Mitchell offer valuable insights, not just into their own movies but other films as well. It is especially revealing to hear from women directors like Amy Heckerling and Martha Coolidge. Heckerling contends that nudity was important to the themes of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, though she admits she was not allowed to show any male frontal nudity in these sex scenes, since her producer warned that they would result in an X rating.

It should be noted that Skin is not bound by the restrictions that impeded Heckerling. The doc includes plenty of scenes of male frontal nudity — the famous nude wrestling scene in Women in Love; extensive male nudity in Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut, Drive, He Said; the startling “reveal” in The Crying Game; Richard Gere baring all in American Gigolo; the comical wrestling scene in Borat

Of course female nudity was far more widespread. Pam Grier speaks breezily about her exploits in women-in-prison movies. On the other hand, Linda Blair, the star of Caged Heat, reports the abusive behavior of her co-star, John Vernon, with a sense of betrayal that has not faded. Mariel Hemingway speaks forthrightly about both Personal Best, a landmark movie about female athletes, and Bob Fosse’s Star 80, and declares that the nudity was necessary to both movies. It is a pleasure to hear candid commentary from Sean Young about her somewhat scandalous sex scenes with Kevin Costner in No Way Out. Piquant comments also come from Eric Roberts, Hemingway’s co-star in Star 80, and Bruce Davison, who played a memorable and disturbing rape scene in Last Summer, which was written by a female screenwriter, Eleanor Perry.

Perhaps the most entertaining actor in the ensemble is Malcolm McDowell, who admits that he helped to pave the way for male nudity in such movies as If…, A Clockwork Orange and the infamous Caligula. (Of the latter film, McDowell declares that producer Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse, “had absolutely no taste.”) Many have probably forgotten that the cast of Caligula included award-winning actors Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren and John Gielgud. McDowell’s reminiscence of Gielgud’s startled (but appreciative) reaction to all the penises on the set is one of the amusing moments in the doc, interjected during the end credits.

There are also revealing comments from lesser-known performers who have no apologies or regrets about their nude scenes. The co-star of Terminator 3, Kristanna Loken, felt her nudity in that movie enhanced her character’s strength. And Betsy Russell, a co-star of the forgotten comedy Private School, defends her nude scenes. She recalls thinking at the time, “When am I ever going to look this good again?”

These comments and many others testify to the film’s unpredictability. But Russell’s quote also suggests one of the movie’s limitations. It simply incorporates too many movies that have been completely forgotten except by fans with, shall we say, slightly unconventional appetites. How many people remember Private School or a nudie version of Alice in Wonderland that played in the 70s? This film tries too hard to be comprehensive — an impossible task — and too often bogs down in trivia. But there are enough highlights to make for a worthwhile jaunt through the skin trade.

Available on demand

Director: Danny Wolf

Screenwriters: Danny Wolf, Paul Fishbein

Producer: Paul Fishbein

Executive producers: Jim McBride, Paul Fishbein

Director of photography: Benjamin Hoffman

Editor: Steven L. Austin,

Music: De Wolfe Music

No rating, 130 minutes