“You read all about her in Playboy Magazine. Now see Jayne Mansfield completely nude!”
So read a poster advertising Mansfield’s now-landmark scene in 1963’s Promises! Promises!, best-remembered as the first Hollywood movie of the sound era to feature a major star naked. As Sandy Brooks, a woman who’s ignored by her husband but desperate to get pregnant, Mansfield made history when she appeared in a nearly-minute long scene in a bathtub, the suds barely concealing her breasts and curves, and once more, writhing on an unmade bed.
In fact, the actress earned the historic first nude scene mantle by accident. As Vulture points out, Marilyn Monroe had filmed her nude scene skinny dipping in a pool for Something’s Got to Give a year earlier, just before her tragic death in 1962, but it was scrapped after she was fired from the project.
Still, those scenes marked a sharp turning point for an industry that had long been dominated by the strict morals of the Hays Code, in place from 1934 to 1968. But as a new documentary points out — films and nudity have always gone hand in hand, even if it was kept under wraps. (The first mainstream nude scene in Hollywood history is widely considered to date back to 1916, when swimming star and actress Annette Kellerman appeared naked under a waterfall in A Daughter of the Gods.)
Directed by Danny Wolf (Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time series), Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies takes a look at the fraught history of Hollywood’s relationship with naked bodies. The trailer, released July 8, features interviews with director Amy Heckerling (Clueless), Malcolm McDowel (A Clockwork Orange, Caligula), Pam Grier (Jackie Brown, Foxy Brown), and Shannon Elizabeth (American Pie, Scary Movie), among others, and track the ways in which nudity has been used to empower, but also shame and exploit actors throughout film history.
It’s no coincidence that the landmark scenes mentioned above feature women. Though male nudity has gotten more common in recent years (hello, Euphoria), it’s still rare enough that it earns headlines nearly every time. But women’s bodies have been used to titillate audiences, and sell tickets for nearly a century. As a result, young actresses were put in situations where they’ve felt pressure to undress in order to see their careers progress.
“If I hadn’t done nudity, I might not have a career today,” Elizabeth, whose scene in American Pie shaped a generation of millennials, says in the trailer.
“I didn’t have the choices that women do today,” Diane Franklin adds moments later, referring to the rise of the #MeToo movement, and Hollywood’s ongoing reckoning with a culture of systemic misogyny in its aftermath. Today, nudity on-screen is undergoing a much-needed overhaul, as performers and directors start to examine why they’re using it, and at what cost?
But in order to map out the future of the nude scene, we have to understand its past. In other words, consider this an essential addition to your film education.
Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies will be available on demand August 18. Watch the full trailer below: