Comedian Kristen Wiig is starring in a weird little movie called Welcome to Me, rolling out in limited release May 1. We’re not the ones calling the project weird, by the way. That’s what Bill Murray called it, and if Bill Murray thinks something’s a little out there, you know you’re in rare territory.
But as weird as it may be, the thing that’s been causing the early buzz is something pretty familiar: an actress shedding all—including her clothes—for the sake of the story.
Wiig is the one stepping out of her clothes this time. She plays a woman with a borderline personality disorder, and at one point her character apparently dons her birthday suit and walks naked through a casino.
“That scared me because I knew if I did the movie I’d have to do that scene,” Wiig tells Entertainment Weekly. “I didn’t want to say yes and then take that scene out. I just thought it was important to the story and the character—so the thinking was if I make this movie then I have to do the scene where I’m totally naked.”
Wiig talks about the scene being “important to the story and the character.” It’s a familiar rationale for flaunting one’s all for paying moviegoers. And I understand the argument to a certain point, I suppose. If someone was to film a dramatization of the Adam and Eve story, to dress the both of them in jeans and sweaters, especially pre-fruit, wouldn’t really serve the story. In fact, it’d run counter to the whole point.
But here’s the deal: We’ve seen plenty of iterations of Adam and Eve on screen in which our two main players are shot from the shoulders up. Does that cinematic decision hurt the story in any way? I don’t think so. We already know our two Edenites are walking around in the buff. It’s important that we know the characters are nude: It sets up the conclusion, after all. But we don’t need to see it.
Is nudity really important for a given story? Is anyone really saying that Casablanca or Citizen Kane or Vertigo would’ve been better with some nudity or on-screen noogie? That Katharine Hepburn’s or Bette Davis’s careers were pretty OK, but with a nude scene or two could’ve really been something? No one says such things, because they’re demonstrably not true. Which seems to undercut the argument a bit.
A few weeks ago, I watched 1934’s It Happened One Night, starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. It was considered quite risqué at the time, what with a runaway heiress gallivanting around the country with a morally questionable journalist. They even shared the same motel rooms—their beds separated only by a blanket Gable called “the walls of Jericho.” But even though the sexual tension was palatable, the most uncovered skin we saw was Gable’s bare chest.
It was the first movie to win all five major Academy Awards, by the way—Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Picture.
I suspect that if It Happened One Night was remade today, there’d be nudity in it. We’d all be told that it was necessary. The plot demands it. The filmmakers would need to show just what sorts of temptations were on the other side of the walls of Jericho. It would be important for the story, we’d be told. Important for the characters.
But of course, It Happened One Night won’t be remade anytime soon. It’s too high in Hollywood’s pantheon, too revered to mess with. It makes me wonder whether the art of cinematic storytelling is getting worse, not better—wherein films must resort to on-screen nudity as a narrative crutch.
Kristen Wiig is a talented actress and comedian, no question. But when she, or anyone, says that on-screen nudity is a necessary part of a given story, I call foul. It may serve the publicity machine. It may serve the bottom line. But the story? There are better ways to serve.