A warning upfront - despite the title, this essay isn't particularly sexy. I'm a fan of celebrity nudity in the movies, but how tiresome would it be to just list scenes of great looking actors naked? I mean: Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway in Love and Other Drugs. Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins in The Blue Lagoon, Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Matthew McConaughey and his respective leading ladies in about a dozen romantic comedies. You want a page full of that?
Here are a few celebrity nude scenes that worked for reasons beyond the attractiveness of the actors.
Seeing Ewan McGregor naked is no big deal - he's shown his dick in a number of films. But The Pillow Book was different. In Peter Greenaway's strange, often lovely film, McGregor serves as a human canvas for Nagiko (Vivian Wu), who writes on his naked body employing Japanese calligraphy. Initially, your eyes go to McGregor's penis, of course, but then you look at his whole body, not as a nude celebrity, but as a living piece of art, just as Nagiko intended.
In Witness, Amish lass Kelly McGillis is naked to the waist while washing herself, when she and Detective Harrison Ford catch sight of each other in a mirror. Instead of grasping for something to cover herself, she turns and faces him. The scene is erotic, certainly, but it also changes the relationship dynamic. By presenting herself unashamed to the detective, the character establishes herself as a woman strong enough to reject the standard courtship dance and go forward on her own terms.
A brief, powerful scene in The Big Chill shows Glenn Close sitting naked on the floor of her shower, weeping as the shower rains over her body. So exposed, so vulnerable, so heartbreaking and beautiful. The strength of the scene comes from its simplicity, and Close's willingness to set aside her personal inhibitions to be true to the emotions of the character.
Speaking of setting aside personal inhibitions ... In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jason Segel's character thinks his girlfriend is coming over to have sex, and he greets her in the nude. Then he discovers her reason for the visit is to break up with him and he immediately goes from being nude to being naked, freaking out and refusing to get dressed as his girlfriend struggles unsuccessfully to deescalate the situation. The scene is based on an incident in Segel's real life and the phrase "it's funny because it's true" certainly applies here.
In Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, a nude and exceedingly cheerful Kathy Bates joins Jack Nicholson in the hot tub. At the screening I attended, the audience let out a shriek at the sight of her large, saggy body. I understood the laughs - most people her size go to great lengths to keep from being seen without clothes and her brazenness was funny. But Bates also deserved a cheer for reminding us that there's no need to be ashamed for not looking like an athlete.
Finally, there's the scene from Sideways (also from writer-director Payne), where Paul Giamatti gets chased down the road by a naked fat guy (played by M.C. Gainey, the friendliest of the Others from Lost). A fat guy running full frontal naked in broad daylight. Everything bouncing and jerking and flipping and flopping in all directions. To heck with deeper meaning - you don't get much more memorable, or funny, than that.