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Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies (A Movie Review)

Updated: Aug 15, 2020


Featuring Malcolm McDowell, Mariel Hemingway, Pam Grier, Linda Blair, Sean Young, Bruce Davison, Diane Franklin, Kristanna Loken, Kristine DeBell, Eric Roberts, Erica Gavin, Shannon Elizabeth, Betsy Russell, Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante, Kevin Smith, John Cameron Mitchell, Amy Heckerling, Martha Coolidge, Mick LaSalle, Richard Roeper, Kyle Anderson, Tatiana Siegel, Joan Graves, Amy Nicholson and Eliza Roberts.

Written by Danny Wolf and Paul Fishbein.

Directed by Danny Wolf.

Distributed by Quiver Distribution. 127 minutes. Not Rated.

Years ago, MGM released a series of movies celebrating classic musicals – collecting a series of clips and stars and experts discussing the film style – called That’s Entertainment! (1974), That’s Entertainment! II (1976), That’s Dancing! (1985) and That’s Entertainment! III (1994).

Well, it’s a new millennium. Movie musicals are so old fashioned. So, why not do a similar movie about… Hollywood nudity? Skin may seem to be a suggestive title, but that is not exactly accurate. There is abundant nudity in this documentary, but it is mostly not overly titillating as it is presented.

It is a hardly exhaustive, but certainly long (over two hours!) look at classic nude scenes – male as well as female. A mostly straight chronological look at the history of film nakedness, it is often quite amusing – and sometimes surprisingly informative – at the same time that it feels a bit shapeless.

Perhaps Skin’s problem is overreach – this subject is so massive that it can’t possibly be covered in a single film, even one that is crazy-long for a documentary. It’s also a bit unfocused, slipping back and forth between long-forgotten cheesy exploitation films like The Immoral Mr. Teas, 3 Nuts in Search of a Bolt, Alice in Wonderland and Chained Heat and more serious artistic endeavors like Midnight Cowboy, Last Tango in Paris, The Graduate and Personal Best.

And how many times will you see a documentary in which a talking head gives praise to DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation… though granted about its art production and its pioneering sexual openness, not about that whole KKK thing…?

Of course, the whole idea of talking head “experts” must be taken with a grain of salt here. Amongst the people interviewed include the likes of the editor of Celebrity Sleuth magazine, an 80s porn mag that specialized in celebrity skin, and the head of, a website database dedicated to chronicling actresses’ nude scenes throughout their careers.

Even the actresses (and actors) that the filmmakers brought back to discuss their experiences in nudity are far from A-level names. They are more along the lines of people like Diane Franklin (The Last American Virgin, Better Off Dead), Eric Roberts (The Pope of Greenwich Village, Star 80), Kristanna Loken (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), Kristine DeBell (Alice in Wonderland, Meatballs) and Erica Gavin (Vixen!, Caged Heat). Don’t get me wrong, as a movie geek I am a fan of most of them, but they are mostly hardly household names.

In fact, probably the biggest name here is Malcolm McDowell, who I know from personal experience is an endlessly entertaining interview and took part in three films that get scrutiny here – If, A Clockwork Orange and Caligula. However, even he, despite starring in some legendary films, could hardly be called a superstar at this point in his career. Mariel Hemingway and Pam Grier are other interviewees here who are also on similar levels of fame.

Even the choices of films to spotlight seems a little random and haphazard. For example, why talk about the barely remembered early-80s sex comedy Private School… for Girls rather than its more popular predecessor Private Lessons? That’s a rhetorical question, I’m rather sure the reason is that they were able to get supporting actress Betsy Russell to discuss her topless scene in the second film, while Private Lessons’ star Sylvia Kristel – who did all the nudity in the first film – is dead. But, still, Private Lessons’ success led to School even being made. Kristel even did a cameo in Private School. So why is the first film ignored and the second one raised to a level of prominence it has never really had before?

However, even though the movie sometimes gets a little cringey – some of the experts leer a bit too much – it is often rather interesting. This particularly goes in the early days of film nudity, from early silent films through the self-policing era of the Hays Code. Looking at the prevalence and the hard work that filmmakers went through to suggest nudity without explicitly showing it is quite intriguing. Also, the birth and flowering of independent b-movies is kicky fun.

The discussion of more current film nudity is less interesting. Yeah, Phoebe Cates’ topless shot in Fast Times in Ridgemont High is iconic as far as film flesh but having a bunch of middle-aged critics drooling over her teen breasts is a bit over the top. More interesting, about the same film, is director Amy Heckerling discussing her determination to make the nudity embarrassing and non-sexual – particularly Jennifer Jason Leigh’s awkward deflowering in a little league dugout.

Eventually they do have some of the actors and actresses who briefly discuss how nudity affected their careers and lives. Also, towards the end there is a brief interlude where they discuss how the #MeToo movement has complicated the whole nudity landscape in film, making the studios and producers try to be vigilant about not exploiting the actors.

Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies is not for everyone. And it is certainly not an exhaustive history of the subject – though that would be nearly impossible. (This film would actually make a good double-feature with the 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated.) However, if the on-the-nose title of this documentary tickles your fancy, then you will probably know what you’re in for and will enjoy what you get.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved. Posted: August 12, 2020.

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