24 February 2009

They Shoot Actresses, Don't They?

'They Shoot Actresses, Don't They?' Filmic Depictions of Female Skin and Neosexual Capitalist Theory

Here's the moot: that artistic value judgements about Hollywood depictions of female nudity are governed by social class as well as artistic merit. Okay, so I did seek a little inspiration from the Postmodernism Generator for the title, but bear with me - I'm going somewhere with this.

We've just had the Oscars. (You may have noticed.) In the ceremony, two very different actresses received nominations for their portrayals of women who, for varying and justifiable reasons, happen to take their clothes off during the course of their films.

In Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, Marisa Tomei received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance as Cassidy, the stripper who becomes faded wrestling star Randy The Ram's confidant and will-they-won’t-they love interest despite the club's strict rules about fraternising with customers.

In Stephen Daldry's The Reader, Kate Winslet was nominated for and won Best Actress for her portrayal of Hanna Schmitz, a lonely German woman who has an affair with a much younger man, only for him to discover several years later that she stands accused of war crimes as a concentration camp guard.

Both Tomei and Winslet disrobe for their roles. Indeed, Tomei's turn as Cassidy, the aging stripper with a kid to feed and bills to pay, contains a surprising amount of pole-dancing action: more than was strictly necessary for the advancement of the plot. Perhaps Aronofsky would argue that in showing Tomei's minimally-clad gyrations he is placing equal weight on the toil Cassidy must undergo to make her way in the world and the batterings faced by Randy in the back street wrestling rings. And there's certainly no denying that she looks good for her age.

In The Reader, Winslet's love scenes with young German actor David Kross involve nudity, but that's no surprise given that Winslet seems comfortable with disrobing on camera if the plot demands it. Many of her films feature it. Speaking at the German premiere of The Reader, Winslet said:

"It's not something one particularly enjoys, but it's an important part of the film. It wasn't difficult doing the love scenes with David at all. He's 18, a professional, and absolutely brilliant in the film. It's just part of the job so we just get on with it."

It must be a bit new for Kross though: filming of the love scenes had to wait until his 18th birthday.

In the end Winslet won her Oscar, but Tomei lost to Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In a way, I was glad that Marisa Tomei didn't win Best Supporting Actress for The Wrestler. Not that she wasn't good in the film: she was. Her character is believable and her gradual warming to Randy, allowing him into her life outside the strip club, is a touching ray of hope for the addled former star. But seemingly half of Tomei's screen time in The Wrestler was spent stripping. Don't get me wrong, she's quite good at it, but that's beside the point. If she'd won, it would've been an Oscar awarded for stripping! There weren't that many lines where she had all her clothes on.

But does this mean I have double standards, what with Kate Winslet getting her gear off in most of the films she does? I didn't find Winslet's nomination at all unusual, despite there being a fair amount of her skin on display. You may remember the scene in David Mamet’s lovely film State And Main in which Sarah Jessica Parker’s starlet character protests about the topless scene in her contract, but the crew wonder what all the fuss is about: after all, America has seen her bosom plenty of times before –

Scriptwriter: ‘They know what her breasts look like…’

Director: ‘Know? They could draw them from memory’

And I'm no great prude, either - in both films the nudity was in context, and although I thought Tomei's stripping was a little, um, over-exposed, it didn't detract from the film at all.

There's certainly not the same fixation on male nudity in the cinema - largely because male cinemagoers often respond poorly to it. But for male actors the nervousness generated by a nude scene can be just as palpable as for their female colleagues. Here's Alan Bennett in his 1994 book 'Writing Home', on the Liverpool shoot for his TV film about Kafka, The Insurance Man:

In the scene, Robert Hines, who plays Franz, has to stand naked on the podium under the bored eyes of fifty medical students. As the day wears on the extras have no problem simulating boredom, often having to be woken for the take. I never fail to be impressed by the bravery of actors. Robert is a striking and elegant figure, seemingly unselfconscious about his nakedness. Did I have to display myself in front of a total stranger, let alone fifty of them, my part would shrink to the size of an acorn. Robert's remains unaffected. I mention this to John Pritchard, the sound supervisor. 'I see,' he says drily. 'You subscribe to the theory of the penis as seaweed'. It later transpires that Robert's seeming equanimity has been achieved only after drinking a whole bottle of wine.

But back to the women. Here's a theory then: perhaps I'm prejudiced against working class nudity, and only tolerate bourgeious exhibitionism. Under this theory, Tomei's stripper bares her skin in a proletarian context, a seedy strip bar populated by truck-drivers, roading contractors and former wrestling stars, and these exposures and gyrations are deemed unseemly. But Winslet gets her gear off in a tasteful middle-class piece with arthouse written all over it, and that’s okay?

But let’s be realistic here. Whether a film is lowbrow, highbrow or something in between, subtracting clothes from female actresses helps to sell a picture. You can argue about the challenging moral position that places film producers in, but I don’t expect you’ll find many film producers losing sleep over that. You can certainly make the point that it places young actresses in an invidious position – none of the old-fashioned sense of mystery remains, and these days it’s often a case of disrobing to advance your career. It sends signals to young women who see these movies that women are, in part at least, objectifiable commodities in a way that male actors seldom are – because film directors and producers are mostly male, and make their films from the point of view of the male gaze). But ultimately, it comes down to cold, hard cash, and that’s the language and the raison d’etre of Western cinema.

You just have to hope that the skin doesn’t overshadow the rest of the production, or become the driving force behind the film. Unless you want to be Russ Meyer, that is. At least he was honest about it!

Guardian interview with Kate Winslet, 19 December 2008
Matthew's Best Picture round-up
State And Main trailers
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