Review: Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies Chronicles Decades of Defrocking On Screen

One of the busiest directors of 2020 has got to be documentary filmmaker Danny Wolf, who has already released the highly enjoyable, three-part doc series Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All Time earlier this year. His latest work is the sprawling, decade-by-decade look at the history of nudity in the cinema, entitled Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies, which starts out with the surprising amount of nudity featured in silent movies, then moves into the heyday of post-Hayes Code in the 1960s and the erotic thrillers of the 1980s and early 1990s, all the way up through newer fare like Fifty Shades of Grey. The movie is more than simply a highlights reel. In as scholarly a way as possible, it examines the purpose of nudity, the way in which actors are treated on set, and even the reaction the talent have in seeing their naked bodies projected stories high on the big screen or having them picked apart in magazines and eventually the internet.

Skin Image courtesy of Quiver Distribution

Skin begins with the pretext that nudity of any kind in movies is a form of art, and goes on to interpret and assign meaning and message to said art. There’s an array of famous faces to offer historical context and testimony as to the way nudity was addressed during the casting process, in signed contracts, and on set (occasionally, directors would push actresses to do more than the legally binding contract asked for). More interestingly, the latter part of the documentary enters into a conversation about the role and handling of nude scenes in the midst of the #MeToo movement (many film sets employ someone with the title of “Intimacy Coordinator” to help choreograph nude/sex scenes).

Film historians, critics, and even film-nudity expert Mr. Skin (Chicagoan Jim McBride) chime in on landmark nude scenes, instances of censorship, how nudity is used in marketing films, and a really fun discussion of pre-Code Hollywood nudity (or implied nudity), and how some filmmakers skirted the restrictions. The film dives into certain political and artistic arenas of the acceptance of nudity on film; addresses the moral implications of more exploitative uses of nudity in teen sex comedies and slasher films, for example; and gets into the botched attempts to incorporate X and NC-17 ratings into the mainstream.

Some of the more interesting interviews are with folks like Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), Diane Franklin (The Last American Virgin), Joe Dante (The Howling), Pam Grier (The Big Doll House), Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange, Caligula), Eric Roberts and Mariel Hemingway (Star 80), Shannon Elizabeth (American Pie), Kevin Smith (Zack & Miri Make A Porno), Ken Davitian (Borat), Rena Riffel (Showgirls), Cerina Vincent (Not Another Teen Movie), Traci Lords (Not of This Earth), Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave), Sylvia Miles (Midnight Cowboy), Kristanna Loken (Terminator: Rise of the Machines), Sybil Danning (Battle Beyond the Stars) and Sean Young (No Way Out), as well as film critics Amy Nicholson and Chicago’s own Richard Roeper.

The best parts of Skin involve diving deeper into the subject’s sociological implications than you might guess it would, and there’s a genuine question about whether the use of nudity reflected the changing culture or if the culture was responding to the loosening of restrictions regarding nudity and sex on film. And while I realize that this isn’t the theme of the documentary, the few glimpses we get of some of the more questionable behavior of filmmakers, producers or studios in the name of getting more nudity in their movies, the more honest and real the film feels. This is perhaps the subject of a different investigative work. Skin isn’t so much a celebration of nudity, but it certainly is nice to hear those involved in making the films get excited about successfully pulling off tasteful nudity every once in a while. As mentioned, the film does delve into male nudity as well, and there are plenty of wieners for everyone to enjoy as well. Director Wolf manages to maintain a certain level of decorum and scholarly tone to his film to keep it from feeling seedy, and there’s a good chance you’ll learn something amidst the naked butts.

The film is now available On Demand.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.