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Over the last five years, society has gotten a crash course in Hollywood sexism. With Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor’s groundbreaking reporting on Harvey Weinstein came countless other stories of women’s mistreatment at the hands of producers, directors and even fellow actors.
Some of the most arresting stories along these lines come from crew members, like stunt coordinators who work on rape scenes. In her new documentary “Body Parts,” Kristy Guevara-Flanagan interviews actors, film and TV creators, and crew members who work behind the scenes to put sex onscreen.
Though the film overwhelmingly focuses on big names like Joey Soloway and Rose McGowan, its strongest material comes from accounts by less glitzy experts: body doubles, scholars, intimacy coordinators and one remorseful visual effects artist.
The film’s thesis is nothing new: Film and TV teach young people how to conceptualize sex, which is a problem because women onscreen are often objectified and hypersexualized. “Body Parts” begins by examining the history of female objectification in cinema, then talks about shooting sex or nude scenes specifically — including how actresses are treated like cuts of meat both in front of and behind the camera — and ends by looking at how the industry is treating sexual content after the many revelations of #MeToo.
The narrative is propelled by the interview subjects who, when not depicted as talking heads, have their words shown over video clips. The clips mainly come from a laundry list of films and TV shows, from “About Schmidt” to “Zola,” although some also depict a staged film set that Guevara-Flanagan ostensibly created to give viewers an idea of what some of these concepts might look like behind the scenes.
This collage of found footage is fairly effective, though most of the clips are used out of context, occasionally leading to oversimplification. (The idea that “Euphoria” is in any way combatting against this film’s main villain — negative media messaging affecting young women and girls — is utterly laughable.) The original footage is altogether more vexing, as it is presented without commentary.
Sure, it’s helpful to have something to watch as the experts wax on, but it’s also odd, for instance, to see a nervous-looking woman enter a staged sex scene shoot in a film about how Hollywood consistently endangers women in sex scene shoots. One must assume this film is different, given the subject, but how so? What has been done to make this film’s woman comfortable? Especially since the film criticizes a long history of coercive on-set practices, it would be more helpful to see explicit counterexamples.
“Body Parts” is at its strongest when it is specific. Jane Fonda is a real get as an interview subject because her career beautifully encapsulates the differences between puritanical 1950s American cinema and gonzo, hypersexual European films of the 1960s and ’70s. Apparently, Fonda agreed to the bare-skinned opening credits sequence of “Barbarella” with assurance from Roger Vadim — the director and her then-husband — that the letters would tastefully cover her. She was dismayed by the final product.
Other fascinating sections talk about the ways in which film productions literally chop women’s bodies up into their most appealing parts. Visual effects editor Sevan Najarian talks about finding regular work digitally altering women to appear younger and slimmer (including after having recently given birth) and states that such alterations have become so mainstream that actresses advocate for them. “I feel like I’m part of the problem,” he laments.
Several body doubles also share their frustrating experiences in audition rooms and sets. These women not only receive no public credit for their acting work, but they arguably also face more predatory behavior in their jobs than actresses do. These women are selected based solely on whether their bodies fit the filmmakers’ tastes. It doesn’t even matter what their faces look like. The industry treats these women accordingly. Marli Renfro, Janet Leigh’s body double for the shower scene in “Psycho,” uses her interview to assert her role in one of the most iconic scenes in cinema. In her autobiography, Leigh claimed that she acted the entire scene herself.
But while this misogynistic meat-market culture — judging by the film’s title and a statement by the director included in the press kit — might have been the film’s original focus, the final product has been significantly diluted. Of course, it’s difficult to talk about onscreen misogyny and sex scenes without discussing sexism in filmmaking more generally, but the film gives the latter so much screen time as to be redundant.
Another festival circuit documentary, Nina Menkes’ “Brainwashed,” expertly dissects misogynistic cinematic conventions and talks about their potential impacts on women more generally. But “Body Parts” offers nothing on this topic that anyone familiar with the term “male gaze” wouldn’t already know. (The credits of “Body Parts” indicate that Menkes was interviewed at some point, though she does not appear in the film.) And thanks to the journalists who blew #MeToo wide open, Hollywood’s sexist culture is now common knowledge.
Likely because a film like this needs notable interviewees in order to sell itself, it closes with a sweeping celebration of many of it its subjects. For one, though, these people — like Joey Soloway (“Transparent,” “I Love Dick”), Tanya Saracho (“Vida”) and Lolo Spencer (“The Sex Lives of College Girls”) — work overwhelmingly in television, where it may be easier for female creators to advocate for themselves than it is on films.
For another, the film closes by signaling an overwhelmingly positive shift in Hollywood by pointing to works like “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “The Power of the Dog,” “Hustlers” and “Nomadland.” All of these movies are breaths of fresh air, but they represent exceptions, not a new rule. (And “Hustlers,” as Menkes points out in “Brainwashed,” hardly shuns objectifying visual tropes.) Where is the positive change, ostensibly borne of female authorship, in the real Hollywood heavy-hitters, the endless sequels, franchises and Marvel flicks?
“Body Parts” has a lot to say about onscreen objectification, but it would benefit greatly if — like Quentin Tarantino’s camera on a young woman’s feet — it maintained its focus.
“Body Parts” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.