The 1931 film The Divorcee starred glamour girl Norma Shearer in an Oscar-winning performance. She plays an adulterous wife who is seen entering the home of her lover for a sleepover. Not a frame of the illicit couple is shown. Instead the sexual nature of the visit is implied by all the lights going out leaving the house dark at ‘bedtime’.
How far we have come. It seems like movies without nudity are the exception to the rule. The envelope of graphic sex in modern film is definitely being pushed. It’s interesting to ask the question, “Why is nudity necessary?” Think of all the movies over the decades that got by just swell without them. And simple nude scenes are almost extinct. Nudity now more often than not requires urgent sex as well.
One could say the same thing about violence and gore. In the past entire world wars have been fought with barely a Starbucks Grande cup of bloodshed. Alfred Hitchcock could leave you limp with suspense. Now violent films put abattoirs to shame for widescreen gore and still can get nominated for serious awards. When did we get so horny and bloodthirsty?
Given what we know of the moral integrity of Hollywood, artistic improvement is not a consideration. The one certainty is that movie studios wouldn’t be including them if they weren’t selling more tickets.
True, Renaissance painters and sculptors also often produced nudes. But their primary motivation was to show the human body in all its glory as God created. It’s not quite the same motivation as for say, “Boogie Nights”.
Unlike those legendary artists who worked equally with male and female subjects, modern filmmakers have a definite preference for females. Young, thin, heartbreakingly beautiful females. And this is not new. Men were making so-called erotic movies almost as soon as they figured out how to turn the camera on. The earliest recorded production was a seven-minute striptease in 1899.
But unlike 15th century Europe, gorgeous naked bodies are available whenever you want for free on your cell phone. So why pay twelve bucks and have expensive popcorn to see one?
Rare are the films whose subject matter by definition requires actors to get naked. A film about sex addiction, for example, would look mighty odd without skin.
There are a few, though, with something behind them worth considering. Not necessarily positive but provocative in a way more meaningful and provocative than choreographing sex scenes as graphic as censors will allow.
So there will be no boinkfests in this list but more skin and certainly more thought than “50 Shades of Grey.”
Halle Berry is sitting in a fabulous condo with a fabulous view while reading a book wearing very little. Hugh Jackman staggers in looking for car keys and Ms. Berry is forced to put the book down, revealing an even more blatant view of her breasts for no reason other than to flash.
She could have been wearing a New England Patriots uniform and the scene would play out the same way. Or Jackman could have picked the keys off the table by the door like he always would.
What makes this particular nude scene so influential is that it is, by many accounts, the most gratuitous nude shot in film history from one of Hollywood's most beautiful actresses. So how much does it cost to get a beautiful, influential actress naked for no good reason? It's said that Berry demanded an extra half-million dollars to grant the studio’s topless request.
11 The Tall Guy
This is a reasonably amusing British comedy starring Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson circa 1989. In the years since The Tall Guy, Thompson has become one of the preeminent actors of her generation, known for her award-winning portrayals of women in adapted literary classics.
It seems jarring, perhaps, to think that a great artist would feel compelled to disrobe for a rollicking bedroom romp - but this was her first feature film. It hailed from the same production company that would go on to make Les Miserables, Anna Karenina and The Theory of Everything.
What's so unusual about this is that the actress in question managed to make her screen debut, naked, without compromising the course of her career. Thompson managed to disrobe for a romcom and still became one of the most well-respected actresses of her generation. At least the scene was played to the tune of a Rossini overture and is, to the extent simulated sex can be, quite witty.
10 Fast Times at Ridgemont High
God bless Phoebe Cates.
Fast Times is actually a hugely important movie, launching the careers of some of today’s most important actors. Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, Forest Whitaker and the screenwriter Cameron Crowe. But perhaps the most iconic, lasting image from this movie is those few slow-motion seconds of 19-year-old Phoebe.
The actress, of Chinese-Filipino-Russian-Jewish descent, got her 15 seconds of fame, and became the epitome of every high school boy's fantasy by opening up her red bikini top. It’s barely sexual, really little more than a punchline, and it's become crystallised as one of the simplest nude scenes of a more innocent time.
Diane Lane’s portrayal of an adulterous wife involves getting naked a lot for some steamy love scenes with Olivier Martinez. It was an indication that Hollywood’s view of the acceptable (i.e. marketable) age for nude scenes has stretched beyond the young and ridiculously perfect to the older and ridiculous perfect like Ms. Lane.
When Unfaithful was released in 2002, Lane was 37 - ancient for a female in Hollywood terms. But with personal trainers, organic food and healthier lifestyles, actors like Lane are retaining their breathtaking perfection longer. These are some of the oldest sexy nude scenes in mainstream Hollywood.
8 About Schmidt
It’s not one of those nude scenes that many people will rewind and watch over and over, but Kathy Bates au naturel in the hot tub may suggest at least a tiny breach of the movie industry’s obsession with teens and twenty somethings smaller than a Size 4.
Could they be reaching out to the vast majority of the real world who resemble Ms. Bates more than they resemble Anne Hathaway, but are still fond of getting naked when called for? Whatever the motivation for this scene, you've gotta hand it to a distinguished actor of a certain age parading the whole thing in front of the camera.
7 Coming Home
The movie could have shown a graphic blood-spattered depiction of his body parts being blown off, which it didn’t. That would have been called ‘powerful’. But showing a sexual encounter between the characters was ‘controversial’.
The history of cinema is punctuated by references to films that “break taboos”, like this one which deals the sexuality of physically handicapped people. The sex scenes here were significant not because they represented a stroke of genius by the film industry. It was, rather, the shocked reactions which were most telling and significant.
It could be said that the shame of nudity has been drilled into the Christian world since the beginning of time. Getting dressed was a big part Adam and Eve's punishment for using the Tree of Life as a food court. Shame is a harrowing movie with what's generally acknowledged to be one of the most courageous performances of all time by Michael Fassbender as a sex addict - addict being the key word.
Director Steve McQueen makes drug addiction seem more attractive than the horrible, pleasureless universe Fassbender inhabits. An uncomfortable film people went to see not for the nudity, but in spite of it, this exemplified anti-Hollywood nudity.
It's hard to believe the Porky’s franchise could ever be accused of being influential, but from this distance it absolutely can. It is what it is, a mindless set of juvenile clichés. It hasn't aged well, and its datedness has been hurried along as our sexual landscape has changed so much in the digital age.
But it was in the original 1982 film Porky's that the girl’s shower became the epitome of teen raunch. The trope has been used and abused ever since.
2 My Beautiful Launderette
Twenty years before Hollywood would carefully portray a gay romance in Brokeback Mountain, the renowned British director Stephen Frears did so explicitly in My Beautiful Launderette. It was a critically acclaimed depiction of a society divided by race, sexuality and class and made a young actor named Daniel Day-Lewis one to watch. The movie did not show very much graphic nudity, however.
Rather, Launderette is up here because while the critics loved it, audiences hated it. A survey by the BBC eight years after this movie's release found that the film’s homosexual kiss caused a majority of the audience to react “with extraordinary vehemence to this extract with many unable to watch or being sickened by what they saw.”
If nothing else, this is hugely telling of how far the world of film has come.
1 Basic Instinct
In the time it took to uncross her legs, Sharon Stone, at age 34, went from a B-movie Playboy bunny to an A-list celebrity. She would go on to appear in movies with stars like De Niro, Stallone and Hackman.
The famous commando leg-crossing scene is an epic moment in screen history, but the rest of her performance as a sensuous femme fatale earned her a Golden Globe nomination as well. It even earned a reference in 2015's Academy Awards opening song, 23 years later.