Full Monties, Half Monties, No Monties

I’ve been thinking about nakedness recently.

Now that I have your attention, I should mention it’s nothing as base as nakedness per se.  It’s more along the lines of nakedness and culture.

For years, it seemed, I couldn’t see a movie without some of the characters ripping their clothes off.  It got to the point that somebody would take off his or her clothes just because it was warm outside, and this usually led to a scene of frenetic sex that often involved the kitchen table.  Usually, the woman was more naked than the man and nobody talked about cleaning up the table later — which always led me to believe these were sex scenes created by men for other men.  (Although I do give a special pass to the kitchen sex in Bull Durham, which I consider to be one of the most romantic movies I’ve ever seen.  I’m willing to forgive Kevin Costner anything for being in that movie.)

But anyway, lo and behold, the years and millennia do pass and glaciers melt, even if hell doesn’t freeze over, and now you can occasionally see movies and plays written and directed by women.  Cases in point: the romantic movie comedy, “It’s Complicated,” and playwright Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play,” now showing in New York.

Nancy Meyers wrote and directed “It’s Complicated,” which stars Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin.  It’s already been widely pointed out Meyers has a penchant for creating fairy tales for women my age (a damned lonely task, I should add) amidst some dazzling interiors that border on decorating pornography.  (Who cares about thread-count when the pillow-count is so high?)  If you think I’m going to defend her movie, you’re crazy; Meryl Streep’s character was as gooey and insubstantial as a box of cheap chocolates.  Besides, I’ve already heard my entire family’s criticisms of the movie since we saw it on Christmas Day:  “Her kids were pathetic.  No personality,” my son said; “Didn’t anybody in that family ever get angry?” my daughter asked; “All Meryl Streep did was laugh like a hyena,” my husband announced.

But, nakedness in a movie by a woman for women: There wasn’t any.  You saw Alec Baldwin stripped to his waist, hirsute and paunchy, totally unself-conscious and convinced of his own desirability.  Meryl Streep, on the other hand, stayed covered up, even when she slipped into the bathroom, telling Baldwin’s character she didn’t want him to see her backside, since she was no longer in her forties.  If this is liberating, I think I’m missing the point.  The inference is, an older woman’s naked body is so unsightly, we’ll spare you the view.  I guess we’ll never know what a normal woman’s body looks like; we’ll simply have to imagine the worst — unless Charlotte Rampling shows up for her occasional de rigueur, post-60 nude scene in a subtitled French film.  (And yes, I get it: If everybody looked like Charlotte Rampling, they’d be doing nude scenes whether they got paid or not.)

But, in retrospect, I kind of admire Baldwin’s lack of modesty — and regret the filmmaker’s overabundance of it for her female protagonist.  It seems like we’ve gone directly from gratuitous nudity to gratuitous non-nudity without asking why.

But then, my husband and I saw Ruhl’s “Vibrator Play” last weekend — and it was superb.  It dates back to the 1880s, when household electricity was becoming common and doctors had created an even more electrifying therapy for “hysterical” women: sessions with a vibrator.  It didn’t seem to occur to the men, doctors or husbands, that the therapy had anything to do with sex — but, believe me, the formerly hysterical women seemed to catch on pretty quickly.  Pretty soon, they were sneaking into the doctor’s office for a little self-help.

The women remained covered up as they thrashed and moaned and became less hysterical.  It was only at the end of the play when one character — the doctor, who was with his vibrator-happy wife — stripped off his clothes and was naked in front of the audience.  (I should add, in the interest of aesthetics, that he had quite a good body, in case you were wondering.)  But it was a lovely touch — surprising and counter-intuitive to see the character of a repressed scientist made so vulnerable.

Nakedness.  Sometimes, it’s vital to a good story line — assuming there is one.  Give me a good story line and strong characters over a kitchen table, any day, and the nakedness and sex will usually take care of themselves.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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11 comments… add one
  • Cindy A Link

    I saw Streep interviewed last week and she pointedly said she refused to do any nude scenes — so it may not be the playwright. I recommend “Kinsey” with Liam Neeson, enough gratuitous sex to last till the next decade. 

    Kathy Bates did a nude scene in “About Schmidt” with Jack Nicholson, one of my favorite movies.  I’ll always think of her as uncommonly brave.

  • If memory serves, Diane Keaton bared all (briefly) in Something’s Gotta Give in 2003, when she was 57. I, for one, thought she was quite impressive, while her co-star, Jack Nicholson, was downright repulsive.
    I remember seeing Romeo & Juliet on stage in London, many years ago – every single member of the cast was stark, raving naked – including the Nurse. Now tell me the point of that, if you can.

  • Great article. I wondered the same thing but couldn’t put it into words or formulate my feelings about it. You’ve managed to do both. Thank you for exploring this tabu territory. I’m left with more questions than answers about women’s bodies and combined with Chris Rock’s recent comments about sex concerning his “Good Hair” movie, I’m convinced it’s all about self-esteem or lack thereof. Seems like we haven’t made much progress cinematically.

  • I can’t remember the nude scene in “About Schmidt.”
    There was a quote from Victoria Abril, the actress Almodovar used a lot before he latched onto Penelope Cruz.  Abril pointed out that graphic sex was never shown in American films, but American directors and filmgoers had no problem with graphic violence, which is so much more offensive than the human body.  That’s approximate. Can’t find the quote on the Internet.

  • Here’s something that you may not know: Alex Baldwin used a body double to show off his butt. What? Why would he bare the tubby tummy but not the butt?

  • Winston Link

    Edith Head, Orry-Kelly, Irene Sharaff, Adrien and the like are all dead.
    Thus, the interest and investment in costume has waned considerably.
    It all started in NYC in 1968.  The musical, Hair, became a smash hit and costuming took an ideological  backseat to skin.  Hollywood noticed.  Their vast wardrobe departments were rapidly becoming masterless, sitting as idle as 1860’s London cotton mills.  The MPAA ratings had undergone a severe stripping that same year, opening the floodgates for screen sin– er, skin.  The rest is bare-assed history.
    I’m just lost as to whatever happened to those brave Canadian Monties.

  • Cindy A Link

    If you haven’t seen it, The Full Monty is hilarious.  I kept replaying the trailer with them all in the unemployment line and not being able to resist dancing in unison to the intercom music.  And remember the chubby guy who tries so desperately to lose weight, wraps himself in cellophane and eats a chocolate bar?  So — guess the funny parts of the comedy do not involve nudity…

  • Chris Link

    There were several scenes in a movie – The Road to Wellville – relating to “hysterical women”  and vibrators in a Dr. Spitzvogel’s office.  They were strangely erotic.

  • Stephie Smith Link

    Meryl and Alec typify the average woman and man.  As we women age, we look in the mirror and see every line, every sag (and heaven forbid, our mother’s faces). Men look in the mirror and see themselves as they looked 15+ years ago. In my next life I am going to be a man.

  • My teen daughter went with me to see this movie (what a sacrifice by her).  I guess I’m not the right age demographic for it, so it didn’t quite capture me

  • Oh yeah … Meryl’s endless laughing. That’s what set my teeth on edge, too. She seemed unhinged.
    How ’bout Verga Farminga’s alleged ass in Up in the Air? My, she has the ass of a 20 year old. I’m betting it was, actually, the ass of a 20 year old.

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