Cinema #2: When Movies Were Gratuitous

I recently watched a documentary on the film Deep Throat and was thoroughly blown away by the long lines outside the theaters in the 70's to see a porn film. Reporters were interviewing various celebs who were at the LA premier, and among them was Mr. Ed McMahon! Can you even conceive of this sort of thing happening today? People must have been pretty accepting of nudity in movies.

Then, last week my wife and I watched a truly awful film called Hot Dog… the Movie (1984). There’s a scene where a couple check into a hotel room, and the desk attendant is completely butt naked for no particular reason (she had just gotten out of a hot tub, and evidently didn’t want to trouble herself by wrapping up in a towel). The very definition of gratuitous nudity.

And lastly, yesterday, a few friends and I watched the Mathew Modine-Phoebe Cates movie, Private School (1983). None of us had seen it before and were pretty amazed at the amount of gratuitous nudity in the picture. There’s a shower scene, a topless chick on a horse, and a girl gets champagne on her outfit and naturally must immediately strip to get out of those uncomfortable wet clothes.

This started a conversation about how movies from the very late 1960’s till around 1984 contained unprecedented levels of gratuitous nudity - not an original observation by any stretch, so I won’t bore you with stating the obvious. But my question is what caused it to stop?

Sure, it hasn’t stopped completely. Pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry and there’s tons of cheap-o late night Cinemax (aka Skin-a-max) soft core snores to go around. I’m talking about movies that are at the theater and do well at the box office (both low budget and mainstream); I’m talking about cinematically omnipresent gratuitous nudity. Why’d it go bye-bye?

And don't tell me it didn't. Where's the gratuitous female nudity in comedies like Superbad, 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Stepbrothers, There's Something About Mary, etc. These are the type of films that would've definitely had nudity aplenty a decade or so earlier. Even horror movies, once a fertile ground for gratuitous nudity, now are generally PG-13, with less skin than Doc Hollywood.

Here’s my theory of what happened (correct me if you have a better one):

A huge segment of the population in the late 1960’s was under the age of 25. They were the ones dictating the success or fail at the box office, and I think it’s pretty safe to say that most 18-25 year olds would rather see Foxy Brown than Ivanhoe. Plus, it didn’t hurt that many restrictions were lifted on what the studios were putting out.

So, basically a bunch of horny Baby Boomers steered movie producers toward gratuitous nudity and explicit sexual content for over a decade…. and then they got older. The Boomers’ libidos settled down, Reagan got elected, there was a war on pornography, and they dumped their bongwater down the drain for the last time.

This is not a good climate for irresponsible sexual hijinx in movies – no, you should be watching Turner and Hooch or maybe Top Gun. It wasn’t long before guys like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich were setting the tone, and that was all she wrote. Bye-bye Foxy Brown, hello Mrs. Doubtfire.

Feel free to punch holes in my theory. However, you need not mention that the biggest movie of the 1990's (Titanic) had a topless scene. I am well aware. Anomalies do occur.

Also, perhaps you see a comback on the horizon. Movies like My Bloody Valentine (2009) certainly lend credence to that thought. Inquiring minds want to know.


  1. Couldn't agree more about the lack of nudity in rated R films. Movies that desperately need nudity steer clear of revealing any flesh, even if the scene is set in a strip club. Nothing is more boring than watching bad actresses pretend to be strippers wearing bikinis and showing nothing. Horror films are the best example of the new "water downed" films with little gore and, at best, some nipples poking through a t-shirt. Give me back my T&A, dammit! Stop all this PG-13 nonsense and make movies for adults again.

  2. And you *know* that modern gratuitous beaver shots will be FAR less...furry...than its 1970's counterparts! Thank god for wax is all I'm sayin'.

  3. I think gratuitous nudity was the ultimate low-budget production value. After 1983 (and the deluge of big-budget franchise films -- 'Return of the Jedi,' 'Jaws 3-D,' 'Octopussy,' 'Thunderball 2: The Thunderballing,' 'Monty Python 3: The Final Python' among others), I'll bet audiences got spoiled by the works of the men who were once called 'boys with beards' -- Lucas, Spielberg, Coppolla, Landis, DePalma. Next to this kind of stiff competition, low-budget film-makers had to offer audiences more than a blouse full of goodies!

    I'd love to blame Reagan and his posse, but I just don't think they're the reason why gratuitous skin went away. The reason I can't? The date: is there not a difference between the films of '83-84 and '85? The difference? PG-13, which sometimes includes brief nudity, harsh violence, and some salty language. I think the culprits are Lucas and Spielberg -- their success paved the way for family-suitable ultraviolence at the cost of beaver shots!

  4. A lot of blame being put on the PG-13 rating. No question it's part of the problem... but how do you explain all the R rated movies like 40 Year Old Virgin, Saw IV, Stepbrothers, Knocked Up, The Descent, etc., etc. that don't have ANY gratuitous nudity? Even American Pie, the supposed Porky's or Fast Times for the 90's didn't deliver the goods - a topless scene at one point, but even Doc Hollywood and Just One of the Guys have that.

    I was talking about this with a guy at work, and another possibility came to light: perhaps since hardcore pornography is so accessible these days, people couldn't give a rat's ass about a little pubic hair at the theater. (just another thought)

  5. Must admit, the promise of R-rated gratuitous nudity was a major selling point and led me to see films I might likely have avoided otherwise. If certain actresses were in the credits, you just KNEW it would be there and you'd be right.

    You are probably correct that it was initially a spin-off of "porno-chic" as created by the near-mainstreaming of DEEP THROAT. After that film was prosecuted and persecuted the general public must have felt forced to realize it was "bad" to mainstream hardcore so they threw in the gratuitous nudity elsewhere.

    It went away slowly but by the nineties it was rare in films even as hardcore had once again become more accepted in adult homes. Could be a connection?

  6. AnonymousJuly 21, 2009

    I think a really big part of the problem is that nobody seems to want to leave their kids at home with a babysitter any more. The masses and their screaming, drooling offspring are the ones demanding that everything be "family friendly". Look what they did to Las Vegas, for Christs sake !

  7. We're seeing a slight return, though I think you're on the mark. Walk Hard had some pretty gratuitous nudity, including male full frontal. Not that I need to see that, but at least Apatow is bringing the game back.

  8. as always, a stellar post. I'm surprised you never saw Private School until now...reason why I say that is because I'm a child of the '80s and anything starring Phoebe Cates was a must see for me!

    I've come to appreciate older films for the bold attitude and brass balls. The language seems more explicit nowadays but the nudity is much less. I think it comes down to the filmmakers of today...the comedic filmmakers like Apatow and David Wain, I think it's more of challenge to write truly classic and high quality comedy and dialouge that they may feel it's a copout to fill the movie with nudity. I'm sure the fact that more and more writers have the ability to jump in their own film as a producer ...back then it was almost unheard of. Whereas now you may have a guy like Rob Zombie write, direct, and produce the entire f'n thing...

    It's a mystery, but yeah...we need mo' boobs! lol

  9. Skipper - I'd agree, except that a lot of the films are not family friendly at all - for example, Saw IV (which I just watched today and can attest it is NOT family friendly), has full male nudity, but not so much as a glimpse of female. The Apatow movies are pretty graphic in terms of language... but not a female nude scene to be found. Tarantino won't have a nude scene in any of his non-family friendly films; yet, the films he raves about and idolizes are chock full of gratuitous nudity. Go figure.

    Christoff- "Apatow is bringing the game back"... the male nudity game is not what I had in mind - like in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall". And "Borat" and "Bruno" have it as well... and it's in horror movies like "28 Days Later".

    Now, I'm not trying to be hypocritical - if some folks want the male nudity, who am I to argue? But, as Jay Amiable said so eloquently, "we need mo' boobs!"

  10. I think under the Reagan era the censors aka MPAA ratings board got really tough on female nudity and started handing out NC-17 ratings, so most of it gets cut out but for some reason naked male scenes still get R ratings. It's a trend i don't care for.

  11. You're right. Gratuitous female nudity gets slapped with a NC-17, but a movie like Borat which shows a couple of guys' packages for 20 uncomfortable minutes gets an R. This is definitely a huge part of the problem.

  12. I think that we need Paul Verhoeven to come back to Hollywood and start making films again. He was never bashful about having copious nudity and ultra-violence in his films!

  13. nice blog and have lots of stuff here......


  14. First, we must define what gratuitous nudity is. This is light-hearted nudity put in to a movie for absolutely no reason, other than to show eye candy to horny teenage boys. Comparing gratuitous nudity movies to porn is like comparing apples and oranges. They both had different purposes. Gratuitous nudity movies were innocent in a way.

    Movie directors in the early 80's were making movies for the "horny teenager" (Private School, Porky's, Screwballs). Movies with respectable plots and copious amounts of gratuitous nudity. It is almost as if the director of Private School took a survey of millions of horny teenage boys and asked them what they wanted in a movie (shower scenes, naked girls riding horses, etc.).

    Fast Times at Rigemont High (1982) is an anomoly and cannot be classified as a "horny teenager" movie. Although released during the correct time period, it is the antithesis of a horny teenager movie. All nudity in that movie had a specific purpose. Other than Spicoli's bedroom wallpaper, it all lead to a sex (or masturbation) scene. There was nothing gratuitous about it. The movie even has an abortion scene in it, which is not on the list of "what to put in a horny teenager movie". That is why the movie was almost given an "X" rating. Back to the subject at hand...the death of gratuitous nudity.

    I bet if you did a study on when the "Brat Pack" came on the scene in 1984 and the dawn of the "coming of age" movie (St. Elmo's Fire being the pinnacle here), you would have witnessed the death of the "horny teenager" movie. Everything became so serious. There was no time to be a "horny teenager". Now, you go straight from a child to a 'coming of age' adult, skipping over the horny teenager time period altogether.

  15. VHS and cable market penetration.

    By the mid 80s teens could access nudity/soft-core/hard-core porn in their own homes. There was no need to go to the theater anymore.

    Further, the gratuitous nudity* was usually gratuitous simply so it could be cut out of the broadcast TV version w/o impairing the final film.

    *Drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs once observed that nudity was always absolutely essential in a drive-in flick 'cuz without it there wouldn't be any movie.

  16. I call this the Great Boobie Drought of 1985 when I do my '80s Trash of the Week reviews. It seems as soon as Reagan got re-elected, tits became a precious resource to be protected at any cost. By 1989 every comedy had to have some smarmy subplot about toxic waste or the homeless to make us feel bad. Caddyshack 1989 would have Bill Murray as the evil gopher-killing industrialist.

  17. I'd disagree with you on the effect Reagan, Limbaugh, etc had on these films. Take "You Can't Hurry Love" (1988, almost the Bush era)) in which a boy's parents are visiting him in L.A. when a woman walks by outside entirely naked from head to toe. I think you have to look at the reason behind the nudity, as it was not entirely gratuitous, but served a social function: to reject the core Republican, conservative values. Film and literature often react to social mores in this way, and a lot of these films with gratuitous scenes also featured stuffy old windbags in them who would be outraged by the nudity itself. Looking at the heyday of this era, the dates you've given (1969-84), those years were *predominantly* Republican: Nixon, Ford and Reagan (with only 4 years of Carter, and Lyndon Johnson was not one to be bothered by much).

    If anything, in my estimation, killed gratuitous nudity in films, it would be the Clinton era—because, when we all realized how awesome and a-okay nudity is, it was no longer necessary to have all the unnecessariness.

    But there are films like Out Cold, Eurotrip, Baseketball, and Not Another Teen Movie that have some gratuitous nudity in them nowadays; I'm wondering if your sensibilities perceive a richer sort of film when you came up with modern examples—because, Titanic? That would've never come to me as a "gratuitous" or even "nudity" because it's maybe one scene and mostly necessary.

    I think the problem is that producers these days are trying to reach a broader audience so they can make more money off a film. Take out the nudity in an R rated movie and then the 13-18 year old set can watch it, and that's more lucre in the pockets of Big Hollywood. I'd like to hope that it also means that audiences are more intelligent these days and demanding higher-quality films, ones that don't rely on shower scenes and random nudity...but I know that's not the case.

    Another reason, I think, is that you get big name writer/directors, such as Judd Apatow, who gets one hit and then has license to release a string of mediocre films that appeal to the same set of 18-40 year olds. Ditto the Wayans Brothers. Ditto sub-par directors like Bryan Singer, who turns everything he touches into watered-down mush. These folks, who consistently generate money, keep those poor saps writing "Enter Girl in Towel" into every scene from finding work. But to that end, I don't know if there are many writers out there with the ambition or talent to top Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

  18. Matt FarkasJuly 22, 2009

    Actually, the death of commonplace nudity in films - which you'll notice also correlates chronologically with the demise of exploitation films as a theatrical experience - IS absolutely attributable to the Reagan administration.

    Prior to 1948, the seven major studios in Hollywood (MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox, RKO, Columbia, and Universal) owned nearly all the theaters in the US, benefitting hugely from the monopoly they maintained over distribution and exhibition. Independent film-makers (the unsavory sorts who realized they could make a buck by showing nudity and other content not approved by the Hays Office) had to screen their product on the fly, personally exhibiting a very limited number of prints across the country in whatever makeshift venues they could find (hence the term "roadshow").

    After a nearly a decade of effort, the Justice Department finally persevered in the case of U.S. vs Paramount et al., which charged that the studios' monopoly on distribution and exhibition was in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The result was that the studios had to divest themselves of their holdings regarding the theater chains. Independent producers were now able to pitch their wares on an equal footing with the major studios, ushering in a glorious era of exploitation cinema marked by the ascendancy of companies like AIP and Lippert, as well as well as indie producers such as Dave Friedman and Russ Meyer.

    To be sure, fear of prosecution over obscenity laws kept the movie screens generally "family-friendly" for a while, but with the landmark decisions of the '60s and early '70s those constraints were finally lifted and producers were free to offer product reflecting what their lust-hungry audiences desired most.

    So what happened to that beautiful sleazy dream? The advent of VHS is often cited, by why should the format and change of venue (home instead of theater) alter the content of what audiences want to see? Rather, what happened was that the Reagan administration - acting upon a perfect collusion between their anti regulatory politics, "moral" objections, and grateful payback for their big Hollywood interests - allowed the studios to purchase the theaters back again. Jennifer Holt writes about this in detail in her excellent article "In Deregulation We Trust" (available as a PDF here), noting that "throughout President Reagan's second term the studios and their parent companies acquired exhibition outlets again, recreating the corporate structure that was dismantled by the court in the 1948 Paramount decision. By the end of Reagan's tenure in office, the major studios or their parent companies owned almost the same percentage of the country's theaters that the "Big Five" held prior to the Paramount decision."

    So what happens when the consumer has no where else to turn? They're subject to whatever a particular monopoly's controlling interest wants to offer them. The reason why mainstream nudity dried up is not because the audience for it went away (will an audience for sex and nudity ever go away?), but because the studios don't have to offer it to you. You have no other choices.

  19. Some really great theories posted here - but I think Matt has just nailed it. As far as I'm concerned, question answered. Thanks, Matt.

    And BTW, I don't consider the Titanic scene gratuitous. I was just trying to stave off anyone trying to refute me with that example. Sorry, it was stated poorly.

  20. Thanks to "Something Weird" videos, I have become somewhat educated in the history of skin movies of the 60s and early 70s.

    It is fun to watch the early skin flicks that had to walk a fine line between "education," which was allowed, and "titillation," which was not.

    "Life in a Nudest colony" lead to "Nudes on the Moon," then "legitimate" films like "Hideout in the Sun" where bad guy bank robbers (legitimate source for movie)hide out in a nudest colony (questionable plot device).

    Of course this was the American solution to nudity problem. The European solution was to declare no problem at all, and label their films "art." Problem solved.

    Gilligan is partially right relating "baby boomers" to the rise and fall of gratuitous nudity. The WW2 crowed liked the "smokers" and having more money liked to "push the envelope" and went to the "education" films. The next generation (not the 30 year traditional generation) was more accepting of the plot film with nudity (Free Love Confidential, For Single Swingers) and the baby boomers welcomed the French and Scandinavian revolts against "Traditional American Values" (Anita: Swedish Nymphet, I Am Curious: Yellow.

    Meanwhile, "legitimate" film companies, feared being seen as to stodgy, started to show love and sex as more than something to be faded out from. With the Supreme Court giving "porn" Freedom of Speech rights, "mainstream" sex was there for the filming. "Last Tango in Paris," and "Urban Cowboy" both initially rated the new "X" for adult, became the films to see for young "modern" couples and woman's clubs that dotted the suburbs. A place these types of films could now be shown.

    "X" quickly degenerated to "XXX" and the camera moved (for some reason I still don't understand) from the female form to strictly gynecological exams. It would take a decade, but "adult films" degenerated back to basically 16mm loops when VHS took the "fun" out of the theater and into the home.

    Another thing happened, that most authors on this thread want to blame on Reagan (ignoring eight years of Clinton - of course), is that time marched on, and the next generations of film makers came up the ranks. What was daring and "cutting edge" for the "Suburbia Confidential" & "Office Love-In" generation, was now comically dated. Nudity was accepted and became the "draw" for the movies we fondly remember at the drive-ins. While the producer would strongly disagree with me, "Nudes on the Moon" and "H.O.T.S." were made for the same reason.

    What, you then ask, happened?

    The next generation, taught by the feminist, politically correct, post- babyboom revolutionary wanna-beess came to power and "nudity" was no longer legitimate in legitimate films. Once again it was relegated to the underbelly of film making. The Sin-A-Max cable networks.

    Even in what would have been "gratuitous nudity" showcases (40 year old Virgin, 27 Dresses, Knocked Up) nudity was sparse. They featured up and coming actresses who "don't do that sort of thing." It is PC for them to say that, NOT PC for us to want to see them.

    Oddly enough, as the years march on and the next generation of actresses come up, the invitations start to fade for scream queens of today. By the time they realize it was not their talent that was keeping them on top, the real reasons have become used goods.

    The big studios don't make these films because it is not PC to do so. Nudity has always been "cutting edge" even when it was mainstream. Even Playboy gets more press by featuring Cougars than bunnies.

  21. Incredibly well put, Wendel. I think that there's actually a lot of overlap between your answer and Matt's. The cultural climate for nudity in films became less than satisfactory (regardless of who was in the White House)- however, now the studios don't feel the pressure to attract audiences as before, and be undercut by independents (like AIP) who would deliver the naughty goods with abandon. Let's face it - 40 Year Old Virgin with no nudity - or - 40 Year Old Virgin with tons of nudity... which one would see more profit? Today, this is not a problem faced by the studios because there's no pesky AIP to keep raising the bar (or lowering it, depending on your perspective).

  22. AnonymousJuly 22, 2009

    Gratuitous nudity has been replaced by gratuitous violence.

  23. Actually, I think nudity has been replaced with peeing. Not a single movie goes by without an urination scene in it. Why?

  24. GoRetroGirl,

    I have NEVER understood the need for today's writers to feature bathroom humor in all their work. TV or movies, you cannot go a half hour without someone trying (poorly) to make humor out of eliminations.

    It is like, "hey, we can say it now, so let's beat the horse to death."

  25. Airplane! had a gratuitous shot of a woman running topless and was rated PG. If it were released today it would probably get an R for Peter Graves' character.

  26. I seem to feel that a newer film that shows too much skin (especially too early in the film) is simply going to a bad film, and that is not a bad film in the classic cheesy flick sense, but simply a lame movie. I do not know that the lessening of nudity in films it all has as much to with American puritanism (though that is probably a factor) as it is simply an indicator of a film that has little more to offer. I am not so sure, as one poster stated, that exploitation cinema actually died off at the end of the 70's. Certainly many straight to DVD films of today are nothng more than exploitation material. There are actually still lots of body count films with nekked girls galore, they simply do not play at the metoplex. European films still sport lots of flesh but even there it has toned down considerably fomr the the halcyon days of Jess Fanco and Jean Rollin.

  27. It took forever! (until Wendel's first comment) for anyone to mention what I think is one of the big keys to the no-more-gratuitous-nudity thing: feminism and one of its results, actresses who wouldn't do nude scenes.

    Culture has changed, at least in the Hollywood ("elitist") filmmaker's mindset: women aren't objects to titillate horny boys/men anymore. Hence, no more grat-nudity.

    Further, it seems like men/boys these days are increasingly portrayed as grown-up boys who spend all their time playing PlayStation and saying "your mom" to each other (see any of those movies like 40-Yr-Old Virgin, etc.). I'm often amazed at how STUPID men are portrayed to be on film nowadays. And since they are so stupid and so immature and so busy with their PlayStations, filmmakers don't even have to include the grat-nudity scenes. Their male characters are, after all, 40-yr-old virgins.

    Doesn't that make you guys feel a little pissed off?

  28. I'd just like to say that I am impressed with so many of these comments. On the surface, it looks like a juvenile/trivial topic, but I think it really touches on some deep cultural/psychological issues - and the comments reflect that.

    Dguzman - This sums it up nicely. Well said.

  29. AnonymousJuly 29, 2009

    I don't think it is Rush Limbaugh's fault that the "objectification of women" is so frowned upon these days.

  30. Did somebody say it was Limbaugh's fault? What I said was:

    "It wasn’t long before guys like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich were setting the tone, and that was all she wrote. Bye-bye Foxy Brown, hello Mrs. Doubtfire."

    In other words, conservatism had a renaissance during this time period, and conservatives are typically more outspoken against "objectionable content" than liberal minded folks. That's all I meant.

  31. AnonymousMay 23, 2010

    great article, T&A is one thing I sorely miss in movies

    as the article mentions it boggles my mind that so many comedies that are R rated anyway have either no female nudity at all or very brief scenes of it, Hot Tub Time Machine being a good example, there's one good breast shot, but it's very brief and that's basically it and you're telling me this was supposed to be a homage to 80's comedies?

    personally I blame political correctness and how a man is seen as a male chauvinist just because he likes to look at naked women, or that nudity "exploits" these women or some BS