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In our weekly series Anatomy of a Scene's Anatomy, we're going to be taking a look at (in)famous sex scenes and nude scenes throughout cinema history and examining their construction, their relationship to the film around it, and their legacy. This week, we're tackling the old adage that actresses get "skingier" over time with Helen Hunt's spectacular nude scenes from The Sessions, filmed when the actress was 48. 

Common wisdom states that the older an actress gets, the less likely they are to go nude on film. While it is true that past behavior is often the best indicator of future behavior, even if an actress has gone nude on screen before, it doesn't make them any more or less likely to do it again over 40. Granted 40 isn't what it used to be, but it's long been considered a dividing line in Hollywood where actresses—unfair as it may be—are deemed "too old." 

Nudity from older actresses was also usually played for comedy from Kathy Bates in About Schmidt to Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give, for a time it seemed this was the best we could hope for if an actress hadn't gone nude before 40. Marisa Tomei helped shatter a lot of these taboos with her back to back nude roles in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and The Wrestler—the latter of which scored her an Oscar nomination—filmed when she was 42 and 43, respectively. 

In 2012, however, Helen Hunt took this one step further by doing the best nudity of her career at the age of 48, playing real life sex therapist Cheryl Cohen-Greene in The Sessions. Hunt was certainly no stranger to nudity, having gone topless in a film with very similar themes twenty years prior titled The Waterdance. But the nudity required for The Sessions was something else, something next level when it came to nudity. A sex positive film where she not only had to be naked a lot, but be totally shameless and uninhibited in a demonstration of the character's preternatural relationship with sex.

In a little less than 40 minutes of screen time, Hunt spends ten and a half of those minutes in some state of undress. She already had an Oscar and several Emmys, she didn't necessarily need to do this role because she thought it would win her another Oscar. This just seems like one of those cases where an actor knows they absolutely can't pass on a particular role, no matter what it requires. 

As mentioned earlier, Hunt plays sex therapist Cheryl Cohen-Greene who was a sex surrogate for paralyzed poet Mark O'Brien—played brilliantly in the film by John Hawkes. Confined to an iron lung for 20 hours a day, O'Brien seeks the blessing of his priest (William H. Macy) before embarking on a quest to lose his virginity. After contacting Hunt's Cheryl, she establishes some ground rules designed to ensure that O'Brien does not have any confused feelings about what it is that they're doing. They're not embarking on a relationship, she's merely teaching him how to better understand sexual dynamics and his own wants and desires.

33 minutes into the film, Cheryl arrives for her first session with Mark and wastes no time in getting undressed and getting into bed with him...

 

As their sessions together progress, Cheryl tries to keep things as professional as possible, establishing a routine and sticking to it. Mark wants a human connection, however, and it isn't long before he begins having very conflicted feelings despite knowing that Cheryl is, by all accounts, a happily married woman...

 

At the 50 minute mark, Hunt sits on Hawkes' face so he can practice cunnilingus, but her face betrays his inexperience...

 

As time passes and they near the end of their sessions, Cheryl finds herself equally confused by her own feelings, spending time with Mark where they do more than just practice sex but actually open up and talk about themselves...

 

Around 2012, I doubt that most folks would have thought of Helen Hunt for a role like this considering the nudity required and her age. Having only gone topless on film before, one wouldn't normally assume that an actress would go fully nude and spend substantial screen time in the buff in her late 40s. This is part of what makes Hunt's performance in the film so revelatory. She's discarding her inhibitions at an age when most actors are sinking into them. During an , Hunt admitted that no matter how at ease she looked on screen, she wasn't feeling quite so at ease in real life...

VF: You spend a fair amount of screen time completely naked. How did you get to the point where you were comfortable with that much nudity?

HH: I wasn’t that comfortable! I was as comfortable as I could be, and then after that, I pretended. I think [my] character’s desire to make [John Hawkes’s character] comfortable and my desire to embody a sex-positive human being was what I hung on to.

Expanding further on that point  around the same time, Hunt did admit that she had second thoughts about taking the role due to the nudity required, but ultimately decided it was worth the risk as an artist...

Initially when I signed on I got tunnel vision — like, I want this part. If you stop to think, 'I’m scared about the nudity, I’m scared to play this part' — there are a lot of reasons to say no. But I know a good story when I read it.

Any hesitation I had about the nudity, I think what I thought was it’s getting late. You know what I mean? It’s getting too late in my life to care about the small things. It’s getting too late to not be brave, to not live my life fully, to not try to be an artist. Trivial things like how nice your hotel room is, or if you have to be naked for a while, they fade away.

Those things do fade, but thankfully, film is forever...

Catch up with our other editions of Anatomy of a Scene's Anatomy...

The "Real Sex" of Don't Look Now

Scarlett Johansson's Nude Debut in Under the Skin

The 2 Very Different Sex Scenes of Basic Instinct

How Halle Berry's Nude Debut Led Her to Monster's Ball

How Mulholland Dr.'s Legendary Lesbian Scenes Deepen the Film's Mystery

Showgirls and the Dangers of High Camp

Rosario Dawson Laid Bare for Danny Boyle's Trance

Katie Holmes Makes The Gift Worth Remembering

Jennifer Connelly Comes of Age in The Hot Spot

Lisa Bonet's Bloody Nude Debut in Angel Heart

Monica Bellucci Gets Brutalized in Gaspar Noé's Irréversible

Stanley Kubrick, The William Tell Overture, and A Clockwork Orange

Wild Things Presents Every Man with His Dream Threesome

Chloë Sevigny Goes Down in History for The Brown Bunny

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