The campaign for real sex: Imogen Stubbs backs Kim Basinger's stand in refusing to accept gratuitous nudity

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The Independent Online
I WAS once cast in a Hollywood 'art' film and assumed I had been chosen for my passion, wit and daring as an actress. When I got there, I discovered the truth. I was immediately put on a starvation diet and chaperoned by a personal exercise trainer. The film company called in a hairdresser to dye and straighten my hair, pluck my eyebrows and wax away every other hair on my body, including my 'moustache'.

By now, it was clear that my character had been developed to blend into the carpet and to function solely as a bimbo. The day came for the sex scene. What I had been assured would be 'nothing granny can't watch' became a 'closed set' with the director whispering encouraging things like 'we're going to make 9 1/2 Weeks look like Mary Poppins' and 'come on, kids, just take the ball and run with it]'

My co-star and I got drunk, wept nostalgically about our past Shakespearian roles and phoned our agents. I discovered that my contract, if it did not specify 'no nudity', at least said 'no pinky bits'. I emerged to do the scene with bits of sticking plaster covering strategic areas of my body. Within seconds, I was whisked away and replaced by a 'body double', who bore no resemblance to me. Back at the hotel, I was told that I was better off this way, since my body - I was once described as 'a pixie with footballers' legs but blessed with a happy nature' - did my character a disservice. When I saw the film, the scene had been cut anyway - so at least my granny could see my performance as a walking hair- do without embarrassment.

The degrading lunacy of this episode was brought back to me last week by the Kim Basinger case in Los Angeles - partly because it was Ms Basinger's hairdresser who dyed, plucked and waxed me. Ms Basinger is being sued for pounds 5.6m by Main Line Pictures because she pulled out of a film in which she was to play a character with no arms or legs. She felt the sex scenes would be 'gratuitous', even though the director was a woman. 'I couldn't tell,' Ms Basinger said, 'if I could trust her with my body.'

I believe she had every right to change her mind. What she seems to have learnt is that you cannot force an audience (or indeed a publicist or even a director) to respond to your performance in the way you want. Whatever your intentions in displaying your body - your character may be awaiting death in the gas chambers - there is nothing to stop the spectator responding with 'Cor - lovely pair of knockers, Kim baby]'

I once appeared in a dramatisation of D H Lawrence's The Rainbow, which required several sexual encounters. Here was an adaptation of a serious novel about a young woman liberating herself from 19th-century small-mindedness and repression. I completely trusted the director - I still trust and value him as a good friend. Yet, years later, a journalist - in the Observer's 'A Room of My Own' feature, for heaven's sake - can write: 'Look out of actress Imogen Stubbs's window, and as likely as not you will see a duck sticking its butt in the air . . . Previously her own butt was much commented upon after it made an undraped appearance in the BBC version of . . . The Rainbow.' The belief that 'integrity' somehow clothes the actress even if the character is naked is a nice idea, but no more than that. Your critics have the power to trivialise your cherished project, forcing you to see it squalidly through their eyes.

However, Ms Basinger's equation - 'the more flesh you show, the higher up the ladder you go' - is not quite right. Rather, for actresses with fabulous bodies, nudity is perceived as anything from a seedy career move to prostitution; for those with 'bad' bodies, nudity becomes 'artistic'; for those with very bad bodies, it is 'brave' and may even have Oscar potential.

But many producers will use 'body doubles' rather than show a bad body. This is grotesque deceit intended to delude audiences into believing that all actresses (and, therefore, all women as represented on the screen) have perfect bodies. It can create a sense of inferiority not only in many women in the audience but in the actresses themselves. If we must have explicit sex scenes, the actors should be physically unimpressive and hopeless at love- making. That way, the audience would feel superior and maybe even blessed.

It would also, I suspect, make movies more realistic. Most producers seem to think that nudity (the actor wears boxer shorts while the actress, terrified of such words as 'prude' and 'easily replaced', shows her breasts) lends sex scenes credibility. The reality is that most actors either perpetuate sexual cliches by doing what they have seen in other movies, or make the whole thing look silly by attempting staggeringly inventive choreography which has nothing to with experience. They cannot win. If the sex is convincing, as in L'Amant, it provokes cries of 'shame]'; if unconvincing, as in Damage, it also provokes cries of 'shame]'

God forbid that I should sound priggish. I have recently seen Jane Horrocks and Harriet Walter (in the play Three Birds Alighting on a Field) transcend this problem. I am always hopeful that art can change attitudes - as George Eliot put it, 'Art is the nearest thing to life, and its ultimate aim is to reshape the human consciousness and with it the structure of society.' But, while certain sexist attitudes persist, sex scenes and nudity will tend to discredit the mystery and status of an actress, however 'artistic' the intentions. I think, too, that most people's imaginations fill in sex scenes more satisfyingly than the improvisations of actors (after all, a Rada training does not cover this area). Whatever happened to the days when sex was Celia Johnson, and Rachmaninov on the piano?

(Photograph omitted)