The Most Provocative Movie Trend This Year Has Deep Roots in Hollywood History

Simon Rex as Mikey Saber in Red Rocket, reclining on the bed
Photos courtesy of A24/Getty Images. Collage by Ashley Peña for W.

In 1980, a young Richard Gere did something never before shown in mainstream American cinema by any well-known Hollywood actor: he appeared on screen, fully nude, in multiple scenes of Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo. In the film, Gere plays an escort involved with the wife of a politician; when it was first released, critics and audiences praised American Gigolo for its stylish neo-noir take on a seedy, hypersexual Los Angeles. Schrader’s treatment on male loneliness is another element of the film (and in many of his following features) that was commended by critics. Oddly enough, though, Roger Ebert’s review doesn’t mention Gere’s full-frontal nudity once. Neither did The New York Times, nor Rolling Stone.

But if you ask just about anyone who saw that film in theaters in 1980, Gere—who had only just begun to make a name for himself as a stage actor with a few small film credits—appearing fully naked was the central takeaway. Back then, it was considered a bold move for him to not only appear in a film with so much queer subtext, but also to show his penis several times on camera when it hadn’t been done before, outside of pornography. (And about eight years ago, the actor told the Advocate the nudity wasn’t even written in the original script). But because of that role, Gere almost instantly became a sex symbol.

We’ve come a long way since 1980, but there still haven’t been many major Hollywood moments in which the actors show everything on screen (actresses, on the other hand, have been exposed far more often, especially topless). So why the history lesson on male full-frontal nudity in film now? It seems to be the case that this winter, if there is one in-your-face trend at the cinema, it’s men baring it all—from the front, particularly—on camera. There’s Red Rocket, in which Simon Rex (the former MTV VJ and rapper known as Dirt Nasty) runs fully naked down a Texas road to the tune of *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye”; Benedict Cumberbatch has a moment of self-pleasure while his fellow cowboys splash around in the lake during Jane Campion’s excellent study of masculinity, The Power of the Dog; and even Josh O’Connor strips down to his skivvies in Mothering Sunday (though, it should be noted, it’s not his first full-frontal foray—the actor also bared all in God’s Own Country back in 2017). The Green Knight didn’t quite show Sir Gawain’s (Dev Patel) entire lower half, but the aftermath of his brief sexual encounter in the film was a major talking point, and Janicza Bravo’s Zola displayed a montage of penises that was certainly unforgettable.

It’s no secret that Hollywood is not what most would call a balanced place. And in recent years, the industry has very publicly reached a boiling point when it comes to gender parity. How many women have come forward to say they aren’t getting paid as much as their male costars? How many reports have found that women get less screen time than men, and fewer lines of dialogue as they age? Those are just some of the numerous protests from a binary perspective—trans and gender-nonconforming actors face even more obstacles and catch fewer breaks than cisgender performers in the business. The uneven amounts of on-screen nudity we see from one gender compared to any other is simply further proof that Hollywood has not been fair—to the performers and the audience—in the 100-some years of its existence.

But in a way, 2021’s onslaught of private parts is right in line with Hollywood history. If you can believe it, films coming out of Tinseltown actually used to be rather risqué. In the 1920s, it was not rare to see a movie with a nude scene, and in 1933, Ecstasy, a Czech film starring Hedy Lamarr, became the first mainstream film to show sexual intercourse and the first to depict a woman having an orgasm (though it is not the first to show a naked body, as there had been some nudity on screen here and there in the decades before). Some believe the film pushed the Hollywood powers that be over the edge, and by 1934, the restrictive Hays Code was implemented, outlawing the depiction of any suggested nudity (other puritanical additions to the list include: profanity, miscegenation, ridicule of the clergy, and scenes of childbirth). It wasn’t easy to step around the restrictions, but it could be done at times: a plausible (and humorous) example of the studio system’s reaction to nudity on screen can be seen in Aviator, which depicts Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes vying for the approval to show Jane Russell’s cleavage in his films The Outlaw and The French Line.

This restriction lasted until the 1960s, but indie filmmakers were able to push the envelope since they were not part of the studio system and therefore not restricted by the Hays Code—leading to the era of nudie-cutie movies and sexploitation films. Eventually, the Hays Code became the MPAA rating system we know today, which allows for nudity in various degrees. Since then, though, only a handful of leading Hollywood men have been as exposed on screen as Gere was in American Gigolo. Mark Wahlberg had his major full-frontal moment in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film Boogie Nights, in which he played a (fictional) porn star named Dirk Diggler, who was supposedly infamous for being well-endowed. (Turns out, however, it was a seven-inch prosthetic in Wahlberg’s pants.) About a decade later, Judd Apatow claimed he wanted to push the agenda further, and promised to show a penis in every film he makes. “America fears the penis and that’s something I’m going to help them get over,” he said.

In some ways, television has been more favorable toward full-frontal male nudity. HBO’s prison drama, Oz, was widely known for its graphic depictions of male nudity and sex. In 2016, after countless scenes in which the actresses on Game of Thrones showed all of their bits on camera, and after a lot of prodding from the fans, the series finally let the viewers see the penis of one of the male characters (also a prosthetic). Tell Me You Love Me, an HBO erotic drama, also shocked audiences with explicit, almost-real sex scenes, and Steve Zahn just pulled out a prosthetic pair of testicles for his close-up in Mike White’s summer satire, The White Lotus. Perhaps most recently in television history, Twitter completely lost its mind when it was revealed that Oscar Isaac goes fully nude in episode four of Hagai Levi’s miniseries adaptation of Scenes From a Marriage. Season one of Euphoria had that brief but memorable locker room scene, too.

Are American films, or at least films that pander to American audiences, catching up to television and shedding their puritanical lens ever so slightly? Some might say so: earlier this spring, Sebastian Stan could be seen riding a moped in the buff for Argyris Papadimitropoulos’s bittersweet relationship drama Monday. “I knew we were trying to tell such an honest depiction of a relationship that we were going to be open to whatever that meant, as long as it remained truthful and made sense,” he told The Wrap in April. (Next year, Stan will star as Tommy Lee opposite Lily James as Pamela Anderson in Hulu’s Pam & Tommy, which centers the couple’s infamous ‘90s sex tape. Some might even consider his penis in the miniseries a character in its own right).

But for some, it’s business as usual in Hollywood when it comes to nudity and American puritanical values. James Ivory, who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Call Me By Your Name, recently called out the film’s director Luca Guadagnino, for filming the sex scenes in the movie “blandly,” and made it clear that Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer’s agents were adamant about not letting their clients do full frontal. His other point that European stars appear to be more open to the idea than their American counterparts rings true—and overall, American films really do seem to be behind their European counterparts when it comes to sex on screen. Some recent explorations into the subject matter would agree. In the 2020 documentary film Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies, Amy Heckerling, director of the 1982 cult comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High, revealed that while nudity was essential to her movie’s themes, had there been any male full frontal in the film, it would have received an X rating. It’s true that the films coming out of Europe this year, and in years past, have had a more lax approach to showing skin and simulating sex (Paul Verhoeven released a provocative nunsploitation flick called Benedetta, and while protests erupted in response to the film in the United States, no one in France seemed to bat an eye).

When it comes to contemporary American cinema, there is one film from this year that emerges as both a shock and a delight when it comes to its treatment of male nudity: Red Rocket. Sean Baker, who directed and edited Red Rocket, spoke of his decision to show Rex’s naked body without any inhibition whatsoever. Rex plays Mikey Saber, a “suitcase pimp” who attracts young women with his charm and makes a living by bringing them into the adult film industry. The size of his lower half is alluded to a few times in the film, but it’s not until near the very end that the audience get a good look at what’s so enticing about this Mikey character. It is no accident that, in the film’s final act, we see a big, flopping (forgive me, but it’s true), penis taking up nearly the entire screen.

“It’s a given in the [adult film] industry that men have to be well-endowed, and they’re often very proud of that,” Baker told W. “The suitcase pimps I met, that would come up in the conversation pretty damn quick. They would brag to whomever about their size.” The filmmaker had been following Rex’s trajectory over the last three decades and saw a body type that could work well for the lead character he was looking to cast in Red Rocket, in addition to someone who has the acting chops to match. “The full package was there,” he said—no pun intended.

The filmmaker added that as soon as sex work became a topic to explore in his recent films, he wanted to be sure to frame any nude scenes without a gaze that would solely negatively objectify women in the world of the movie. “I did make the conscious choice, a very conscious choice, to try to drop the male gaze as much as possible and to go as objective as possible with the gaze,” he explained, adding that his 2012 film Starlet showed “just as much” male nudity as female nudity. “Red Rocket was weird for me because I had to go against what I had set out to do with the last couple films. In order to tackle the psyche of Mikey, I had to put on the male gaze cap again. I literally had to see parts of this world with the heterosexual cisgender male gaze. At the same time, it was important for me, especially in this day and age, to still have equality and balance the nudity between male and female.”

American cinema may still have a lot of catching up to do, but at least there are some voices in the business who get it—we’re not necessarily demanding more overtly erotic sex scenes, but there does seem to be a hunger for more equity when it comes to showing skin on screen. The pearl-clutching isn’t doing us any favors, and if women are so often shown topless on screen, why can’t there be some equality in that arena for people with penises?

This year’s cinematic trend of men going full frontal could be part of an overcorrection of the stark imbalance of decades past. But American indie filmmakers of the moment, like Baker and Bravo, don’t fit neatly within the confines of Hollywood’s rigid standards, anyway. Exploring nudity is just another way for them to take apart, satirize, and examine a very distinct American taboo—and hopefully, in doing so, create a sense of balance.