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updated 2/10/2004 10:54:53 PM ET 2004-02-11T03:54:53

A smitten young man in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” steals a photo of his inamorata and puts it next to his private parts, then is understandably embarrassed when she forcibly peels off his tighty-whiteys and discovers it.

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Rather than being appalled, she appears quite complimented by this different kind of Kodak moment — a close-up that leaves nothing to the imagination as the picture gently catapults toward her.

Such scenes got an NC-17 rating slapped on the new film by the director whose oeuvre includes the 1972 X-rated “Last Tango in Paris.”

But in the three decades since then, scenes with full-frontal male nudity usually can be timed with a stopwatch while those with nude women can be measured with a sundial.

Even in “The Full Monty,” filmgoers didn’t get the full monty — not even for a split second.

Pop-culture observers maintain that’s because a de facto sexism still exists in Hollywood, where women can parade around in the altogether but men can’t.

The instances of actors in mainstream American movies swinging in the breeze are so rare that movie buffs can catalog them off the top of their heads. Harvey Keitel has let it all hang out at least twice (“The Piano” and “Bad Lieutenant”) and Ewan McGregor at least four times, including the upcoming “Young Adam.” Bruce Willis in 1994’s “Color of Night,” Kevin Bacon in 1998’s “Wild Things” and Geoffrey Rush in 2000’s “Quills” are among the few others.

Why the double standard?
Sarah Riddick, an English professor who heads the film program at William Woods University in Fulton, Mo., attributes it simply to the industry’s gender makeup: “It is still a male-dominated business, and men are more likely to show female nudity.”

Only actresses with great clout such as Julia Roberts can insist on a no-nudity clause.

Elayne Rapping, a professor of women’s studies and media studies at the State University of New York, Buffalo, said it’s such as it ever was: You can look back to classic paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries and see fully clothed men with nude women.

“That’s been a constant of Western culture for centuries in representational art — that women have been presented as objects for what in film theory is called ‘the male gaze.’ The assumed viewer is male, and the woman is to be looked at for male pleasure,” she said.

She said another reason there are few full-frontal male nude scenes is that it raises an issue of vulnerability for men.

“For a man to reveal his private parts is to be reduced to the position that women have always been reduced to — which is to be examined, to be judged. And I think that’s a scary thing,” she said, adding: “When a man is flaccid, it’s not a very virile thing.”

One theory holds that while women have several areas to satisfy scopophilia — the term sometimes used in feminist film criticism that literally means the “love of looking” — men really have just one, where size matters. So a woman might have a beautiful face or legs that offset, say, her breast size, but if a man has a certain shortcoming, a handsome mug or six-pack abs fail to make up for it.

Yoko Ono once joked: “I wonder why men get serious at all. They have this delicate, long thing hanging outside their bodies which goes up and down by its own will. If I were a man I would always be laughing at myself.”

The male gaze
For a male view, there’s Jim McBride, aka Mr. Skin, who runs a Web site that’s a compendium of movie nudity. He was quoted recently as saying he prefers his silver-screen sex “without a guy in the scene.”

Rapping suggested that men also may be afraid of the “male gaze” for homophobic reasons.

“The fear of male homosexuality is the fear of the loss of male dominance in our society — if everybody gets equally sexualized and equally open to having sex with everybody else then the whole system of male dominance gets called into question.”

Fox Searchlight’s release of “The Dreamers” — uncut and with an NC-17 rating — has refocused attention on the issue of sexuality in movies.

When the distributor decided to go ahead with the unbowdlerized version, Bertolucci alluded to the expression “Make love, not war” from the late ’60s (when his film is set) by saying: “After all, an orgasm is better than a bomb.”

“Americans are much more comfortable with extreme violence in their movies than any sexuality,” observed Stephen Gilula, Fox Searchlight’s president of distribution.

The rating no one seems to want
Gilula, who attributes Bertolucci’s comfort depicting sex to his European upbringing, said his company decided to release the film with an adult rating because while NC-17 has become “sort of a scarlet letter ... We felt it wouldn’t be the liability everybody perceived it was.”

Unrated films with comparable — and even more explicit — content are playing in U.S. theaters anyway, he said, and Fox Searchlight research has dispelled the long-held notion that newspapers won’t carry ads for NC-17 movies and movie chains won’t show them.

In the past 15 years or so, many porn theaters across the nation have closed because home video — not to mention the Internet — took their market away, he noted.

“There is no longer any real issue about pornographic material in movie theaters,” Gilula said. “It’s really an issue (of): Can filmmakers make adult subject matter and utilize the NC-17 rating without having to go unrated?”

Bertolucci’s movie may help destigmatize the rating, he averred. “I think it opens the door for the possibility for distributors to consider using the rating without assuming it’s a liability.”

Time was, even an X rating wasn’t a drawback: John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” won the 1969 best-picture Oscar despite it.

“How is it in 2004 we are more puritanical than 30 years ago?” Bertolucci said.

Living in the post-Janet world
And even before the exposure of Janet Jackson’s right breast at the Super Bowl halftime show, Bertolucci talked about how kids at home in their rooms see what he deems an incredible amount of sex and violence. So he wonders why movies are so persecuted?

“The power of television is much, much greater than the power of cinema,” he said.

After Philip Kaufman directed “Quills,” his wife made a joke while they waited for the Motion Picture Association of America rating (which turned out to be R). “She said they should just put on, ‘Not for children of all ages.’ ... The movie was made for adults,” Kaufman recalled.

Still, the director of the first film to get an NC-17 rating — 1990’s “Henry & June” — questions whether, if you take away topless shots, women are exposed more often than men.

Even at that, he pointed out that his upcoming movie, “Twisted,” shows more male nudity in the sex scenes involving Ashley Judd (none of it full-frontal).

He also raised the question that many ask: Do women really want to see more male nudity?

“Maybe, in fact, just because of the nature of our society and so forth, more male nudity is about to come,” Kaufman said.

When NC-17 supplanted X — mostly because it had been proudly commandeered by the porn industry — it retained a smutty stigma.

But maybe that will change, Kaufman said; NC-17 will yet be matter-of-factly applied to films of “higher motive.”

Gilula of Fox Searchlight certainly hopes so. And he thinks “The Dreamers” might be the watershed.

“It’s a film of very serious intent. It has sex in it. But it’s also about music, it’s about politics, it’s about relationships. It’s about a lot of things. And it’s about movies,” he said. “Anyone who’s going for any salacious intent I think will probably be disappointed.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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