Up until quite recently, the penis has enjoyed very little screen time in mainstream North American cinema. While its phallic presence can be sensed in the bulges of spandex superhero costumes or beneath carefully crumpled sheets following a romp in the sack with the buxom leading lady, its actual on-screen life is next to nil, since depictions of full frontal nudity on film are still quite taboo. A movie can contain an atrocious amount of bloody violence and gratuitous gore but as soon as a little too much skin is shown, it risks being slapped with the dreaded NC-17 or X rating.
Most male actors are understandably wary of baring it all on screen, since they are constantly facing the scrutiny of critics and the public for every aspect of their performance. “The limp penis can never match up to the mystique that has kept it hidden from view for the last couple of centuries,” noted film studies professor Richard Dyer.
By putting it all out there, they either confirm or shatter the fantasies of their fans, who ultimately have to take what they see with a grain of salt. “It is the one part of an actor’s equipment that doesn’t answer to commands, instructions, suggestions, cajoling, or subtle fine-tuning; its range of expression is rather limited, its freedom of motion restricted,” said James Wolcott.
Once a director can get past the initial shock value of putting the penis on screen, it can be used for everything from comic relief to pure titillation:
The Trailblazer – Richard Gere, American Gigolo
Of course it would take a film about a male prostitute catering to lonely and bored suburban housewives to bring the penis to mainstream audiences. And while Paul Schrader’s 1980 film American Gigolo featured Richard Gere in the title role, it wasn’t initially supposed to feature his manhood so prominently on display. “If I recall, [the nudity] wasn’t in the script… It was just in the natural process of making the movie,” Gere told Entertainment Weekly.
The Steamy Shower – Kevin Bacon, Wild Things
Perhaps the most shocking thing about seeing Kevin Bacon’s member in Wild Things is the nonchalance with which he reveals himself. Stripped of his clothes but still bearing that trademark smirk, he seems content and confident in his masculinity as he exits the shower, nabbing a towel casually thrown to him by Matt Dillon.
The Perpetual Pecker – Ewan McGregor, Trainspotting, Velvet Goldmine (The Pillow Book, Young Adam)
The first time I saw a penis on screen was a fleeting glimpse of Ewan McGregor’s post coital unit in Trainspotting as he was being kicked out of bed by a woman following a one-night stand. I must have rewound that part at least twenty times, so intrigued by seeing something my young eyes shouldn’t really have been seeing. I was even more impressed with his “performance” in Todd Haynes’ 1998 glam rock opus Velvet Goldmine, where he plays Curt Wild, a rockstar who takes a cue from Jim Morrison when he flashes the screaming crowd during a raucous concert. When recalling his first time baring it all before an audience, McGregor said, “I remember getting a kind of rush out of that first time, a slight feeling of power about it, you know?”
The Vulnerable Comedian – Jason Segal, Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Being dumped always makes us feel like we’re at our most vulnerable. Jason Segal takes it one step further with his comic twist on the full frontal scene in 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where he is broken up with in the buff. As his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend urges him to put some clothes on so they can talk about it, he stubbornly refuses. “As soon as I put clothes on, it’ll all be over,” he asserts, as if staying in that naked moment is the last time he can savor the ebbing relationship.
The Awe-Inspiring – Michael Fassbender, Shame
Michael Fassbender’s turn as a sex addict in 2011’s Shame earned him plenty of accolades and praise from Hollywood elite like George Clooney and Charlize Theron. His performance was the antithesis of the title of the film, with his manhood brazenly on display for all to see.
Seriously, I could watch this all day