We Saw Your Birthday Suit: Nudity on Film

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in “The Sessions” (2012)

In the past week alone, Seth MacFarlane’s song, “We Saw Your Boobs” has garnered as much praise as it has criticism. It’s even spawned a parody by comedian/YouTuber Kevin Gisi, who essentially made a parody of a parody, with the male counterpart to the aforementioned song entitled, “We Saw Your Junk.”

All these witty songs about nudity in film brings to light some interesting questions and observations that audiences may not have had before. It might actually bring about a valid discussion about the impact nudity in film has on the viewer. Questions about one’s self-image; Realizations that, for the most part, all of our equipment pretty much looks the same on all of us, and it doesn’t matter if we’re famous or not. It’s all the same.

Why are we so afraid of a little skin? We’re born naked, after all. I think it comes down to societal norms and what’s acceptable within those constructs. It goes back to my post on sex scenes. The difference? One of them is extremely real and one of them is not. To be naked on film (even on stage nowadays) means that you are vulnerable as an actor. You literally put yourself out there for the world to see. It can be frightening. You open yourself up to a whole new set of criticisms that don’t have to do with your work as an actor. The criticism may have to do with YOU and all your “junk.” Ouch. But, for those who take the plunge and bare all on screen, do we really notice?

Apparently, someone does. According to Seth MacFarlane’s song, we saw Kate Winslet’s boobs nearly seven times. And, if you factor in the counter-song, “We Saw Your Junk,” Kevin Gisi told Today.com, “For that particular joke premise, if it didn’t offend, it wouldn’t have gotten laughs in the first place. I abhor the objectification of anyone — but I don’t think Seth actively objectified, rather he identified the objectification in the film industry. But I can certainly understand why being so casual about it would make many people feel uncomfortable. My video was just to point out that whether Seth’s song was taken as crass and immature, or as insightful social commentary — there’s no shortage of men who’ve done the very same thing as the women he mentioned.” Exactly. I think the fact that men weren’t factored into the equation at all ruffled more than a few feathers. MacFarlane’s song only centers on women who’ve been naked on film, and not men. For the most part, we tend to notice (and criticize) an actress who is naked, rather than a man. Maybe it has something do with the fact that they can walk around in public without a shirt on and not get arrested; but men seem to have it a lot easier, especially when it comes to exposing themselves on film.

Nudity is part of the human experience. We see ourselves and each other naked during the most intimate moments of our lives. As audience members, we are privy to the intimate moments of character’s lives. If an actor’s job is to be as truthful as they can, that would include nudity, right? You wouldn’t believe it were truthful  if someone took a shower with their clothes on, (unless it’s blatantly part of the script.)  What is truthful, is seeing someone at the end of a long day taking a shower…naked (and maybe crying for dramatic effect.) What is truthful, however, is not always what’s acceptable. We’d rather skirt around the issue of having nudity and just imply it, than actually see it, because we’d be seeing someone’s private parts. If we all have the same parts, they’re no longer private. We know what male and female body parts look like. We learn it in science or health class when we’re in school. So WHY are we so shocked when we see it on screen? Well, we just saw someone tell the truth. And, to be quite honest, it scares the shit out of us when people tell the truth, because sometimes, we’d rather not hear (or see) it. Nonetheless, it’s still truth. It’s still valid. And if it’s part of the story, it’s needed.

There is something to be said about the vulnerability that goes into being naked onscreen. Audiences may not realize just what goes into doing those nude scenes. Like love scenes, often while being a part of them, nudity on film is being witnessed by countless crew members, fellow cast mates and the audience once filming ends. There is nothing private about it. There is nothing sacred about it. It’s part of the bigger picture.

What makes us so susceptible to angry blog posts, or protests on the evening news? It’s because we’re naked. We’re naked. There’s no barrier between the actor and the viewer. They are as honest as they can be.  Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter himself, appeared onstage in Equus on Broadway–buck naked. Radcliffe, as a person and an actor, was threatened by young fans trying to raid the stage, so a physical barrier was created:

The Broadway theatre hosting Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe’s play Equus has been revamped to stop female fans of the young Brit from mobbing him onstage.

Radcliffe strips completely nude in Equus, and theatre bosses feared he would be distracted by, and at risk from, fans in stage-level seats.

So Broadhurst Theater designer John Napier has raised those seats by more than two metres, creating a barrier between the audience and Radcliffe.

Napier explains, “If you put Harry Potter on the stage with people directly in front of him, you’re likely to get a lot of screaming young girls, particularly when he takes his kit off. It was a very sensible decision for us to raise the audience up. There’s more of a barrier.”  (Sept. 6, 2008, WENN News)

The last thing people want is for someone’s safety to be in jeopardy because of a thing like nudity, yet it happened. When will we learn to accept it as a part of life and not mob stages because of it? When will we stop making songs chronicling the times an actor/actress was or wasn’t naked in their work? When will it be okay to just be in your birthday suit? Maybe we’ll have to move to a nudist colony to find out that answer. Or we could just see it for what it is: Truth.

Sex Scenes and Sense Memory

Sex sells. It’s a simple fact of life. Ask bestselling author E.L. James of the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. In today’s media market, I’m not sure how Constantin Stanislavski, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler or Uta Hagen would feel about the amount of fornication that permeates our stages & screens. I do know that a love scene, whether in front of 15 people in a class or projected for 15,000 people to view on screen, personal hangups and nerves always become a part of the mix.

Sense and Affective memory exercises are essential in the study of Method acting pioneered by Stanislavski. For those unfamiliar with these, let’s refer to Wikipedia as a jumping off point:

Affective memory was an early element of Stanislavski’s ‘system’ and a central part of Method acting , (two related approaches to acting). Affective memory requires actors to call on the memory of details from a similar situation (or more recently a situation with similar emotional import) to those of their characters. Stanislavski believed actors needed to take emotion and personality to the stage and call upon it when playing their character. He also explored the use of objectives, actioning, and empathizing with the character.

“Emotional recall” is the basis for Lee Strasberg’s Method Acting. “Sense memory” is used to refer to the recall of physical sensations surrounding emotional events (instead of the emotions themselves). The use of affective memory remains a controversial topic in acting theory. otherwise known as emotional memory, it is often used by making the actors completely relax so that they recall the memory better.

If you are an actor yourself, or have been in an acting class at least once, you’ve probably utilized one of these tools. Remember when you had to spend nearly an hour sitting in a chair trying to smell an orange?  Or when you had to remember what it was like to fall off your bike and skin your knee at five years old? Calling upon personal experiences is a great thing. It helps an actor tell the truth that they need to. But what if they lack personal experience? What do they draw from? Is it observation? Maybe. Is it recalling another person’s experience? That too. What about when it comes to a love scene? Fake it until you make I guess.

Making love, having sex, doing the deed, and dancing the horizontal mambo: Sex. It’s a very very personal thing. It’s so personal, that it’s illegal to offer one’s bedroom services for monetary gain. And it’s so personal, that the rating of your movie might just change from R to NC-17 with the flash of a body part or sound of ecstatic moan.

It’s the actor’s job to make an audience believe them. To tell the truth. Halle Berry was so truthful in Monster’s Ball, for which she won an Oscar, that many believed that she was actually too in the moment. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams did such a good job at “love faking” that their film Blue Valentine originally received an NC-17 rating until it was appealed and the rating was dropped to R.

Both Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are amazing actors and it probably wasn’t due to anything overtly graphic (although it is, at times, graphic) that their movie was in the rating’s hot seat. In fact, the controversial scenes contain the truth; Actors so good at sense and emotional memory that they made the folks at the MPAA blush because what they were seeing appeared real. Newsflash, it wasn’t. Knowing that Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling identify themselves as “Method actors” it is safe to assume that they utilized the tools that exercises like sense memory and affective memory give an actor. They give us access to the truth that we know within ourselves and the ability to relay that information to an audience.

Things like ADR or dubbing can be employed to make such scenes believable. This involves the actors in sound booths weeks, months, hell even years after shooting a movie where they record over faulty dialogue and yes, make sex noises.  Sex scenes in movies are probably the most technically involved because so much make believe is required to make it seem real. They aren’t sexy and glamorous. Instead of hearing someone shout your name, all you hear is the director saying “You’re out of your light!”  “Move your head/leg/arm to the left!” or “You’re blocking so-and-so’s lighting!”  Yeah, really romantic. Plus, if it’s a film, there are at least 3o people watching you fake an orgasm. It’s uncomfortable.  But it’s safe to say that sense memory is as real as you’re going to get in terms of seeing sex in mainstream movies. Don’t worry, it’s fake.