FILM REVIEW – SKIN: A HISTORY OF NUDITY IN THE MOVIES. A documentary directed by Danny Wolf. Featuring Jim McBride, Sean Young, Linda Blair, Pam Grier, Malcolm McDowell. Unrated, but contains profanity and nudity (duh). 127 minutes.
It is speculated that roughly twenty minutes after the invention of photography men started trying to figure out how they could take pictures of naked ladies. Ask any dude and he’ll probably be happy to name the first nude scene he ever saw in a movie. (My first big-screen glimpse was Kelly McGillis in “Witness,” but long before that I’d spied the loofah scene from “Stripes” on HBO.) Director Danny Wolf’s sprawling, wildly uneven documentary SKIN: A HISTORY OF NUDITY IN THE MOVIES attempts to cover exactly what the title promises, telescoping over 100 years of flesh bared before the cameras into a too-short two hours.
Assembled in the same ingratiating, informally chatty fashion of Wolf and producer Paul Fishbein’s recent “Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films Of All Time”––with a sadly similar reliance on chintzy graphics and canned production music––the movie breezes through an overview of boobs in the movie business via an array of talking head interviews with film historians both insightful (Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante) and inane (Richard Roeper, Mr. Skin). But where Wolf and Fishbein’s midnight movie project was spread out over three feature-length volumes focused on different genres, “Skin” tries to cram everything about its oversized subject into a single picture with whiplash-inducing results. It feels like there are at least three or four different documentaries going on here at once, and a couple of them are quite good.
First there’s a nifty Hollywood history lesson, dishing about the decadent days when Hedy LaMarr and Maureen O’Sullivan’s body double could go skinny-dipping in commercial releases, before the industry’s self-appointed censor Joseph Breen brought the wild times to a close by enforcing the Hays Code with an iron fist. It wasn’t until the 1960s when studios suddenly had to compete with kinky European art films that things loosened up again, and the documentary delivers some wry commentary from the late Sylvia Miles about baring it all in 1969’s X-rated Oscar winner, “Midnight Cowboy.”
In fact, Wolf’s interviews with actresses are so good you wind up wishing he’d narrowed the focus of the film entirely onto them. From Mamie Van Doren to Shannon Elizabeth, he’s got generations of ingenues telling tales of exploitation and empowerment, and for every rightfully embittered Linda Blair there’s a proud Pam Grier. “Vixen!” and “Caged Heat” star Erica Gavin harrowingly recounts how the sight of her naked body on a giant movie screen incited a struggle with anorexia that almost killed her, while directors Martha Coolidge and Amy Heckerling describe how they tried to subvert the more male-gazey aspects of contractually obligated nude scenes in “Valley Girl” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
Heckerling’s story is interrupted by useless cuts to the aforementioned Roeper, who with a porcine leer declares Phoebe Cates’ poolside bikini-removal as “the greatest movie nude scene of all time” without having anything interesting to say about it, nor any insight into how Heckerling slyly structured the scene to send up the male fantasies intrinsic to other teenage sex comedies of the era. Horny Richard just wants to talk tits.
Wolf similarly wastes enormous amounts of screen time on the creepy, non-compelling thoughts of executive producer Joe “Mr. Skin” McBride, whose involvement in the production might explain why the movie skirts the influence of the internet altogether. It’s well worth noting that the American cinema has become so puritanical in recent years not just because of our scoldy, hall monitor youth culture, but also because every actress knows that if she disrobes for a role the moment will be ripped out of context and enshrined for all time as spank-bank material on websites like McBride’s.
By far the funniest interviews are from Malcolm McDowell––heralded here as the most frequently nude non-porn actor of all time––dishing backstage dirt about the making of “Caligula,” and a characteristically feisty Sean Young––long ago co-star of my seminal “Stripes”––treating the industry that chewed her up and spit her out with the disdain it deserves. (She also gets a few good laughs at Kevin Costner’s expense.) Indicative of the film’s frustrations is when Young begins teeing off on the marathon sex scenes in “Blue Is The Warmest Color” and “Skin” sheepishly moves on to another topic. I really wanted to hear what she had to say.•••
Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality