The Penis in Hollywood
By James Wolcott Illustration by Barry Blitt via Vanity Fair
Despite Kevin Bacon’s flaunting-it shower exit in Wild Things, Harvey Keitel’s self-crucifying baring of body and soul in Bad Lieutenant (he would go full-frontal again in The Piano), and Bruce Willis’s erotic skinny-dip in the pool with Jane March in Color of Night, the American penis (long may it wag) has stayed a relative stranger on the movie screen. Note: We’re talking about the real, warm-blooded item, not some prosthetic impostor, such as Mark Wahlberg’s porn-stud stocking stuffer in Boogie Nights, or, allegedly, Vincent Gallo’s ram horn in The Brown Bunny, which he fanatically grips as if it might come unglued. Until recently the organic penis has led a shy, shadowy life on-screen, seldom brought out and formally introduced to the guests. Directors play peekaboo with it, dodging an R rating or worse by deploying a variety of cute fig leaves, such as a hurriedly grabbed teddy bear as an emergency groin protector. Steam discreetly clouds it in the gym shower and sauna. Bedsheets are draped with the care of Saks window displays to shelter the little fella from view even as the actress in the scene goes total nudie. That’s what makes Michael Fassbender so exceptional in Steve McQueen’s Shame, where he portrays an orgasm addict (to quote the title of a Buzzcocks song) whose libido drills like a woodpecker on a staccato rampage. Fassbender emerges from the film with his mystique intact, enhanced. It doesn’t hurt that he unambiguously possesses the power tool for the job. At the very outset of the film Fassbender is presented full-frontal, his penis passing us as he crosses from one room to another and back again as a plain, plump fact of life. As the movie proceeds, his prick seems to be in the driver’s seat; on the prowl, it’s imbued with agency, latent power, pathological drive. Although shot in New York, Shame has a British director, which may spell the difference. In American film, the penis, finally poking out from its pup tent, remains mostly a comic prop, the little brother that insists on tagging along.
Although European and British stars seem more natural about cinematic nudity (Fassbender is Irish-German; France’s Gérard Depardieu trucked his earthy carcass through The Last Woman and 1900, among others), actors of any nationality and fame status are understandably wary of going completely commando. In his book Only Entertainment, professor of film studies Richard Dyer observed, “The limp penis can never match up to the mystique that has kept it hidden from view for the last couple of centuries,” and an actor’s mystique is part of his capital. It is where the unequal distribution of assets is most pronounced for certain types of comparison shoppers. Nature doesn’t deal out the same pickle size to every man, and no exercise routine will enlarge or tone it if the owner feels he’s been shortchanged. There is also the issue of shrinkage. 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. Except in hard-core porn, it can’t fully join in. Whether it’s the wrestling scene in Ken Russell’s adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, with Alan Bates and Oliver Reed going Greco-Roman by the fireplace, or the bathhouse bashing in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, where an ultimate-fighter death match breaks out between Viggo Mortensen and a pair of heavy-duty enforcers, the pugilist’s penis always elicits concern—it looks so defenseless, an innocent bystander finding itself in a hostage showdown. No matter how bull-strong the late Oliver Reed was, no matter how topographically muscular Mortensen is, the male viewer is always apprehensively aware of how vulnerable the little guy is in a fight, the testicles even more at mercy, clenched or swaying like tiny twin punching bags—one hard tap and Hercules himself would fold in two, unless he were wearing a bronze cup. In comedy (think of the grotesque nude tussle in Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat between Borat and his producer, that rippling clash of hair and blubber), that queasiness can be converted into farce, slapstick, the groaning punch line to a prank.