Thursday, April 14, 2011

Naked Lunch: "Humanoids from the Deep"

The making of Humanoids from the Deep was not Roger Corman’s finest hour. After the film was in the can, Roger decided more nudity was in order. So he sacked director Barbara Peeters, and brought on an underling to shoot additional footage. When I was reminiscing about Corman days with filmmaker John Sayles, he colorfully described for me the end results: “There’s a blonde woman who’s attacked in a tent, and there’s a brunette woman with much larger breasts who runs out of the tent after she’s attacked.” The crude addition caused a major brouhaha, with star Ann Turkel unsuccessfully trying to block the film’s release and the L.A. Times using it as the centerpiece of an article decrying the low status of women in the film industry.

In a way, we can blame Sidney Lumet. Lumet, who died April 9, was a brilliant director known for his unsparing approach to his subject matter. Among his many dramas, I’ll personally remember Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Running on Empty. But he also earned a place in cinema history for making a film that led directly to the demise of the infamous Production Code. Through that code, first established in the 1930s, the Motion Picture Association of America had long tried to protect public morality by way of strict rules about what could and could not be shown on screen.

Lumet’s The Pawnbroker was the first Hollywood studio movie to show bare breasts and still receive the MPAA seal of approval. This 1965 drama, depicting a Holocaust survivor’s struggle to forge a new life in New York, at one point cuts powerfully between an inner-city customer’s attempt to entice the pawnbroker with her naked body and his searing memory of his wife’s humiliation at the hands of her Nazi captors. Because this pivotal sequence violated the Production Code’s longstanding ban on the display of private parts, the film was at first denied its seal. But the MPAA, recognizing The Pawnbroker’s seriousness of purpose, belatedly issued an exemption.

One year later, when Jack Valenti took over as MPAA president, he had to dicker over the raw language in Mike Nichols’ film version of the Edward Albee stage hit, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The next issue to surface involved the flashes of nudity in Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Because Valenti—a blunt, pragmatic Texan—hated the need for legalistic wrangling about matters of taste, he ended up tossing out the old code. It was replaced with a new ratings system meant to keep youngsters away from grown-up fare while allowing adults freedom of choice.

So Sidney Lumet should be remembered as the guy who started Roger Corman on the path to T&A glory. Without him, Stripped to Kill II would never have looked the same.


  1. Another insightful post, Beverly! Sayles must not have seen HUMANOIDS in a while as it's a brunette in the tent and a blonde that's seen "escaping" momentarily before being tackled and subsequently ravaged by the slimy salmon men. I can't recall which had the larger breasts, though. I've not watched it in a while, myself!

  2. Wow - now there's a line of chain and effect - from The Pawnbroker to The Young Nurses - and beyond. Terrific post!

  3. Thanks, Craig! Do you think Sidney Lumet would have been pleased? (Or appalled, maybe . . .)