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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