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A rough cut of male nudity in mainstream cinema

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

As an audience member of a certain age (and gender), I can remember being titillated by my first glimpse of onscreen nudity in “Porky’s” back in the early 1980s, which paved the way for a string of teenage fantasies dominated by the objectification of very specific parts of the female body – primarily the breast in its various states, shapes and sizes. The Motion Picture Association of America, through its rating system has deemed the appearance of the breast and female genitalia to be more dangerous to the minds and morals of society than the destructive excesses of violence on the body.

More intriguingly, the ratings board and the culture at-large have exhibited even greater inconsistency in their approach to the naked male. Outside porn, the penis exists as a persona non grata in the realm of sensual and romantic fetish; strange for a body part that would seemingly be the most obvious sexual instrument in nature. Why such a fixation on the mammary glands or the female pubis and not the male member, especially when it is so pointedly the topic of such a volcanic outpouring of comments? Forget being the butt of the jokes; the sheer number of head jokes could blow your mind.

Of course, maybe all that attention can render the little guy a little shy, but a few brave souls have dared to bare themselves before us. These appearances say more about us as viewers than about these proud silent members of the nude brigade on this curious frontier.

HALL OF FAME COMMANDER

Harvey Keitel (“Bad Lieutenant,” “The Piano”)

Keitel earns this exclusive distinction for bravely parading around in his birthday suit at the mere mention or suggestion of exposing oneself in the service of a character. It seems that for Keitel undressing before the camera is like metaphorically opening a vein. His nakedness is a raw wound. He is film’s version of Andres Serrano.

A HEAD STRONG GENERAL

Bruce Willis in 'Color of Night'

Bruce Willis (“Color of Night”)

This 1994 NC-17 rated erotic thriller about a color-blind therapist (Willis) being stalked by a killer attracted far more attention for the brief glimpse of its star’s package than for its limp plot and impotent sensuality. Willis had catapulted from television fame (“Moonlighting”) to big screen action heroics (“Die Hard”), so the allure of becoming a sex symbol must have driven the urge to drop trou to seal the deal.  Too bad he didn’t consider that none of “People’s Sexiest Men Alive” ever achieved that status for more than a peek at their bare chests.

NAKED FOOT SOLDIERS

Mark Wahlberg (“Boogie Nights”) and Val Kilmer (“Wonderland”)

These guys played variations on the theme of porn stars breaking out into the mainstream. “Boogie Nights” was Paul Thomas Anderson’s fictionalized account of the life and person of John Holmes, one of porn’s most famous big members, while “Wonderland” aimed for a closer version of the truth. Both films walked a tightrope, in terms of depicting the mundane realities of sex and nudity in the porn industry while also teasing audiences, saving their big money shots, as if the member portrait was a climax. The ultimate point, in each case, was that such displays weren’t that big a deal.

THE COMIC FLAGPOLE

Jason Segel (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”)

Not content to bare himself once early on to get a laugh, Segel does an encore towards the end of this comic look at overcoming rejection and finding love again. The nudity generates the anticipated response from the audience without coming across as a gratuitous grab. Segel is far more exposed in these scenes though because it is clear that he lacks the vanity audiences expect from movie stars. There is nothing pumped, toned, or cosmetically enhanced about him, which makes his member a perfectly stand-up stand-in for a sad-sack Everyman.

THE BLUE MAN GROUP

Billy Crudup in 'Watchman'

Billy Crudup (“Watchmen”)

When Zack Synder signed on to helm the adaptation of Alan Moore’s superhero saga that delved into the social and cultural anxieties of contemporary life, one of the nagging concerns involved handling the presence of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and his little blue man. The good doctor, due to a catastrophic accident, had been transformed into one of his world’s truly powerful figures (with blue skin), who, as a result, felt no need to conform to social norms like wearing clothing. For public events or meetings, Manhattan sports suits or a banana hammock, depending on the occasion, but his blue sidekick makes a couple of brief appearances. Crudup is little more than a CGI model for the rendering of this otherworldly character, but for all the enhancement of his physique to approximate the exaggerated proportions of a superhero, no special efforts were made to super-size his supermanhood.

HONORARY MEMBERSHIP IN THIS MEMBERS ONLY CLUB

Huey Lewis and Julianne Moore (“Short Cuts”)

Big issues like death and infidelity demand attention in Robert Altman’s loosely connected adaptation of short stories by Raymond Carver, but a couple of brilliant naked moments define the onscreen characters with narrative concision that rivals Carver’s words on the page. Lewis, captured starkly in the woods preparing to relieve himself in a river, spies a dead body in the water. It is a cold reflection/juxtaposition of life and death, nothing more, nothing less. And for Moore, her character undresses before her husband (Matthew Modine), as they discuss the dissolution of their marriage. When she pulls her light summery dress over her head, she stands truly naked – full of hurt and insecurity, but also as a direct (and erect) accusation, one that shames her husband, forcing him to turn away. It could be instances like these that frighten the ratings board and society because they highlight the reality that no matter how we try to cover things up, we can’t hide from ourselves.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at T.T.Stern-Enzi@daytoncitypaper.com


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