It was Bernadette Peters, I believe, but somewhere she gave an interview in which she said she would never go topless or nude in a movie, because the minute she did she would no longer be her character in a story; she would just be Bernadette peters in the nude. Peters had certainly played some very sexy roles, but as she explained it, actual nudity was simply out of the question. As I read the article I was half-hoping to learn of some new sexy performance from Peters.
So yeah. I felt pretty called out on that one.
Course, this was in the early 90s, so my memory might be off. I can’t find the interview now, but I distinctly recall the feeling of disappointment I felt in realizing I would never actually see Bernadette Peters naked on screen. I also remember realizing immediately that she had made a very good point. I felt then as I do now that I could think of instances in which nudity on screen had worked wonderfully in the service of the story, but I could also think of far more times when the effect of on-screen nudity had worked exactly as Peters had described, leaving me thinking about anything but the story onscreen.
Isome how doubt that I am alone in this.
There is a scene in Frida that bears out Peters’ point, perfectly. You know the one. I remember the surprise I felt in watching it for the first time. This was Salma Hayek doing a bit more on film that I had seen her do in the past, and she was just as beautiful as ever, as was the woman she was with. It felt like an answer to some long-forgotten prayers. well, for a moment or two anyway, and then it just felt out of place. I had been watching a serious film about an amazing artist whose body of work testified to a lifetime spent in constant pain; and then suddenly I was looking at something straight out of late-night cable. I was no longer looking at Frida Kahlo, or watching her life story unfold. I was just watching Salma Hayek with another woman acting out a moment of perfect bliss perfectly shaped for the eyes of horny heterosexual males just like mine. It was a moment of shameless pandering stuck in the middle of an otherwise challenging story. That scene simply didn’t belong.
I could practically hear Bernadette Peters saying; “I told you so.”
I found the whole thing very odd, even irritating if also kind of amusing, but I never understood the scene, not until Salma Hayek’s piece in the New York Times detailing how it came about, and fuck Harvey Weinstein anyway!
I can still hear Bernadette Peters saying “I told you so,” only now she isn’t laughing when she says it.
There is something about sex and sexuality that threatens to strip away the context of performance even as it strips the clothes off of performers. It doesn’t always do this of course. Even the most sexually explicit performance can complement a performance quite beautifully and quite effectively. Still, for every raw performance that leaves one thinking that was exceptionally well done, there are so many more that hardly qualify as a performance.
Sex isn’t the only thing that does this of course, violence and politics, can intrude upon a storyline as well. So can star power. It’s long been a truism that John Wayne always played himself, no matter the part, he always played himself (and of course John Wayne himself was as much a fiction as any part ever played by any actor). How often do you really forget that Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise or cease to think of J-Lo as anyone but J-Lo, unless you are watching one of the many gems she did before becoming an abbreviated persona? There are of course a host of things that can pull us out of any story that we care to watch. Still, sex and sexuality seem to have a special power to knock down the fourth wall at any given moment, and call our attention to anything but the story in question.
This might be more true of American audiences than others; we are an exceptionally juvenile bunch when it comes to that topic, but anyway…
This fall out of performance can be exceptionally obvious at times, as when Hally Berry revealed her breasts in Swordfish. As I recall, this was the first time, she had done nudity on camera, a point worked well into the buzz for the movie. And then the moment came in the film, and it was so obvious, so blatant, you could almost hear her saying; “Here they are, boys; happy now?” It was either the dumbest thing Berry ever did in a movie, or the most brilliant. I’ve never been sure which.
Sometimes, it can be more toxic than others. The fact that Marlon Brando and Bernardo Bertolucci agreed that his character would sodomize that of actress Maria Schneider without telling her in advance might just be the worst example I can think of. Hearing Bertolucci describe this as horrible “in a way” is about as outrageous as it is sad to learn she “felt raped” afterward. I’m not even sure if this stunt took audiences out of the scene, or even if audiences were ever that invested in the real storyline for Last Tango in Paris, but it’s perversely fitting to think that the director did this so as to get a more realistic take from his actress; thus aiming to achieve a more authentic performance precisely by making sure it was in part, at least, no longer a performance.
Knowing this now, can anyone still watch that film thinking about the characters?
To lesser degrees, I think I have seen this in other productions. Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Milius have quite a laugh on the director’s commentary for Conan The Barbarian, talking about how a woman who played a slave given to Conan for the purpose of breeding didn’t speak enough English to fully understand what she was being asked to do. According to them, she really was scared of Arnold, just as her character seemed to be in the scene. Which is funny. Or not all, really. (A part of me wants to believe, Arnold and John were making that up or at least exaggerating it, which would of course underscore the degree to which what actors say of their films is often a performance in its own right, but seriously, I have no real reason to doubt that they really did put a half-naked woman in a cage in front of a strange man without ensuring that she understood what was happening and felt safe about the whole thing.)
It seems, the old Hitchcock line, “torture the woman,” isn’t about the character.
On a more trivial note, the absence of explicit sexuality can also prove distracting. How you get to the point where that can be a problem in the first place is another question, but Austin Powers parodied this wonderfully with its absurd moments of implied nudity. What makes it funny is of course the many times we have seen just that in a film, someone naked, or nearly so, and still somehow find everything coincidentally covered up.
I had a similar feeling watching the love scene between Rhaenyra and Ser Criston in House of the Dragon. Others have referred to this as an unusually tasteful scene in comparison to past treatment of sexuality in the Game of Thrones franchise. This take derives some value from the agency of the female character and the apparent intimacy of that scene in comparison to the exploitive premises driving much of the content in the first series. Still, I can’t help thinking the comparison between house of the Dragon and Game of thrones was the driving narrative in this scene to begin with. Knowing the series had taken flack in the past for gratuitously explicit scenes in storylines driven by male characters (and an overall indulgence of the male gaze), one couldn’t help but wonder how the prequels would deal with such matters. If that scene was, in part, an answer to that question, then the question itself intruded on the story. That the scene gracefully avoided quite showing the audience any real body parts would seem to be part of the answer. Of course the extras in the brothel scene might tell a different story (both in and behind the performance), but when Rhaenyra and Ser Criston came together neither Emily Carey nor Fabien Frankle upstaged their own characters, so to speak.
Or didn’t they?
The relatively modest performance in this instance, was itself an answer to a question not shaped within the story itself, and the end result would have been fitting for the cover of a romance novel.
But perhaps that is the real problem here. When it comes to sex, I suppose they really are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, because we really will be distracted if they do and distracted if they don’t. Sexual mores are an unusually fluid area of ethics, not the least of reasons being that rules proscribing sexual conduct (including public nudity) effectively serve to make the conduct more interesting, and of course every effort to increase acceptance serves simultaneously to make the conduct in question less interesting. So, the boundaries of appropriate sexual behavior are always in flux. This is as true in real life as it is on screen. The question of what is or is not acceptable is always on the table when it comes to sex, and so the question never really sits in the background. Some answers are better than others, and some are downright awful, but we always notice how a film chooses to answer that question.
Sometimes the answer is all we hear.