Our Best Feature Forward?

A scene everyone

remembers from pre-Code Hollywood is Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932), bathing in a barrel like Venus on the half-shell,

her platinum hair and translucent skin posing an almost irresistible invitation

to the rubber-plantation overseer played by Clark Gable. (And, speaking of

Gable, an eyeful of his upper body-hairless and unbuffed-was and is no small

attraction.) Back then, studio moguls and directors were not averse to a

glimpse of female flesh on the screen.

But even the most lecherous of the old-timers would be

struck dumb by the exposed flesh of today, a landscape that fills the screen

like an IMAX travelogue of the female anatomy. Am I alone in finding something

embarrassingly retrograde in the spectacle of actresses having to compete with

their own body parts? Legs that are longer than ski slopes, skirts shorter than

a New York spring, bottoms as compact as a Palm Pilot. When skin looms larger

than face or personality, it’s hard to take a character seriously. The leg

display on Ally McBeal annoyed women

and undermined any legal-eagle authority the character might have, even within

the show’s comic framework. I notice the microskirts are gone this year.

But it’s breasts, great mammary mountains and silicon

valleys, that now dominate the cinematic vista: veritable Himalayas heaving and

strutting, rising and falling and threatening to overflow their

suspension-bridge bras and support structures, designed less as containers than

launching pads for a game of hide-and-seek with the nipples. Everywhere you

look are breasts that sit up and bark for your attention, knockers that knock

on your door and demand to be admitted, mammary glands that have a dramatic

life of their own-and for all I know, their own agent. (Possibly their own

lawyer, if implants are involved.)

Fifteen of the reported 20 pounds that Renée Zellweger

gained to play the neurotic Bridget Jones seem to have landed in the upper-body

region, creating a milky white shelf that exists in a titillatingly wayward

relationship-now under restraint, now propelled forward-with her undergarment.

The actress has enough real-girl charm to override the aggressive frontage, but

it’s hard not to feel pangs of embarrassment.

Ditto Julia Roberts’ in-your-face cleavage in Erin Brockovich , a bit of

special-effects virtuosity that certainly should have won a technical award.

O.K., so the real Erin Brockovich is a good ol’ girl jangling her sex like a

royal jewel. What’s tacky-cute in real life becomes-in the broad (both senses

of the word) aesthetic of contemporary cinema-a magnification of Brobdingnagian

proportions. Ms. Roberts, like Ms. Zellweger, has such down-to-earth appeal

that her frontal swagger can be made to blend, if incompletely, into the whole,

so that we only occasionally wish she had toned it down.

Heartbreakers is

the latest entry in the breast-o-rama sweepstakes. In this mother-daughter

grifter comedy, Sigourney Weaver’s and Jennifer Love Hewitt’s highly visible

breasts (the only physical gene shared by this Mutt-and-Jeff couple) threaten

to topple not only their possessors, but the deftly constructed farcical dance

in which they star. Whose idea is the frontal focus, and whom precisely is it

meant to attract?

Let’s say these actresses, being no longer indentured

servants, bear some share of the credit or blame. Sigourney Weaver was no doubt

eager to shed her Ripley action gear and show how fabulous a 51-year-old woman

can look (very!), while Jennifer Love Hewitt wanted to escape the straitjacket

of the reputation she earned as America’s television sweetheart on Party of Five . But there’s something to

be said for a straitjacket, especially in its more modified form: a girdle that

conceals rather than reveals; the slinky gowns and satin lingerie of the

aforementioned pre-Code actresses, which turn the whole body into undulating

visual music without overwhelming the face.

You might argue that these movies are just expressing a

different taste in female beauty. But whose taste? Not adult men: I checked out

some online reviews of Heartbreakers ,

and male critics who, like me, were favorably disposed to the film nevertheless

objected to the mammary excess. If all this flesh is a bid to grab that

all-important male audience-teenagers who are more comfortable with a Hee Haw view of sex-then, like so many

of today’s market-driven movies, it fails. It loses the sophisticates without

having enough vulgarity for the kiddy crowd.

Not since the postwar obsession with pin-up girls has there

been so much footage of frontage in the movies. (Remember Howard Hughes’ ad for

The Outlaw , featuring double-barreled

Jane Russell and the tag line “Two good reasons why every red-blooded American

male should see this movie”?) In the 50′s, among my gang of teenage friends-who

based our body ideal on Audrey Hepburn-big “boobs” were considered déclassé, an

unseemly invitation to lewd attention that would classify us as the wrong kind

of girl. But now the popularity of augmentation, the off-the-chart sales of

push-up bras, says women are into buxom as much as men. It’s seen as one of the

weapons in the escalating battle of the sexes, nuclear firepower as opposed to

earlier, more primitive weaponry. The flagrantly busty gold-diggers played by

Marilyn Monroe and Russell in Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen

Prefer Blondes were like female gunslingers, their knockers the equivalent

of the Western hero’s six-shooters.

But what kind of woman wants the kind of man who would drool

over cleavage? Hawks suggested the answer in the peculiar group of swains

gathered round Russell and Monroe: little boys wanting to rest their heads on

mamma’s breasts; geezers seeking trophy gals. However demure those two “little

girls from Little Rock” might look by today’s standards, and even with the

media canonization of Monroe, there was something grotesque about the way she

advertised her anatomical assets. When breasts are your bid for fame and

fortune in the mating game, the part that stands for the whole, what does that

say about the whole?