The 22 best nude scenes in movies
Nudes have been appearing in feature films since the 1910s, and the best nudes deserve to be considered alongside fine art.
“This is not art. Striptease is not art. Too direct. More direct than art.”
This line from Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” sums up a lot of people’s feelings about nudity in movies. The history of painting and sculpture is replete with nude portraiture, regularly and conveniently classified as art. But in movies, the nude scene is rarely discussed alongside Canova’s marble sculpture or Manet’s “Olympia.” Movies blur the lines between “real life” and artistic mediocrity so thoroughly that people discuss nude scenes in movies as anything but art. This is “content” that merits “advice” or something similar to “porn”, although the Supreme Court these days qualifies it as such.
As many have noted, the nature of an actor’s job requires the audience to look at them. So when nudity enters the (literal) picture, it complicates the relationship between the viewer and the viewed. Are we somehow violating their privacy? Are they invading ours? How should we feel about this parasocial interaction, especially when it appears in an overtly sexualized context?
At times, it can be difficult to write about on-screen nudity in anything but joking terms, especially since nudity has become a comedy fixture. Nudity is most commonly used in mainstream entertainment as a slapstick. A quarter of a century has passed since nudity was the central element – and dramatic plot point – of the then most popular Hollywood film in decades, “Titanic”. It seems unlikely that 2023 or any other recent blockbuster will be similarly stripped. Although the unsettling response of nudity in the audience is explored again with some frequency in the horror genre; watch the scariest scenes from the wildly popular films ‘It Follows’ and ‘Hereditary’.
So maybe we should take nudity seriously again. One place for this reevaluation is to look at the history of the nude scene since the silent era. The best nude scenes convey vulnerability, intimacy, passion and more. Below is an incomplete timeline of the nude scene throughout film history. Both are films that wouldn’t have the same artistic impact without these moments.
Christian Blauvelt, Christian Zilko, Jude Dry and Kate Erbland contributed to this story.
(Editor’s note: This list was first published in March 2022 and has been updated several times since then. It is a living document and will change over time.)
“Intolerance” (DW Griffith, 1916)
Today’s viewers may be surprised by how liberally many silent films depict sexuality. In the United States, Hays Office self-censorship did not come into existence until the late 1920s (and was not enforced at all until Joseph Breen took over in 1934). Silent films and early sound films have all kinds of transgressive content. DW Griffith’s “Intolerance” features a complete orgy with women wearing see-through material or bathing naked. (Later, during the siege of Babylon, two men kiss.) Some of this libertinism reappeared in Griffith’s later “Orphans of the Storm” and continued through the early sound era with the famous Claudette Colbert. bathed naked (although visible only from behind) in donkey’s milk in the 1932 “The Sign of the Cross”. But Griffith was pushing the boundaries even a few decades earlier. – CB
“The Last Picture Show” (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)
Courtesy of the Everett Collection
Peter Bogdanovich’s wistful black-and-white portrait of the end of an era for two high school and longtime friends (Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms) remains best known as the director’s career metal. The film also launched Cybill Shepherd’s career when Bogdanovich’s then-wife Polly Platt thought Shepherd would be perfect for the role of Jacy Farrow, the smartest and prettiest girl in the film’s declining North Texas oil town.
However, the film was banned in one scene, partly in the state in which the film is set. After the Christmas dance, Jacy is invited to a skinny dipping party where she uncomfortably undresses on the diving board while rowdy teens splash around below. Shepherd was 21 years old at the time of filming, but because her character was still in high school, it was met with anger by the public. “The Last Picture Show” was actually deemed obscene by the city of Phoenix and required a federal court to review it, which ultimately ruled that the film could be viewed. Still, it was 1971, and so even the suggestion of nudity, let alone the full monty, shocked ordinary moviegoers. —RL
“Don’t Look Now” (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
Courtesy of the Everett Collection
One of the most infamous sex scenes of the 1970s is a fugue of sorrow and hope. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie – who did not over-eroticize the lighting and acting here, and would never mistake it for a porn film – seek comfort in each other’s bodies after having just experienced the death of their young child. they have been grieving for months. It may be cinema’s greatest “sexual healing” scene, and the way director Nicolas Roeg cuts into their romance with shots of them getting dressed and then getting ready to go out somehow got past the US and UK censors. Nice stories about Christie’s friend Warren. Beatty, who wanted to control the editing, and rumors that the scene featured unsimulated sex dominated the narrative, but it’s actually a deeply felt scene about two people finding hope in each other after the darkest time in their lives. – CB
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)
Courtesy of the Everett Collection
Ah, nothing says summer like pent-up hormones and a little red bikini. Judge Reinhold’s teenage fantasy in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” features an infamous topless moment in which Phoebe Cates strips down to her tiny purple two-piece. The 1982 classic features Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker, Robert Romanus and even a cameo by Nicolas Cage. Director Amy Heckerling made her feature film debut with a dark comedy about the pressures of adolescence; while Heckerling helmed the iconic (and nudity-free) “Clueless,” David Lynch was reportedly offered “Fast Times” first. And it wasn’t Cates’ first time writing “Fast.” She previously bared her breasts in ‘Paradise’ when she was just 17 years old. “The shirtless scene in ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ was funny, which made it easier.” Cates said in 1982. “In this business, if a girl wants a career, she has to be willing to strip. If you have a good figure, why not show it off?” Cates also revealed it in 2018 in an interview with former co-star Leigh, she said that Leigh’s advice was that it was “not that big of a deal”. Not a big deal for her, but a big deal in the history of bikini drops. – SB
“The Room with a View” (James Ivory, 1985)
©Courtesy of Cinemacom Pictures/Everett Collection
This might be the best high collar, petticoat, “tennis anyone?” escapism, the Merchant-Ivory classic that basically every British period drama at the Masterpiece Theater has aspired to since. “The Room with a View” is also the greatest of its kind because it’s so much more than those twee trappings. Example: When Julian Sands, Rupert Graves and the immortal Simon Callow frolic naked in a shallow Surrey lake. “Let’s take a bath!” Grave asks his companions. The full-frontal escape is an age-old example of letting go and getting in touch with nature, and British cinema’s greater willingness to show male nudity than the US since Ken Russell’s Women in Love was a landmark for male nudity. 1969 – CB
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