Mr. Skin Invades Sundance

As the Sundance Film Festival kicks into high gear, Jim McBride’s operatives will be watching. They will sit through the endless screenings and premieres and scrutinize them with the zeal of an up-and-coming Miramax executive waiting to score his first important acquisition. High on their list will be Angela Robinson’s D.E.B.S. , a film that, judging from its promotional photo, will somehow involve gun-wielding teenage girls in pleated plaid skirts; Stephen Fry’s 1930’s period piece Bright Young Things (with, according to the festival catalog, its “naughty high jinks only the idle rich can afford”); and, of course, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers , which has gotten an NC-17 rating and plenty of press because of its sexual content.

But when the lights go down and they impatiently finger their notepads and stopwatches, Mr. McBride’s moles won’t be assessing the coherence of Mr. Fry’s vision or whether Mr. Bertolucci can still make cinematic magic. They will have a much different mission: to suss out and catalog with the precision of a museum curator every single moment of nudity or coupling that takes place at the festival.

As the 41-year-old Mr. McBride told The Observer , “We don’t give a shit about the movie. We just care about who gets naked in it.”

Since the late 70’s, Mr. McBride, a former futures trader, has been collecting and archiving every titillating cinematic moment that involved a female member of the Screen Actors Guild, as well as a number of foreign talents who are not. Since 1999, he has been offering his considerable research on a subscriber-only Web site called Mr. Skin (www.mrskin.com), a virtual catalogue raisonné of cinematic nudity that rivals the Internet Movie Database in size, Penthouse in debauchery and perhaps ESPN.com in visitors. According to Mr. McBride, the site attracts four million unique, non-repeat oglers a month-most of whom pay $29.95 a month for access.

And what do they get? The site features movie scenes and clips that have fueled the onanistic fantasies of previous generations and many more yet to come: Phoebe Cates’ breast-baring scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which Mr. Skin ranks as the best nude scene of all time), Elizabeth Berkley shaking her thang in Showgirls , Julie Christie’s “real” performance with her then-beau Donald Sutherland in Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and, of course, Bo Derek in 10 . They are all available on Mr. Skin in user-friendly “SkinVision,” which in the N.F.L. is known as slow motion.

Feeding the culture’s almost pathological obsession with sex and nudity hasn’t earned Mr. McBride much respect among the Sundance set, but it has led to fortune and a certain kind of fame. The Web site is wildly popular with the coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic that sets Fox Network executives’ loins atingle, and Mr. McBride-who went by the “Mr. Skin” moniker years before the site launched-has become something of a cult figure: a cross between television movie reviewer Leonard Maltin and syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage.

Mr. McBride makes numerous public appearances philosophizing about who and what make a great nude scene ( paging Robert Altman! ), and this year’s annual Anatomy Awards-which acknowledge the actresses with the best “funbags, “geriatric jugs” ( Bea Arthur fans, take note ) and “furburgerage,” as well as “ass” ( link to Salon.com here! ) and other body parts-will be hosted by Howard Stern on Feb. 25. Mr. McBride also recently signed a deal with St. Martin’s Press to release, in early 2005, Mr. Skin’s Skincyclopedia: An A to Z Guide to Essential Celebrity Nudity .

Mr. McBride said that he’s got two in-house “skin-ployees,” as he likes to call them, and three stringers at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, who will send him daily reports of on-screen breast, buttock and bush sightings-“skinformation,” in the Winchellesque parlance of his Web site.

Mr. McBride harbors no illusions about what he and his employees do. “You don’t need to be a movie reviewer”-although some of Mr. Skin’s secret stringers are-“you don’t need to be a writer,” he said. “You just need to be able to notice who got naked, what they showed, how far into the movie, and get the information back to us.”

With that information, Mr. McBride separates sexual fact from fiction, usually in a section of the Web site devoted to festivals. Once he acquires footage or stills, however, the information and visuals are categorized by both film and actress.

Prior to Sundance, for example, one wild rumor sweeping the Internet had Natalie Portman revealing all in Scrubs -actor-turned-festival-golden-boy Zach Braff’s Garden State . Mr. McBride doubted the rumors, so he wasn’t dismayed to learn that Ms. Portman only shows her panty-clad “nubile form” in a rather tame pool scene.

The report on Tracey Antosiweicz is far more encouraging, however. “As a hooker getting boned from behind in a hotel room,” one of his sources wrote in an e-mail, “we see a few seconds of her flopsies slapping about.” Mr. McBride, however, said that this was just the “bare-bones information.” “My writers rewrite what they send in so that it’s interesting,” he explained. Or puerile and sexist, depending on the reader. But don’t just assume that all women hate Mr. Skin. Eleven months ago, Mr. McBride married an attorney, who, he said, is “totally cool” with Mr. Skin. They are expecting their first child in May.

Back to Sundance: Mr. McBride also mentioned Open Water , a film about two scuba divers marooned in shark-infested waters. He cited one e-mail, which read: “It doesn’t take 10 minutes before the lovely Blanchard Ryan gives us a look at everything she’s got in front, lying on her bed, fully nude. It’s a nice long scene, well-lit, that even provides a nice view of her George W. Bush.”

On top of Sundance, representatives of Mr. Skin travel to film festivals in Toronto, Seattle, Cannes, Tribeca, Austin (South by Southwest), Chicago and New York City. About last year’s Cannes premiere of the controversial The Brown Bunny , one of Mr. Skin’s informants wrote: “At the one hour and 50-minute mark, Vincent [Gallo] guides his meat-gallow into Chloë [Sevigny's] open kisser for an up-close, uncensored, have-some-Kleenex-handy bout of oral sex. Let’s repeat to be clear: mainstream American actress Chloë Sevigny opens her mouth, scary-looking filmmaker and egotist Vincent Gallo inserts himself therein and the camera shows every ensuing lick, slurp, gulp, swallow, dribble, hip-buck, fist-pump and kielbasa-kiss for the next three minutes. There’s no ‘money shot,’ per se, but catch this breakthrough as it goes down in history.” Kleenex, indeed. But in the oversexed world of pop-culture media inundation, an argument could be made that the most objectionable part of the above quotation is the writer’s reference to Ms. Sevigny as a “mainstream American actress.”

Returning to his Sundance intelligence, Mr. McBride warned against seeing I Like Killing Flies , Napoleon Dynamite , LSD a Go Go , Oedipus , The Cold Ones and, surprisingly enough, a film called Nibbles , since they do not contain one snippet of nip. Sadly, since D.E.B.S. and Bright Young Things had yet to premiere, no “skinformation” was available on them.

Mr. McBride has been collecting this information since he was a teen growing up in suburban Chicago in the late 70’s. “I’d tape two or three movies a night off of HBO, Cinemax and Showtime,” he said by phone from his office in the Windy City, where he has lived for the last 10 years. “The next day I’d edit the nude scenes onto separate videotapes, like make best-of-nude-scene tapes. And that’s how my passion started.”

To make a living, Mr. McBride traded futures on the floor of Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which he was doing in 1996 when he met Chicago radio talk-show host Harry Teinowitz in a bar. “He couldn’t believe that off the top of my head, I knew any actress, what movie she’d been naked in and what happened in the nude scene,” Mr. McBride recalled. Impressed by Mr. McBride’s idiot-savant-like ability to recall the “formative” years of an actress’ résumé, Mr. Teinowitz invited him onto his show. Mr. McBride agreed to do it, but decided to appear under the moniker Mr. Skin-a name both he and Mr. Teinowitz came up with-so that his co-workers wouldn’t recognize him.

When the Web site launched in August 1999, Mr. McBride had only one person in his staff. He currently employs 30 staffers, ranging from technical support to writers. But he also gets a lot of free help.

“I get a lot of e-mails from people in the industry that maybe are working on a movie-maybe they were in the post-production of a movie,” Mr. McBride explained in a clipped Chicago accent. “They’ll tip me off: ‘Hey, you’re going to love this movie. Such-and-such gets naked.’ Obviously, until it actually comes out, I can’t confirm it. But I can tell you what the rumors are and that kind of stuff.”

On top of the Web site, which requires 20 servers to maintain his database of film clips, each week Mr. Skin posts a top-10 list of niche nude scenes, ranging from “Pleasing Plumpers” to “Brooklyn Babes” (which, of course, includes Rosie Perez), to the more traditional “Sorority Sweethearts” and “Luscious Lips.” Other categories include “Favorite Babes from the Middle East” and “Nude Chicks with Guns!”, which may someday include D.E.B.S .

There is a method to Mr. McBride’s mammary madness that stands apart from the easily employed Freudian psychoanalysis. He asserts that there is an art to assessing and reviewing a nude scene. “No. 1 would be how hot the actress is,” he said. “Obviously, Phoebe Cates versus Kathy Bates-that’s a no-brainer. No. 2, and maybe even as important as No. 1, is the lighting. You could have Cindy Crawford full-frontal naked in a bed, but if the room’s dark and you can’t see anything, what good is it?” Mr. McBride followed up that bold statement with his final criteria, “length of the scene. If it’s a two-second scene, that’s obviously not going to be as good as a one-minute scene.” Mr. McBride said he prefers his cinema sex “without a guy in the scene. But if you have to, that’s fine. It depends on what you see of the actress. If the guy’s blocking your view, then that ruins the scene.”

And, of course, what would a reviewer be without a list of favorite directors? “Robert Altman has always been a director that has great nudity in his movies,” Mr. McBride said, channeling his inner Kael. “He’s a very well-respected director from a critical standpoint. But from a nudity standpoint, boy! I mean, he’s had some of the great nude scenes of all time, including Short Cuts , where Julianne Moore stood bottomless for three minutes-a great scene with Matthew Modine. Another [master] is Stanley Kubrick. Eyes Wide Shut “-featuring Nicole Kidman in the buff-“is an example. He loved natural women and full-frontal nudity, and I’m a huge fan of his stuff.” Mr. McBride also mentioned Lolita and Unfaithful director Adrian Lyne, whose films, he said, are “pretty much guaranteed to have some good nudity in them.”

When it comes down to ranking the best nude scenes for his upcoming Anatomy Awards, Mr. McBride consults no one’s opinion but his own. “I’m Mr. Skin … I’m the expert. And that’s what I think is the best,” he said. “If you wanted to know what Roger Ebert”-writer of both Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Beyond the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens -“thought were his best movies for the year, you’d want to know that it wasn’t him polling his office. You’d want to know that it was what he thought was the best.”

And it is Mr. McBride’s credibility that allows Mr. Skin to promote films with the help rather then the condemnation of the studios-who long before Mr. Skin realized the selling power of sex. Mr. McBride essentially picks up where the studios leave off, taking over, for example, when the press attention that surrounded Mr. Bertolucci’s The Dreamers and its NC-17 rating began to fade-or, to give another example, when the hoopla that surrounded the obscene amount of money paid to Halle Berry to flash her breasts in the otherwise execrable Swordfish faded to black. Perhaps Mr. McBride has capitalized on the fact that more people remember Sharon Stone’s crotch in Basic Instinct then her performance. But then, this is a world in which an Internet-distributed excerpt from a porn film helped make Paris Hilton a TV star.

The difference between Mr. McBride and the studios, it would seem, is that Mr. Skin is unabashed about his role in the food chain. “I truly promote the movies,” Mr. McBride said. “If an actress has a great nude scene in a movie, I am going to be talking about it in my weekly ‘Mr. Skin Minute.’ I’m going to be talking about it on the radio. I’m going to be talking about it on the Web site, where we get four million visitors a month who are interested in this topic. I truly can promote a movie; I truly have great promotional power to get a movie across. Hey, I’m promoting it for the nudity, but who cares? The bottom line is, I promote it.”