Taking It Off For Your Art: Getting Nude On Screen

March 24, 2016
As Ralph Fiennes lets it all hang out in this week’s A Bigger Splash, what’s the current status on on-screen nudity for the film world’s, ahem, biggest actors and actresses?

To strip or not to strip. That used to be the question. Once upon a time, there were discussions about how film directors would use nudity, and how actors (or more usually actresses, as they were the ones that would get more pressure) would divide into those who would and those who wouldn’t. Some actresses would absolutely refuse. There were famous names in that category but, as the script negotiations were commercial in confidence, they mostly managed to keep even their refusal away from public debate. Then there were actors who seemed to relish the opportunity. Jamie Lee Curtis, for example, was dogged by the rumour that she had insisted on the chance to do more nudity in Fred Schepisi’s Fierce Creatures (1997).

There is obviously a lot that could be said about the topic of screen nudity. There are whole websites devoted to it. The topic of on-screen nudity is prompted by Luca Guadagnino’s drama, A Bigger Splash. Guadagnino specialises in self-obsessed characters: witness his intriguing but self-indulgent I Am Love (2009). In A Bigger Splash, four characters end up in a beautiful and remote part of Italy. Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is a fading rock star of a certain age (there is an allusion here to Chrissy Hynde of The Pretenders – a true sex symbol in her day). She now loves her smooth and gentle boyfriend, Paul (the devilishly handsome Matthias Schoenaerts). Their peace is disturbed when her brash, loudmouthed ex, Harry (played with irresistible verve by Ralph Fiennes), comes to stay. He brings with him a nubile teenager, Penny (Dakota Johnson), who may be his daughter. Harry relishes being shocking and anti-bourgeois. He demonstrates this in a way which is part refreshing and part boorish. By the end of the film, you appreciate why they had decidedly mixed feelings about him turning up.

Nude swimming scenes abound, and the great Ralph Fiennes does not hesitate in throwing himself into all of this. Here is an actor at the very forefront of contemporary cinema, as is the equally, er, huge Michael Fassbender, who showed absolutely no shame in Steve McQueen’s grim portrayal of sex addiction, Shame (2011). These major talents doing the full willy-waggle is perhaps the main difference in screen nudity now versus then. Now the treatment of nudity is at least more even handed than in previous eras. Either the men get their kit off or no one does. Of course, male and female nudity have never been treated as absolutely equivalent in the public imagination (there is a thesis to be written about Freudianism and the taboo of the phallus, but we will leave that aside). At least Guadagnino’s film aims for a more even-handed and possibly naturalistic approach.

The issues around sex and nudity run right through A Bigger Splash. In a way, all the characterisations relate to the borders between sexual tension and sexual liberation. Later in the film, the young Penny flirts with Paul, and we have more (but differently handled) nudity. Dakota Johnson is a clever piece of casting as Penny, as she is fresh from Sam Taylor-Johnson’s woeful softcore extravaganza, Fifty Shades Of Grey (possibly the lamest film released in 2015; but then what could you do with that execrable source material?) The “joke” is that Johnson does very little actually nudity in Fifty Shades Of Grey, so she can let it all out here. Marianne is played by Tilda Swinton, who of course brings her own biographical frisson to the role. Off-screen, she is famous for being highly-sexed and for living in an open menage-a-trois relationship. She has also done lots and lots of on screen nudity (look it up, or don’t).

Talent can outlast occasional forays into unexpected (or uncalled for) explicitness, of course. It doesn’t have to harm a career any more than sustain it. Take the case of the glittering career of Dame Helen Mirren. Think back to the days of the sex-and-violence miasma that was the notorious Caligula (1979) which, as Dame Helen said, contained the irresistible combination of “high culture and genitals.” Her early work almost rested upon her boldness, which is a matter of record. Her walk down the stairs in Ken Russell’s film about Gaudier, Savage Messiah, is certainly memorable. Journalists, however, refrain from raising this now. No one would dare insinuate anything about those early choices to someone so grand but also so obviously talented and with such a track record.

Still, film is different from other media. Once it is in the can, it is there for posterity. This might or might not have affected some career decisions. Diana Rigg – who as the cat-suited Emma Peel in the original TV series, The Avengers, was a teen boy fantasy figure par excellence – once spoke about the difference between screen and stage nudity. She appeared stark naked in a much-praised London stage production of Macbeth, but steadfastly refused any screen nudity. You were either there or you weren’t.

Talking of being there, there are wonderful stories about the famous Woodstock festival. Everyone wanted to have been there. When they did a poll decades later, over two million people claimed to have lived it (which was kind of impossible as the crowd was only 500,000; Joni Mitchell was right about that). In the documentary, there is a scene where a hippy couple drift off to make love in a field, part of which we see in long shot. Years and years later, that couple tried to sue the filmmakers for “use” of their nudity. They lost the case. Nowadays, in this age of sexting and selfie-narcissism, you might expect them to sue for not being allowed to be exhibitionist.

A Bigger Splash is released in cinemas on March 24.

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