Coming Soon, to a Theater Near You: Naked People

Jason Schwartzman and Natalie Portman in 'Hotel Chevalier' i i

NPR can't show her naked: But Wes Anderson does. Jason Schwartzman and Natalie Portman star in Hotel Chevalier, Anderson's 13-minute prequel to The Darjeeling Limited. Fox Searchlight Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Fox Searchlight Pictures
Jason Schwartzman and Natalie Portman in 'Hotel Chevalier'

NPR can't show her naked: But Wes Anderson does. Jason Schwartzman and Natalie Portman star in Hotel Chevalier, Anderson's 13-minute prequel to The Darjeeling Limited.

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Shortbus i i

Swing time, swim time: An uninhibited pair of performers in John Cameron Mitchell's boundary-pushing Shortbus, above; Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood and T.V. Carpio, below, in Across the Universe. hide caption

itoggle caption
Shortbus

Swing time, swim time: An uninhibited pair of performers in John Cameron Mitchell's boundary-pushing Shortbus, above; Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood and T.V. Carpio, below, in Across the Universe.

Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood and T.V. Carpio in 'Across the Universe' i i
Sony Pictures
Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood and T.V. Carpio in 'Across the Universe'
Sony Pictures

I've had nudity on my mind a lot lately.

Now, now, settle down — it's part of the job. Movie nudity has a long history in Hollywood, going back to the silent era, so it's hardly shocking at this point. But there's been a lot of it lately.

And a lot of different kinds. Male and female, partial and full, frontal and ... backal? There's tasteful, meadow-frolicking nudity in Lady Chatterley, Beatles-inspired skinny-dipping nudity in Across the Universe, extensive, sex-related nudity in Lust, Caution and fleeting, nonsexual nudity in Into the Wild.

Natalie Portman nudity, too. She says it was actually a body double who was naked, battered and dirty in the Spanish Inquisition movie Goya's Ghosts. But it's clearly her, naked, discreetly posed, and carefully lit in Hotel Chevalier, a 13-minute prequel to Wes Anderson's new comedy The Darjeeling Limited. Anderson says he wants people to download Hotel Chevalier (requires iTunes) before they watch Darjeeling Limited in theaters, and Portman's being present in it so ... completely certainly makes that likelier.

Back in the '60s, when foreign films were the rage, half the reason college kids were willing to put up with subtitles in French movies was that the femmes fatales were so frequently deshabille. That was emphatically not true of American starlets of that era — Sandra Dee, say, or Annette Funicello. Nobody wore much in the Beach Blanket movies, true, but private parts stayed private.

Maybe it's the fitness craze, and people showering together in gyms, but you just don't attract crowds to movie theaters these days with mere nakedness. Last year's Shortbus boasted not just nudity, but remarkably limber people engaged in actual on-screen sex, and it hardly raised an ... eyebrow. With the new war drama In the Valley of Elah, reviews have barely noted that Frances Fisher plays a topless barmaid (though it's fun to watch Tommy Lee Jones struggling to keep his eyes on her eyes).

In Knocked Up, Katherine Heigl has a hospital birth scene — faked, presumably — in which audiences see a baby's head emerging, and there's been no media fuss. Full-frontal male nudity would likely cause more of a stir, but it's rarer — the only full-frontal example I can recall this summer was a streaking scene featuring Bart Simpson, and he's a cartoon.

Backsides, on the other hand, are the butt of jokes everywhere — in the British farce Death at a Funeral, in the Don Cheadle movie Talk to Me, and centrally in Knocked Up, where the sight of Seth Rogen's hairy derriere is all the wake-up call Heigl needs to realize that their one-night stand was a mistake.

Naked women on screen are generally sexy, naked men generally funny — except when the nakedness is about vulnerability. The latest James Bond, strapped nude to a chair during an interrogation in Casino Royale, or Viggo Mortensen in a steambath in the new Russian mob thriller Eastern Promises. Mortensen's so clearly defenseless, having briefly let his guard down, that when a pair of knife-wielding assassins come in, you can hardly expect him to worry about keeping his towel up. People are talking about that last scene — but because it's intense, not because it's nude.

All of which suggests that Americans are less uptight than they once were about bodies, though we're still pretty prudish about sex. Ang Lee's movie title says it all: Lust requires caution. Nudity, not so much.

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