In one of the many (many) startling scenes in the new HBO drama Tell Me You Love Me, which debuted Sunday night, a young, attractive married couple sit side by side on a sofa, watching a boxing match on TV. The wife unbuckles her husband’s pants, and after some noisy kissing, she pulls away and says, “I want to see it.” She sees it and—holy cow—so do we.
Over the past few months, the breathy buzz on the show—about married and almost-married couples in various stages of intimacy-related despair and dishabille—has centered on the amount of its frank sexual content. And it was there all right—from minute two, when a man masturbates under the covers, to real-time full-monty couplings, to angelic, white-haired Jane Alexander kissing meaningfully down her husband’s graying chest. Throughout the hour, as bodies moved and eyefuls of flesh and bikini waxes flashed, it was still the sight of that erect penis being clinically manipulated into a graphic orgasm that prompted did-I-just-see-what-I-think-I-saw gapes from less action-packed couches nationwide.
“That scene … who knew that would be the most shocking?” said Tell Me You Love Me’s 47-year-old creator Cynthia Mort, a day after the show’s premiere. She insisted that when she wrote the pilot, she was not thinking about sackfuls of sex on the show. “I have to say, some of the guys [actors] were more squeamish than the women were about taking their clothes off. They’re not used to it. They’re not used to being exposed in every way,” she said. “One thing the show is doing, I hope, is giving guys a voice emotionally. You can’t do that unless you’re honest and authentic in every way. If that means showing them in bed nude … well, I don’t know a guy who has sex with his underwear on.”
But if a casual survey of initial male reaction to the show is any gauge, many men may not be so keen to be given a voice emotionally if it also means the male member is going to be on conspicuous, prime-time display. Just as the cinematic baring of female breasts led many women to compare themselves and despair, putting the male organ out their for public consumption may strike many men as disempowering, deflating and just plain icky.
“Male nudity—full-frontal nudity—has always been considered a lot more taboo than female nudity,” said Darren Star, executive producer of Sex and the City. “As far back as I can remember, there’s been a double standard between men and women. I think it’s time that men get equal time in terms of nudity.”
Ask and ye shall receive! Slowly but surely a seismic shift is occurring across the entertainment landscape: men are dropping trou, and penises and testicles are seemingly everywhere, flapping in the breeze. This year, major franchise players like Lord of the Rings’ and X-Men’s Sir Ian McKellen (“Gandalf’s Gonads!” cheered the British press) and Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe have continued the theater’s (always ahead of its cinematic cousin) tradition of disrobing on the stage. Three movies currently working the festival circuit, and pointing toward award-show glory, all offer an eyeful more than what we’re used to from established actors. There’s Ang Lee’s NC-17-rated Lust, Caution, which this week snagged top honors with the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival despite the film’s graphic sex and partial male nudity (compliments of famed Hong Kong star Tony Leung). Into the Wild, written and directed by Sean Penn, contains a scene of Emile Hirsch (certainly all grown up from his The Girl Next Door days) floating au natural down an Alaskan stream. And Viggo Mortensen heroically fights for his life wearing only his tattoos in one of the more gripping scenes in the David Cronenberg thriller Eastern Promises. One could be forgiven for wondering: Is the scrotum the new cleavage?
“David [Cronenberg] is great,” said Mr. Mortensen, via phone from the Toronto Film Festival. ”He said, ‘It’s got to be like this, if you’re okay with it. It’s uncomfortable, but it won’t be exploitative. It’s integral to the story and I will do my best to make you as comfortable as I can.’ And I knew that.” Mr. Mortensen’s ballsy moment takes place in a London bathhouse as his character, an enigmatic toughie rising through the ranks of a Russian mob family, is taken by surprise when attacked by two fully clothed men while wearing only a towel (which falls by the wayside during battle). The savage scene is made more poignant by the sight of Mr. Mortensen’s soft exposed parts; it’s an added layer of vulnerability that throws the brutality of physical violence into sharper focus. “[David Cronenberg] said, ‘You know, there’s this scene in a bathhouse, and there’s a towel, and I don’t know … in the script, all it says is that you’re attacked. How do you see that?’ And I said, ‘I think it should be as realistic as everything else and what everyone else does in this story. There’s no reason to make it look pretty, or conceal, or be vain about it. It should be as awkward and vulnerable and ugly as it needs to be.’
“It has gotten people’s attention because it’s unusual. And it’s also unusual to see it in such a straightforward manner,” Mr. Mortensen continued. “It’s not glamorized. I guess it’s not the most attractive of things to see … but it’s what it needed to be.”