On the 2013 Oscar broadcast, host Seth MacFarlane found a way to flaunt his bad-boy credentials while at the same time seeming to repudiate them. We saw Captain Kirk, time-traveling from the future to critique MacFarlane’s Oscar-night outing, chastise him for a naughty ditty that had infuriated all the women in attendance. Cue a production number: MacFarlane singing “We Saw Your Boobs,” gaily naming Hollywood lovelies who’d popped their tops on screen. The camera helpfully picked out those implicated. Most of them hardly looked amused by this reminder of the peep-show side of the movie biz, and of their role in indulging the fantasy life of horny males like the evening’s host.
Bare breasts was first sanctioned in a Hollywood studio film in 1964, when Sidney Lumet made The Pawnbroker. Lumet’s purpose was serious, not prurient. He was exploring the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as the loss of human dignity among the denizens of a Harlem ghetto. That’s why the MPAA censors recognized it was time to loosen the Academy rules against on-screen nudity.
The change came in an era when hip young American filmmakers were looking to Europe for artistic inspiration. Continental Europeans, always more relaxed about displaying their bodies on beaches and in ad campaigns, had been far quicker than their American counterparts to incorporate on-screen nudity into their filmmaking. This served, of course, to heighten eroticism, while also launching a full assault on puritanical self-restraint. Back in 1960, François Truffaut made fun of American prudishness in Shoot the Piano Player by showing his leading man, Charlie, in bed with a friendly and very naked hooker. As they joke about TV and films, Charlie briefly covers his bed-mate’s large breasts with a sheet, quipping, “This is how it’s done in [Hollywood] movies.” (Ironically, the shot of her exposed breasts was briefly cut out of the film’s first American release in 1962.}
But after The Pawnbroker, American filmgoers were discovering breasts in a big way. Sometimes female breasts were exposed for thematic reasons, to shock the audience into sharing a character’s humiliation (see Schindler’s List, The Accused, Boys Don’t Cry). In such cases, we were meant to feel violated ourselves. Helen Hunt’s full-frontal nudity in The Sessions was, conversely, a thematic statement about her character’s healthily matter-of-fact acceptance of the human body, despite its imperfections.
Most often, though, we’re expected to be in the mind of the male titillated by the female form. The Graduate flashed almost subliminal glimpses of Mrs. Robinson’s bare breasts to reflect the psyche of Benjamin Braddock, torn between horror and lust by the sight of his father’s partner’s wife in full cougar mode. When the zaftig and not-so-young Kathy Bates stripped and entered the hot tub in About Schmidt, we shared a moment of truth in with the confused middle-aged man played by Jack Nicholson.
Most filmmakers, of course, are male. And most American films featuring female breast nudity contain more than a pinch of voyeurism. Take it from a Roger Corman veteran: Breasts are the cheapest special effect in our business. Given Roger’s penchant for hiring smart young women as writers, directors, and producers, it is female Cormanites who’ve often found themselves teasing out plot excuses for well-endowed cuties to bare their boobs. Cuties like a young Sandra Bullock in Corman’s Fire on the Amazon. Yes, Seth MacFarlane could have included her on his list too. Ah, Hollywood -- land of the lustful male gaze! Which may explain why Lena Dunham seems to enjoy baring her own imperfect body, since she’s in a position to do it on her own terms.