AUSTIN – When Olivia Wilde stripped her clothes off in front of Jake Johnson in “Drinking Buddies,” you could hear an audible gasp in the Paramount theater during the film”s premiere at South By Southwest.
Wilde and Johnson play Kate and Luke, friends and coworkers, who in this scene are out on a weekend trip to a cabin. Both have brought their significant others on the vacation, but then the “drinking buddies” find themselves deliciously alone on a beach. As is their wont, they flirt heavily, and late into their night of boozing and teetering on the edge of hooking up, Kate starts taking off her clothes and heads toward the water, urging Luke to skinny dip with her.
The fact that the viewing audience reacted as they did in that moment exposed a visceral reaction to the quandary, the acting, and to Wilde”s bare skin. (Notably, Johnson”s Luke doesn”t follow suit.)
Many of Joe Swanberg”s films have included nudity – male and female – and writers before have criticized the filmmaker of using nudity as exploitative, or as an easy way to shock audiences into conveying emotional nakedness.
In an interview after the premiere, however, Wilde said it”d serve the audience well to trust actors in their decisions for nude and sex scenes because, for example, getting nude for “Drinking Buddies” was all her idea. There was no script for the film, only Swanberg as its captain, and Wilde told her director she wanted to skinny dip because “it felt so incredibly organic to that moment.”
“I didn”t feel conflicted. That is the magic moment [Kate”s] been waiting for, where she is offering herself, quite literally, to [Luke]. She”s being so inappropriate, and she knows it,” Wilde told me. “And if Joe had said it”s too inappropriate, like ‘If you”re nude it”d be too jarring,” I would have fought for it.”
There was no fight, though, because as Swanberg said during our interview earlier in the evening, he”s trying to story-tell through the eyes of a woman. And this leading woman was going to get naked in an effort to take her drinking buddy over the edge. And it was Swanberg”s direction to Johnson that his character not follow her over that edge.
“This is the kind of thing [Kate] would do: she does it wrong. She”s a little bit wrong, offering herself like that, basically saying ‘Take me.” And he just sits there,” she said, describing the scene.
Nudity in film is nothing new at this point, though at times the conversation about nudity in film feels new. The Academy Awards last month touched a nerve with Seth MacFarlane”s musical number “We Saw Your Boobs”; discussions afterward oscillated between Hollywood”s Male Gaze problem; think pieces on modern entertainment; and the crude response of, basically, “LOL, boobs.”
As my cohort Drew McWeeny wrote about rape scenes in movies, so can female nudity play as “cheap, pointless and exploitative,” toying with what constitutes “successful” nude scenes and what is pimping. Which goes back to Swanberg”s film, and Wilde”s choice to express it.
“I take issue with critics assuming that actresses are forced into these situations, or are objectified by filmmakers, or a pressure to be nude. I”ve never felt that way. People should give actresses more credit, that they”re making those decisions on their own,” she said. “There”s nothing wrong with nudity and there”s no reason to apologize for the human body. But certainly in this case, this was my idea an organic moment I really love.”
I loved it too. I like some of Swanberg”s films and I”ve hated others, but I”ve appreciated his honesty about his growing into filmmaking, the evolution he”s undergone to try and make better and better films.
Swanberg talked openly about sex scenes in a great interview posted to Filmmaker Magazine, on his movie “Uncle Kent”:
“I used to be very cavalier about it and I was under the assumption that if actors or friends were uncomfortable with what was happening while we were shooting… then they would speak up and tell me. But that wasn”t happening. Some people were quietly justifying things, or afraid to talk to me, or they wanted really badly to be comfortable with things and didn”t admit that they were uncomfortable until long after the fact… And I unfortunately hurt some people and lost some friendships because of this stuff.
“So now I don”t take anything for granted… So we talk a lot about what everyone is comfortable with ahead of time. And we talk more about it while we”re doing it. And we talk even more about it after we”re finished…
Having said all that, it”s still important to me to include sex and sexuality as normal and integral aspects of people”s lives. And I want to make sure that stuff is just as honest and real as everything else that I do.”
This approach, like so many conversations about real-life sexual situations, is about consent. Actresses today are, still, challenged with the notion of consent when it comes to a script.
“Some actresses draw hard lines in the sand, of, like, ‘Listen I just don”t want to be nude on film.” I totally respect that. Nudity is a part of life. If we want to accurately represent human life, it seems odd to me to awkwardly hide what”s natural,” Wilde said. “Good films handle it correctly, bad films don”t. If the story justifies it, I think it feels worthwhile. Some, I don”t.”
That sounds reasonable. Hardly worthy of a gasp.