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.
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?