Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s documentary Body Parts sets itself up as a chronicle of how Hollywood, over the course of its 100+ year history, has depicted the female body and female sexuality. The opening segment leads us to anticipate a comprehensive picture like The Celluloid Closet, which explored how cinema shaped cultural perceptions of gay men and lesbians, or Disclosure, which did a similar investigation into how the entertainment industry, in general, has portrayed trans characters. Those two brilliant documentaries play like in-depth accountings, meant to open the eyes of everyday viewers to the different ways film and television shows are viewed and perceived by different viewers. At the top of Body Parts, film historians, including Screening Sex author Linda Williams, take us through the pre-code era in much the way that multiple speakers do in The Celluloid Closet. Williams explains how Hollywood's embrace of self-censorship via the Hays Code in 1934 led to relegating female stories to a small number of narrow depictions that were deemed acceptable to the religious gatekeepers of the era. The film then attempts to cover a wide range of concerns, breezing through the old studio system casting couch to the #MeToo Movement, briefly touching on a multitude of topics along the way. But investigating the many prominent issues of misogyny in the entertainment industry would require a ten-part series rather than a single movie. So Body Parts eventually settles into what it should have been all along—a snapshot of the current moment that examines what's being done to correct the degrading and disempowering practices of the past.
Beyond the misleading introduction and unfocused first half, Body Parts is a missed opportunity all around because too much of it feels aimed at those already well aware of these industry-wide problems rather than designed to engender deeper awareness in general audiences. For example, several celebrities are referred to without providing context—as if all potential viewers are already well acquainted with the people and events being referred to. The film assumes a prior awareness of what may have been covered in great detail on social media, but a great many viewers will never have heard of some of the people discussed in this film. The movie also is impaired by a surprising lack of participation from significant, outspoken women through the various eras of entertainment. The narrow range of interview subjects may say far more about how big the problems of sexism, sexual harassment, and the repercussions for speaking out against these issues still are rather than indicating a lack of confidence in this specific project. But the only major figure from an earlier period of showbiz who shows up for a candid interview is Jane Fonda. Still working, and still doing love scenes, at age 85, Fonda is an important figure who has been part of the industry for multiple decades and has seen how it works from a distinctive perspective. Still, even her time in this picture is less illuminating than we might hope.
For the most part, the film is told by younger women whose experiences are more recent. Rose McGowan, Rosanna Arquette, and others share frank, detailed accounts of how sex scenes and nudity are scripted, negotiated, coerced, photographed, and, in many cases, significantly altered in post-production. In some enlightening sit-downs, VFX effects artists and body doubles walk viewers through the specifics of their work. Female and non-binary directors like Karyn Kusama, Joey Soloway, and Angela Robinson add to these conversations. Most impactful are the stories from actresses who are not all that well known and, therefore, have more to lose by speaking up, and rising stars like Emily Meade, who played one of the sex workers on the HBO '70s period drama The Deuce. Meade’s story leads to a discussion about the creation of what are now known as “intimacy coordinators.” Another key interview subject, David Simon, show-runner of The Deuce, discusses how this new crew position was all but created as a result of Meade's insistence. How intimacy coordinators do their work is the most effective and informative aspect of the film. Body Parts clearly establishes how and why the industry got to a place where key figures realized the need for a person on the production team to be tasked with planning and choreographing sex scenes with directors and actors the way stunt coordinators are employed to stage potentially dangerous action sequences.
The documentary's overriding message is the ways in which "the male gaze" inherent in most visual media, has informed and influenced how much of the world views women, women's bodies, and women's body parts, and how it has also shaped far too many people’s understanding of female sexuality. How these attitudes and assumptions arose from an industry rooted in male dominance and white supremacy is made clear, yet the deeper cultural themes touched on are left oddly underdeveloped. There are so many voices one would think a film like this would need to include in order to feel comprehensive and dimensional—Tippi Hedren, Kathleen Turner, Bo Derek, Brooke Shields, Reese Witherspoon, Thandie Newton, Drew Barrymore, and more (all women I'm sure the filmmakers would have loved to have spoken to on camera). Then there are the perspectives of older European actresses who have pushed back on many of the new attitudes and policies now being implemented. The controversial (some would say toxic) views of Catherine Deneuve, Ingrid Caven, and others could have enriched the film, not merely by adding counterpoint but by providing a more substantive historical and international perspective. The picture is most effective at elucidating how women are taking control of how they are represented in entertainment, which is encouraging. However, the very optimistic conclusion feels a bit dubious and runs counter to almost everything the film presents us.
NOTE: This film was made just a year or so after the equally unfocused Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies. Where Body Parts suffers from a lack of participation by prominent women over the course the century it covers, Skin has the opposite problem. Skin features many of the actors and filmmakers who would have made Body Parts work better, but it wastes their participation by rushing through their stories and never pausing to reflect on what they say.
In attempting to chronicle the entire 100+ year history of how Hollywood has depicted the female body and female sexuality in a single documentary feature, Kristy Guevara-Flanagan gives short shrift to this vital subject. The lack of participation from prominent women throughout that history also hampers the movie.