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

Released on VOD services August 18, 2020, Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies goes into the what’s, how’s, why’s and when’s of flesh on film. Like the differing social attitudes towards nudity from pre-code Hollywood, post-code Hollywood, and the rise of the MPAA. Then there is the gender inequality in nudes, where a cavalcade of breasts dwarfs the number of man-bits on show. Before finally reaching modern day, where the film discusses how a nude scene is filmed in the age of the #MeToo movement. Whatever one’s reasons for on-screen nudity, how can it be done safely and without abuse?

Writer/Director by Danny Wolf (Gigolos 2016, Time Warp 2019) and co-writer/producer Paul Fishbein (Sex with Sunny Megatron series, Submission series) feature a lot of people in their film too. From the likes of Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show 1971), Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange 1971), and Joe Dante (Gremlins 1984) to Sybil Danning (Battle Beyond the Stars 1980) and Shannon Elizabeth (American Pie 1999) amongst others. Plus, classic footage from stars of the past like Hedy Lamarr and Marilyn Monroe. Its subject is interesting, in that it could be mentally titillating, or just a load of balls. So, which is it?

It certainly gets into its topics quickly. The beginning has a montage of actors, directors and more remembering the first nude scene they saw, mostly in a light-hearted tone though some are not quite so happy. Then once it properly gets going, the film talks about the #MeToo movement, complete with a medley of news reports about some of Hollywood’s top stars getting caught out. Bit of a whiplash going from ‘Hey, remember Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ to ‘Hey, remember Harvey Weinstein?’.

However, it does show that the film is taking the topic seriously, while describing the measures that are taken in showing nudity today. Like the clauses involved in agreeing nude scenes, how intimacy co-ordinators keep things on the level, and how important (or unimportant) nudity is anyway. The latter is essentially discussed throughout, but interviewee Diane Franklin (Better Off Dead 1985, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure 1989) makes a good point in saying it is not an imperative and not something one should start an audition with.

The presentation is clear and straightforward- each talking head is introduced with their name and credits, with cuts to relevant footage or documents. Sometimes there is jaunty music when it is discussing some of the more upbeat topics, or even cheeky cutaways to gag props (a Monopoly ‘Go Directly to Hell’ card, etc). Otherwise it does not go for fancy tricks or designs since its focus topic already runs the gamut from exciting to shocking and otherwise.

Still, despite starting at present day, the film eventually gets to a set timeline It feels a bit standard to begin with, with information about early cinema that is not especially new. But then things soon pick up as it delves deeper into its subject- like what became of the first women to go nude on film, pre-code censorship, and more. It is essentially a progression of titbits, some more curious than the last. They help keep the film’s pace up, though it can leave one wishing they went deeper into some subjects.

For example, the gender bias topic is better shown than discussed. Like how most of the nude scenes talked about here are of women, with most of the discussion around them being by men. It is not until 1968 onward that more male nudes show up, like 1969’s Women in Love and Midnight Cowboy. Then it is not until later on that it discusses the gender bias openly and fairly briefly. Likewise, women interviewees are quite scarce after the #MeToo topic, and then get more common afterwards. Usually being the likes of Pam Grier (Foxy Brown 1974, Jackie Brown 1997) and Danning providing insight into their films and attitudes towards nudity.

Ultimately, Skin is an interesting documentary. It runs at a nice pace and talks to a broad range of people and gets plenty of perspectives on its topic. The how’s, what’s, and when’s run through the film, but it does not really get in-depth into the why’s until the 1980s onward. Luckily, it has enough intrigue to keep viewers interested in its full 130-minute runtime. The film offers plenty of casual, curiosity seekers, and enough for serious-minded viewers. The latter will just have a wait for the more thought-provoking stuff. Thus, for these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives this film 4 out of 5 stars.

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