Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three," Philip Larkin, the good, glum British poet famously, ironically wrote. You might argue with his date--in movies the sexual revolution came a little later--but not with his basic insight. Since then, though, under the camera's avid scrutiny, onscreen sex has become an activity restricted to movie stars who are young and buff, with the older folks left pretty much standing in the corner, all buttoned up.
Now, though, a few new movies have boldly decided to go into essentially unmapped box-office territory and show some of our old movie pals nakedly enjoying elder sex. The theory is swell, even inviting to those of us not yet confined to our chimney corners. But alas, the films in question are smirky and joyless.
Take writer-director Nancy Meyers' Something's Gotta Give, in which Jack Nicholson plays Harry, an aging playboy who happens to catch a glimpse of his young girlfriend's mom (Diane Keaton) in the nude. What with her feminist overachieving and all, she has become something of a prune, sexually speaking. But he has his charms, and one rainy day she succumbs to them. Nothing wrong with that. Their sex scene, despite what Meyers reports as a certain understandable shyness by her players, is agreeably managed. What's less agreeable is this movie's smugness. It's so pleased to bravely show old folks having fun that it forgets to be genuinely comic, romantic or sexy.
You might say the same about Calendar Girls, which more or less truly tells the story of some middle-aged Yorkshire ladies who posed discreetly nude--flowerpots and craft projects cover the Xrated areas--to sell calendars for charity. They're believably edgy about stripping--maybe the camera won't see all, but what about that cameraman? And the likes of Helen Mirren and Julie Walters are good-looking good sports about all this. But the movie is not so much about getting naked as getting (briefly) famous. Easily predicted life lessons are learned when their calendar becomes a multinational media sensation.
On a certain level this is O.K. Given good lighting and quick cuts, the performers look just fine. But lack of clothes does not necessarily lead to greater truthfulness. Indeed, it can be argued that the tender, fully clothed encounter between Ben Kingsley and Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo in House of Sand and Fog tells us something profound about their relationship. The same way with the (also clothed) bathtub embrace between Albert Finney and Jessica Lange in Big Fish. On the other hand, the buck-naked romping of William H. Macy and Maria Bello in The Cooler is just as informative. Their bodies may be imperfect, but their pleasure is infectious.
That's the thing about nudity on the screen. It doesn't make any difference if what's displayed is trim and taut or creased and worn. It's not what we see but what we hope to feel that justifies the exposure. No matter how old the actors (or the audience), that's the best reason for going to the movies. Or, come to think of it, for dropping your own duds. --By Richard Schickel