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Nude photos that are truly revealing

Naked women, clothed men. These pictures convey something about the culture.

February 10, 2006|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

Once upon a time, a girl had to take her clothes off to make it in Hollywood. After that, she could spend her career fully dressed, or mostly dressed.

The cover of the March issue of Vanity Fair puts a lie to all that. Except for a belly button ornament and some well-placed limbs, two actresses -- ultra-thin Keira Knightley of "Pride & Prejudice" and baby chubby Scarlett Johansson of "Match Point" -- are luminously naked on the fold-out cover. And boy, do they look bored.

Maybe this is because the third subject in the photo is Tom Ford, the handsome and decidedly gay fashion designer, who is sniffing, perhaps about to nibble, Knightley's ear. Ford, who resuscitated the Gucci brand and went on to invigorate the Yves Saint Laurent empire before retiring two years ago, is the Hollywood issue's guest editor.

"People won't believe me," he is quoted as saying in Vanity Fair's "Behind the Scenes" feature story, "but I did not plan on being on the cover." On Tuesday, he told "Good Morning America's" Diane Sawyer that he is in the photograph because the intended third subject, actress Rachel McAdams, got cold feet and decided not to disrobe for photographer Annie Leibovitz. "I think she felt uncomfortable," Ford said, "and I didn't want to make anybody feel uncomfortable."

The reason he jumped into the shot, he explains in the magazine, is this: "Three girls in a bed is a bedful of girls. Two girls in bed are lesbians." It's not exactly clear what two girls and a gay man add up to, but the signs point to a spike in interest at the very least.

According to magazine spokeswoman Beth Kseniak, Vanity Fair's website received 3.1 million page views on Tuesday and Wednesday, which she called "a whole lot more than normal." And, she added, 1,647 new subscribers signed up.

Maybe Ford and Vanity Fair are onto something. Maybe the only way to break through the clutter of a moment in which we are drenched with repeated images of the same dozen or so celebrities -- on newsstands, on television shows, on the Web -- is to do in reality what the media does metaphorically every day: Strip 'em bare. If we can't be present at the conception of the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie baby, then darn it, let's at least see what Brad saw when it happened. (Pages 302-303.)

It was Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter who hatched the idea of making Ford guest editor for the magazine's annual Hollywood issue after Ford told him that Vanity Fair's Tinseltown spreads had gotten stale. "I wanted to put the glamour back in Hollywood," Ford says in the magazine. "My main criteria in considering which individuals to include were 'Am I tired of seeing them, or do I want to see more of them? Am I still hungry for this person?' " (This would explain the ear nibbling.)

Carter had a few nervous moments, he writes in his editor's note, especially when he received missives from Ford, such as: "I am thinking the all-nude issue ... are you having a heart attack yet? Seriously, please relax ... it will be beautiful, provocative and stunning."

Among the other naked subjects are Jennifer Aniston, curled up in a cute little ball wearing only boots, and Angelina Jolie, who lolls on her stomach in a bathtub, displaying her impressive gallery of back tattoos.

The idea of naked women provocatively juxtaposed against fully clothed men is not a new one, not by a long stretch. Anyone who has ever passed through an art history survey class knows that Edouard Manet shocked the public sensibility with his depiction of a nude woman picnicking with two fully clothed men in "Dejeuner sur l'herbe." And that was back in 1863.

For a magazine celebrating Hollywood, the combination of the dressed male and the naked heterosexual woman is merely a metaphor for how things are, have always been and will probably always be. Other actors, including Jason Schwartzman, also appear in the magazine with undressed women, and Hollywood plastic surgeon Garth Fisher of "Extreme Makeover" stands on a golf course next to a giant breast, evoking the oft-parodied chase scene in Woody Allen's "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex."

"The clothed male represents some form of dominance," said UCLA art history professor Albert Boime, a modern art specialist. "Whereas the women appear much more vulnerable and subject to the whims of the male." (No kidding. Check out the photo on Page 132 of Ford playfully biting the ample, surgically enhanced bosom of aging sexpot Mamie Van Doren.)

What keeps the cover photograph within the bounds of good taste, said Boime, is that it is not explicitly sexual, "mainly because the women do not respond to Tom Ford ... , and they don't seem to be seductive themselves. They don't cast alluring glances, they are sort of indifferent."

George Clooney's photo, "The Boss," is an almost painterly effort by Leibovitz. Clooney commands a waterborne crew of nearly naked women (they're all wearing flesh toned undies and bras) in a mock movie shoot, although the staging -- half the women are in the water, some cling to the platform Clooney stands on -- alludes to the shipwreck imagery of Gericault's "The Raft of the Medusa."

"I think his reputation is, is really as a ladies' man," Ford told Sawyer. "So in a fantasy world of George, you know, commanding a crew and cast of women in their underwear I thought was a great idea."

Unlike the somewhat removed Johansson and Knightley, Clooney appears, well, engaged by the task at hand. Did we mention that he is fully dressed, except for his unbuttoned dress shirt, strangely reminiscent of the signature style of ... Tom Ford?

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