Michael Fassbender and director Steve McQueen are not suffering from a sophomore slump. Following up their first brilliant collaboration “Hunger”—the story of Irish republican Bobby Sands’s hunger strike—with “Shame,” a story of sexual addiction with lots of movie star nudity, they prove there’s no slump, sophomore or otherwise.
Fassbender plays Brandon, a New York high roller with all the trappings of a perfect life. His shame is also the thing that informs almost everything in his life—he’s a sex junkie. He’s a functioning addict until his sister (Cary Mulligan) unexpectedly comes to stay with him and turns his life upside down.
“Shame” is rated NC17 and with good reason. There is a great deal of nudity, but bodies aren’t the only things bared here. Playing polar personality opposites Fassbender and Mulligan each reveal enough neurosis to keep Psyche 101 textbook writers busy for years.
He’s tightly wound, ordered in his addiction; a clean freak with control issues. She’s a free spirited musician who, much to his horror, drinks OJ right out of the box. She’s emotional, craving the kind of spiritual intimacy that he replaces with meaningless physical intimacy.
Still, despite their differences, they have a connection. At a nightclub he weeps as she sings a maudlin version of “New York, New York” and a late story development proves he loves her despite his apparent anger at her behavior and the effect she has on his life.
Fassbender uncovers the inner workings of Brandon, subtly portraying the change in his character as it dawns on him the impact his addiction has on him and those around him. It’s a completely physical performance in and out of the sack. Fassbender shows Brandon’s slow decline through a carefully modulated physical performance that tells us more about the character than pages of dialogue could.
Mulligan is a raw nerve, as emotional as Brandon is detached. The two don’t connect, but there is a bond between them that can’t be broken.
“Shame” won’t be for everyone. It’s explicit and impressionistic, but as a character study it is fascinating, thought provoking filmmaking.
“It has just been a very, very intense year,” says screenwriter Abi Morgan. In addition to the release of Shame this week, her name also appears on the scripts for the new Meryl Streep film The Iron Lady and six episodes of the British television series The Hour.
“I just keep my head down and write,” she says. “The hardest thing for a writer is if you don’t have anyone with a deadline waiting for you. It’s someone saying, ‘Deliver. I’m interested. I want to see what you’ve got.’ I think I’m a natural people pleaser so I like going, ‘Yes, I’m coming.’ It appeals to that part of me.
“I don’t have writer’s block as such. I certainly can write rubbish. I think your b******t barometer has to go up when you write every day because you have to stop and think, ‘Is this working? Is it good?’ You have to stop yourself from using the same rhythm or the same bad stage directions.
“So you know I have to shake up my writing quite a lot.”
Shake up, indeed. The Iron Lady is a portrait of hard line British PM Maggie Thatcher, The Hour a 1950s set newsroom drama, while Shame is a modern day look at sex addiction and the role the Internet plays in comodifying pornography.
“We didn’t set out to write a film about sex addiction,” she says of her collaboration with director Steve McQueen. “Our starting point was how the Internet can draw you in.”
She calls Shame star Michael Fassbender “the most brilliant choice” to play Brandon, a sex dependent New Yorker, because “he’s so fearless.”
The film wasn’t originally written with Fassbender in mind, but after the second draft director McQueen suggested the actor. The two had worked together in the festival hit Hunger, and Morgan says, “Steve and him have such an incredible relationship.”
A website called Mr. Skin notes that Helen Mirren is the only celebrity to appear nude on screen in five different decades.
The Oscar winner became the first British actress to appear in the buff in a mainstream film in 1969, when she was just 24 years old.
On her revealing scene in Age of Consent she said, “Flesh sells. People don’t want to see pictures of churches. They want to see naked bodies.”
Since then Mirren has doffed her clothes several more times, and become one of the most acclaimed actresses of her age.
Appearing nude doesn’t appear to have hurt her career with the public or the Academy, which is probably makes Michael Fassbender, the very naked star of this weekend’s Oscar contender Shame, very happy.
In a performance that bares not only his body but his soul as well, Fassbender might become the most unclothed star to ever be nominated for Best Actor.
But he wouldn’t be the first star to go naked as a jaybird for their craft and take home Oscar gold.
Kate Winslet says there was so much nudity in The Reader, which earned her an Oscar, because the story required it. But, she added in the same interview, she thinks people might be tired of looking at her body.
The first nude film scenes happened almost 100 years before Fassbender drop trou.
In 1915’s Inspiration an actress named Audrey Munson undressed and for the next 20 years stars regularly exposed their hidden talents.
Then came the Hays Code, which banned nudity from the major studios well into the 1960s.
One of the first big stars to break the code was Jayne Mansfield, whose topless role in Promises! Promises! landed her on the Top 10 list of Box Office Attractions for 1963.
Since then many A-listers have taken it off for their art.
Recently both Amanda Seyfried and Julianne Moore stripped in Chloe. Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams wore their birthday suits in Love and Other Drugs and Blue Valentine respectively.
But it’s not just women exposing themselves.
Gerard Butler let it all hang out in Mrs. Brown and Gamer and Daniel Craig is buck naked in Love is the Devil.
Producer Judd Apatow promises more male nudity in his films.
“It really makes me laugh in this day and age that anyone is troubled by seeing any part of the human body.”