Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies is precisely as advertised — an expansive look at cinema’s most famous nude scenes across history from the early days of silent cinema to Fifty Shades of Grey and the #MeToo Movement. Historians and aficionados (largely men) make proclamations about the significance of nude scenes while several actresses share their experiences on set and their outlook on what performing nude meant to their careers. Writer-director Danny Wolf works hard to include as many cast and crew interviews as possible that it ultimately becomes less of an in-depth study and more like a survey of memorable nudity.
This isn’t to say Wolf isn’t clearly considering the perspective of women in telling his story. His subjects’ stories are varied, presenting a wide range of stories about performing nude or directing nude sequences in Hollywood. But squeezing so many famous scenes into two hours means that intriguing threads are never pulled. For instance: Toward the end, Shannon Elizabeth (American Pie) mentions how performing nude as foreign exchange student Nadia lead to a three-picture deal with Miramax — which, for a film that frequently touches on the impact of #MeToo and its co-founder Harvey Weinstein’s central instigation of that movement, feels like something worth unpacking.
Wolf also never dives deep into the creation and subsequent dissolution of the Hayes Code during Hollywood’s Golden Age / studio-system eras, which were rife with abuse both in front of and behind the camera. Worse, the superficial approach isn’t abandoned for segments on movies like Last Tango in Paris, infamous for the on-set abuse of actress Maria Schneider by star Marlon Brando during a rape sequence. Little is mentioned of Marilyn Monroe beyond her then-groundbreaking skinny dipping in Something’s Got to Give. Later, Pam Grier’s recollections of her times performing nude in low-budget 1970s exploitation cinema are tinged by clear personal trauma as a child. Her reference to stripping down as something she was comfortable with because it had happened to her in her youth is left in the film, but not pursued.
Extended stretches of Skin amount to various expert figures — almost all men — explaining why this or that nude sequence was important in the history of nude scenes while actresses occasionally more or less shrug and say it was a good-paying gig. Notable exceptions include director Amy Heckerling explaining her use of nudity in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, explaining how important it was to convey the awkward experiences of teenage reality (and also how her attempt to include equivalent male nudity was excised by the studio), as well as film critic Amy Nicholson, who actually talks about the way nudity is used in the movies on which she comments. Given that most of the experts largely gush about how much the nude scenes meant to them as young men, Nicholson is seriously welcome whenever she appears.
Although Skin is frustratingly superficial, it would be wrong to say it’s just a frilled-up version of the old Mr. Skin website that catalogs female (and male) nudity in film and TV. Wolf does focus on iconic male nudity (such as the nude-wrestling bit in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan). It may well be that the massive mission at the heart of the film being confined to such a small amount of time meant the excision of detail and nuance. Skin is more or less the film equivalent of furtively reading a listicle while bored at work and seeking something to perk your attention. But it aches to be something more, particularly as it introduces the concept of on-set intimacy consulting, a role that has become more prominent in recent years.
There is, probably, a miniseries to be made on this subject — one that can dive deep into how nudity has been deployed historically and why there have been so many different movements to control the expression of naked bodies in commercial film. While Skin is not that project, it’s also not altogether oblivious to the issues on which it lacks time to focus. As such, it’s ultimately pleasant and only sporadically insightful.