Nudity on Camera: Who gets to decide?

Clara Wodny

Julia Roberts doesn’t film nude scenes- the ability to make choices about how one presents oneself should be a basic right for all actors, so why is it a privilege? Impact’s Clara Wodny investigates.

In a recent interview for British Vouge, Julia Roberts states that her “G-rated” career (that is, the fact that she’s never appeared nude or physically vulnerable on camera) is a personal choice. While she makes it clear she’s not criticizing those who do appear nude on screen, she insinuates that not taking her clothes off or participating in overtly sexual scenes is her decision, suggesting that every actor can choose whether or not to participate in nude scenes. For Roberts, her decision has been respected by directors and clearly has not had a negative impact on her long, successful career. 

Roberts’ reasons for not appearing nude are perfectly valid, and, of course, every actor should have the ability to choose how they are represented and what they feel comfortable with. However, the sad reality is that many young actors (especially women) in the film and tv industry feel pressured into resigning control of their own bodies. This leads to filming scenes that they aren’t comfortable with in order to prove themselves, or gain the favor of directors and producers who have the power to make and break careers.

she saw her cooperation in these scenes as a necessary evil- a way to challenge herself and become a better actor

Back in 2015, Dame Helen Mirren, at 70 years old,  felt the need to publicly announce her ‘retirement’ from on-screen nude scenes, citing her age as the reason she, “Doesn’t have to do that anymore”. Looking back on her storied career, she recognizes that her many sexual and nude scenes made her feel very objectified, embarrassed, and uncomfortable. However, in order to succeed in the industry, she saw her cooperation in these scenes as a necessary evil- a way to challenge herself and become a better actor. 

in reality it [female nudity] was just another ploy to appeal to the ‘male gaze’ and bring in revenue

Throughout her career, Mirren was given monikers such as the “sex queen” by powerful men in the industry, and was often expected to speak about her big bosom and sex appeal in interviews.  In a 2019 interview with dailymail, she speaks about the way she viewed her reputation for nudity at the time, saying, “it was all supposed to be about sexual liberation, but that was all a complete con. The men still called the shots.” Mirren was often led to believe that her character’s nudity was integral to the film, or that it would send a message of female empowerment, when in reality it was just another ploy to appeal to the ‘male gaze’ and bring in revenue. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon occurrence. 

Sharon Stone was tricked into appearing nude on camera for her 1992 film Basic Instinct, which was later weaponized against her. The film includes an intimate scene where Stone uncrosses her legs during an interrogation. At the time of filming, she wasn’t expecting to be nude until she wast asked to take her panties off because the “white was reflecting the light”. She was promised that nothing revealing would be visible on camera. It wasn’t until the public movie premiere that Stone saw her vagina shot for the first time. She states that she promptly found the director, Paul Verhoeven, and slapped him across the face.

Verhoeven denies that Stone was tricked into nudity and claims that he was upfront about the nature of the scene

According to an interview with Stone’s Basic Instinct co-star, Michael Douglas, Verhoeven used to warn actresses there would be several sex scenes and nudity in his films before they auditioned. However, Douglas told him to stop saying this, as actresses kept turning down the roles they were offered. Now, Verhoeven denies that Stone was tricked into nudity and claims that he was upfront about the nature of the scene. In 2004, when Stone divorced her then-husband Phil Bronstein, a court ruled that she would lose custody of her young son. Reportedly, the judge cited her sexually explicit scene in Basic Instinct as evidence that she was an unfit mother.

Similarly to Julia Roberts, Actress Rebel Wilson decided early on not to appear nude on camera, and wrote this stipulation into all of her contracts. Still, she has had to repeatedly fight and advocate for herself. In one instance, a director brought in a body double for the more revealing scenes, but then continually said things like, “see, she looks so good,” as an attempt to cajole Wilson into doing the scenes herself.

Of course, there are many actors who do feel comfortable with nudity and some who even find it enjoyable. But this doesn’t mean that even the willing participants aren’t ever exploited or violated when it comes to filming vulnerable scenes. The general consensus seems to be that nudity needs to be integral to the plot and advantageous to the story, serving some higher artistic purpose rather than being included simply for shock factor or monetary reasons.

While objectification and sexual exploitation of actors in the film and tv industry remains a consistent issue, there has been somewhat of a step in the right direction when it comes to on screen portrayals of nudity in recent films. For example, in Jennifer Lawrence’s latest film, No Hard Feelings, her character appears in the nude, but in a way that is not sexualized. Lawrence has spoken about the scene as “hilarious”, saying she had no reservations and felt completely comfortable and in control while filming that scene.

Another on-screen moment of full frontal nudity occurs in Saltburn, when Barry Keoghan dances, fully nude, in the last scene. For many critics, this scene is very integral to his character and adds a valuable dimension to the film. Again, this moment isn’t overtly sexual in nature or meant simply for viewers’ pleasure, instead serving a deeper purpose when viewed in conjunction with the wider story.

Hopefully, these trends will continue and films will stop asking actors to perform nudity and other forms of physical vulnerability when the plot doesn’t call for it. All actors should be given the autonomy to decide what levels of vulnerability they are comfortable with, and have these wishes be respected without jeopardizing their careers or labeling them as ‘difficult to work with’. 

Clara Wodny

Featured image courtesy of Jamie Forbes via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In-article photos courtesy of @juliarobertsbrasil, @nickthompsonstudio, @smorgas.bored, @rebelwilson, and @nohardfeelingsmovie via Instagram. No changes were made to these photos.

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