When their careers take off
That’s the shot that director Darren Aronofsky used of Marisa Tomei in one of “The Wrestler’s” pivotal dance sequences, one in which the 44-year-old Academy Award nominee gyrates and prances, flaunts and slinks -- largely in the nude -- across a real New Jersey club called Cheeques.
That combination of Aronofsky’s persistence paired with the time constraints of an indie film budget didn’t allow for Tomei to have much reluctance about baring all. “It was just fast and furious,” she says, “and there was no room for being shy or for niceties. [The character’s] comfortability has to become my comfortability. The diving in needed to happen.”
Tomei isn’t the only Oscar nominee this year who shed her clothes for the part. Kate Winslet’s haunting performance as the enigmatic Hanna Schmitz in “The Reader” involved extensive nudity, sparking one critic to fume that her nakedness trivialized the Holocaust.
In fact, Winslet would appear to have no equal among A-list actresses in her fearlessness about displaying her body. Stretching from her career-making role in “Titanic” to “Iris” to 2006’s steamy “Little Children” -- for each of which she received an Oscar nomination -- Winslet has bared at least some skin in service to the film’s story. The uninhibited, brainy actress has no compunction about doing what’s necessary for the part, or as she told People recently, “I’m a pretty ballsy chick.”
And when the nudity works so integrally into the film, the academy often takes notice. Consider that Halle Berry and Holly Hunter also won their Oscars in recent years for their naked performances -- both physically and emotionally -- in “Monster’s Ball” and “The Piano,” respectively. As have other actresses before them.
Ever since films like Louis Malle’s tale of adultery, “The Lovers,” shocked and scandalized Americans in the Eisenhower ‘50s, says UCLA film professor Vivian Sobchack, European films and their descendant, American art-house cinema, have had more leeway in terms of audience acceptance of nudity “because of the gravity of the subject matter in many cases.” And over time that nudity has grown more explicit. Back then, Sobchack says, “it was things that if you look at today you wouldn’t call nudity. It’s part of their buttocks. Today, we’re really talking about full-frontal nudity most of the time.”
But even as the popular culture has grown ever more sexualized and coarse, many of today’s hot young actresses are becoming more reluctant than ever to do on-screen nudity. The prime culprit behind this sudden decorum? Mostly it’s due to Internet sites such as MrSkin that itemize and chronicle every peek of bare skin, every flash of a breast for consumers to watch over and over again out of the context of the film.
Every day, actresses such as Jessica Alba, Scarlett Johansson and Eliza Dushku seem to be swearing off nudity like teenagers joining abstinence clubs. Natalie Portman summed up their collective exasperation in discussing her nude scene in the arty Wes Anderson short “Hotel Chevalier.” “I’m not prudish about nudity,” she told MTV. “I think it’s beautiful in films, and sex is such a big part of life. But my picture ended up on porn sites, and that’s the dilemma.”
So while a nude scene may be completely integral to a film, once on the Internet, the clip simply becomes naked celebrity footage. “It’s no longer part of a performance inside a film that comes and goes. It can be pulled off, owned, redistributed, relooked at for purposes that were never intended in the original performance,” notes Wesleyan professor Jeanine Basinger, author of “The Star Machine.”
But the stakes are often different for actresses who are older than 40, whose strategic nakedness can be part of a rebranding effort to remind viewers, and Hollywood executives, that the actress is still alluring.
Although Jennifer Aniston, for example, has sicced her lawyers on anyone caught posting naked film clips of her online, the actress posed wearing only a necktie on the January cover of GQ, which hit newsstands just before her 40th birthday. At 52, Kim Cattrall proferred her nude body as a sushi platter in last year’s “Sex and the City” movie. And while Tomei’s stripper role is in a dramatic art film, her lithe figure hasn’t gone unremarked upon. “She’s aging,” said Sobchack. “She’s not the status of Kate Winslet and doing that role. Apart from the fact that it’s a great role, she was able to show off this incredible body and say, ‘Hey, I’m still here.’ ”
While Tomei earned an Oscar for the 1993 comedy “My Cousin Vinny,” other memorable roles -- such as her Oscar-nominated performance in “In the Bedroom” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” -- often suggest a kind of scrappy fragility, a sensuous woman somehow at the mercy of men. Tomei sees the nudity used in this case as being more in the European strain, a throwback to filmmaking of the ‘70s and a link to an older generation of actresses who also appeared naked and sensual in their 40s -- such as Oscar winners Jane Fonda in “Coming Home” and Helen Mirren in “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.”
Though Hollywood has long fetishized strippers and their kissing cousins, prostitutes, in such films as “Klute” and “Pretty Woman,” Tomei’s role of Cassidy was written more to act as a kind of mirror image of Mickey Rourke’s washed-up wrestler, an aging woman at the end of her game with an outre public persona, a mask, by which she earns her livelihood. Ironically, Cassidy’s nakedness is her disguise.
To prepare, Tomei interviewed exotic dancers and discovered women determinedly disengaging intellectually and emotionally from their work. “It’s part of that mind-set of being constantly in service, to not know your own self really well. It’s not like they exposed themselves to me,” says Tomei, noting she learned more from their “non-exposure. . . . It’s a painful place to be, with the mask.”
When she was a younger actress, she says, she insisted on a body double when being naked was called for. But then she so badly wanted the part of the perfidious wife in the 2007 thriller “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” that she agreed with director Sidney Lumet’s insistence that it required explicit nudity.
“I trusted Sidney. I trusted his taste, and that was a requirement of the role, and I wanted to work with him enough that I was willing to take that leap of faith,” says Tomei, whose nakedness in that film includes a graphic sex scene with costar Philip Seymour Hoffman that is intentionally off-putting.
Aronofsky too had been adamant about using explicit nakedness. “It has to be so real,” Tomei remembers him saying.
So, has she found a new direction for her career?
“I happened to get offered ‘The Wrestler’ after I did that movie. It’s another twist of fate,” she says, then adds sardonically, “It’s not like I’m in my nude phase now.”