My favorite schlockmeister, Jim Wynorski, once told Time magazine that “breasts are the cheapest special effects in the business.” Jim should certainly know. As the director of such latter-day Roger Corman classics as Sorority House Massacre II as well as his own cheapie exploitation fare (like The Bare Wench Project and The Devil Wears Nada), he has staked his career on nubile young women who’ll come onto the set willing to pop their tops.
But it’s not just Jim. All of Hollywood sometimes seems to be hung up on breasts, to the amusement of the European filmmakers who have long been much more relaxed about the human body. François Truffaut made a graphic visual joke about this contrast in his 1960 New Wave classic, Shoot the Piano Player. In America, the on-screen unveiling of breasts actually changed the course of the movie industry. Back in 1964, Sidney Lumet used the powerful intercutting of two topless moments to highlight the Nazi degradation of body and spirit in The Pawnbroker. Lumet’s obvious seriousness of purpose led his film to receive – after much pondering -- the coveted MPAA seal of approval, and this landmark event ultimately spelled the death knell for the old Production Code.
Today, of course, seeing a woman’s bare breasts on-screen is about as common in a big studio release as in a Roger Corman quickie. On the red carpet, the flaunting of mammaries is very much part of the excitement. No one arrives topless, to be sure, but the peekaboo look is almost obligatory, and not just for MTV types. Such well-toned Hollywood royalty as Angelina Jolie seems to take pride in strategic body-baring. Which made it all the more of a shock when it was announced in early 2013 that Jolie had undergone a preventive double mastectomy in order to lessen her chances of contracting breast cancer.
Jolie chose to be open about her situation in the press, as a way of encouraging other women to make informed choices. One who has benefited directly from her candor is young journalist and author Lizzie Stark. Stark’s powerful 2014 memoir is titled Pandora’s DNA: Tracing the Breast Cancer Genes Through History, Science, and One Family Tree. Like Jolie, Stark is the bearer of a mutation on the BRCA1 gene that almost guarantees breast cancer. Nearly every female member of her family has been afflicted, many at young ages. That’s why Stark, a newlywed still in her twenties, decided to go under the knife herself.
Stark, a gifted writer, confronts the situation in lively, unintimidating prose. Here’s her discussion of various types of cancer: “Some are ninjas—nimble, lethal, and hard to kill—while others blunder around like drunken frat boys—clumsy and slow-moving, but still capable of pushing you down a flight of stairs if you don’t watch it.” She spells out the science of the BRCA mutation, and gives some details about the history of the mastectomy that should make woman glad to be living in a slightly more enlightened age. But the heart of the book is the frank examination of her own psyche as she moves through this whole disfiguring process. One aspect I didn’t expect: in a chapter called “Ta-Ta to Tatas,” she reveals both her ambiguous attitude toward her own post-reconstruction breasts and the way her whole physical self-presentation (hair, makeup, clothing choices) has dramatically changed as she absorbs the new normal. This is not an easy book to read, but I applaud Lizzie Stark for making the best of a really bad situation and moving onward with courage and grace.
Farewells are in order for two male cancer victims. One is neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose writings about the quirks of the brain led to such Hollywood projects as the film “Awakenings.” The other, of course, is Wes Craven, who made films about horrific invaders, then faced the ultimate one himself.