TOWARDS the end of The Dictator, the latest film from Sacha Baron Cohen to unashamedly push the limits of good taste since Brüno’s bombshells and Borat’s hysteria, there comes a scene designed to shock: the despot General Aladeen is attempting to zip-line across a busy Manhattan thoroughfare when disaster strikes, clothing billows and a matronly hotel guest gets an eyeful at the revealing sight of Aladeen’s general and two colonials flying straight towards her face.
Ah yes, full frontal male nudity, that old chestnut in a nutcracker. It seems somewhat surprising that in 2012 a flash of penile flesh remains the ultimate taboo of mainstream cinema, still considered far more shocking than any burst of buxom undress or below-naval navigation of a female co-star’s body parts. In the 20 years since Sharon Stone scored a hit by uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct, paparazzi pics of drunken Hollywood starlets’ revealing their genitalia have become the norm, to the point where comparisons of “Who wore it better?” of vajazzled regalia seem not too far away.
But when it comes to an actor baring all on screen, successfully towing the line between the artfully titillating and the gratuitously avoidable, as a moviegoing public, we still think it takes balls.
When not played just for laughs and boyish sniggers, as with the image of Baron Cohen’s dangling member subversively winking from panoramic dimensions to an adoring audience of straight men in their 20s and 30s, the presence of a penis can cause ripples of unrest in unsuspecting viewers.
When Michael Fassbender’s made its prolonged debut on screen in the opening scene of Steve McQueen’s Shame – the gritty story of a sex addict whose craven dependence on his own orgasm sends his lavish lifestyle into freefall – it made audiences everywhere sit up uneasily, laying the ground for the very adult and unflinching study of contemporary sexuality to follow. That Fassbender’s equipment would go on to become an enviable butt to a joke in George Clooney’s Golden Globe acceptance speech goes some way towards lessening Shame’s impact, but that speaks more of the Kerryman’s natural talents than the film’s uncompromising nudity.
As taboos go, however, full frontal male nudity remains something of a dark horse in the cinematic canon. More often than not, it’s the bottom line at the box office, rather than allusions to dramatic integrity, that will shape the levels of male nudity in the multiplex. Indeed, to even make it past the circumcision of the censors, there’s an understanding that any appearance of delicate male anatomy must be in its flaccid state, even when glimpsed in sex scenes.
But the tide for the emancipation of the penis is turning, as directors and actors everywhere are choosing to go the choad less travelled. In 2008, at a test screening of the Judd Apatow produced Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, 22 people walked out in disgust at the sight of a suspended penis behind John C. Reilly’s head. But Apatow, a known and financially successful risk taker, opted to edit rather than cut the scene, going on to vow that “I’m gonna get a penis in every movie I do from now on.” His follow up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, did just that, featuring a scene of excruciating awkwardness where the leading lady dumps a starkers Jason Segel. If Apatow has since shied away from putting more meat and two veg in his latest work, he still favours making crude and hilarious jokes at the expense of the modern America’s most controversial muscle.
If anything, the flash of male flesh has become alternatively mainstream, a conventional shocker popping up across every genre to gain column inches, stiffen resolves and raise eyebrows. Even in superhero movies, which already idolise the chiselled male form by wrapping it in skin-tight spandex, they dare to bare, with Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan’s neon blue wiener not exactly short on screen time in Zack Snyder’s underappreciated 2009 film.
Sacha Baron Cohen is no stranger to the full frontal, either, having gotten his out before in Borat’s infamous bedroom brawl, so it should come as no surprise to see it all again in The Dictator. But, at the very least, it’s the third penis to get a general cinematic release in 2012, with Fassbender revealing he has nothing to be ashamed of and Jason Biggs showing audiences whether he lives up to his name in America Pie: Reunion.
Whether or not future generations of sociologists and cultural historians will look back at 2012 as they year when the penis was at last unleashed as a mainstay of cinema remains to be seen. But for now, movies like The Dictator are tearing apart the last taboo of modern cinema, one testicle at a time.