Both striptease and motion pictures began as socially dubious forms of popular entertainment. In fact, stripping has the more impressive cultural lineage — the Gospel of St. Mark, Oscar Wilde, Richard Strauss — assuming Salome’s dance of the seven veils qualifies.
Soon enough, the removal of clothes on stage and projection of images on screen parted ways in terms of status. Motion pictures grew respectable, so much so that having strip clubs and strippers figure in mainstream movies was all but unthinkable. Unthinkable but not unworkable: The most erotic striptease in film history takes place in a movie released in 1946, “Gilda.” You can watch it on YouTube: www.youtube.com
“I’m not very good at zippers,” Rita Hayworth says at the end of her “Put the Blame on Mame” number. Not that that’s a problem. All the striptease consists of is Hayworth removing a single evening glove — but what a glove, what a removal, and what an evening.
The hold of censorship on Hollywood began to fade in the ’60s, then effectively disappeared. This had two effects on the relationship between the movies and striptease. The latter became allowable as subject matter and became even more marginalized in the culture. Why go to a sleazy club to see female pulchritude when you could see it at the movies a lot better and more cheaply (albeit in just two dimensions).
So, yes, there are stripper movies. The newest addition to the canon arrives in theaters Friday. “Magic Mike” stars Channing Tatum as a male ecdysiast who takes a younger colleague, Alex Pettyfer, under his (unclothed) wing. Steven Soderbergh directed, and Christopher Peterson did the costumes. Presumably, Peterson didn’t need to do as many sketches as usual.
“Ecdysiast”? It means “one who sheds.” H.L. Mencken coined the term as a facetiously fancy word for stripper. He derived it from ancient Greek. Gypsy Rose Lee, the most famous stripper of them all, was not amused. “Ecdysiast, he calls me!,” she complained. “He has been reading books. Dictionaries. We don’t wear feathers and molt them off.” Feathers maybe, but molt definitely not.
Lee figures twice in the history of stripper movies. Mencken may have read books, but she wrote one. “The G-String Murders” was a mystery novel that somehow skirted the Production Code to be made into “Lady of Burlesque” (1943). Barbara Stanwyck played the very Gypsy-like title role. Although Stanwyck never takes her clothes off, no one would mistake her character for Eleanor Roosevelt.
Having succeeded with fiction, Lee wrote an autobiography. It inspired the hit Broadway musical “Gypsy.” A movie version, with Natalie Wood in the title role, was released in 1962. The musical’s showstopper is “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” But the score also includes “Let Me Entertain You,” sort of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” of stripperdom.
Gypsy Rose Lee may have been the queen of stripping, but there were several princesses. One of them was Blaze Starr. Her real-life dalliance with Louisiana Governor Earl Long inspired “Blaze” (1989), with Lolita Davidovich in the title role and Paul Newman as Long. A different kind of history lesson is offered in “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” (1968), which purports to show how a nice Amish girl (Britt Ekland) inadvertently brought striptease to burlesque.
Difficult as it was for striptease to figure in movies during the Production Code, it later became difficult for the opposite reason. Where once censorship was the stumbling block, now it’s excess. In a film world where pretty much anything goes, teasing for erotic effect can seem pretty tame — or even ridiculous. How ridiculous? The genre, such as it is, has yet to recover from “Showgirls” (1995) and “Striptease” (1996). The latter at least had the virtue of inspiring Bruce Willis to appear on “Late Night With David Letterman” with a parody of his then-wife Demi Moore’s big number in the movie.
Actresses do keep playing strippers in movies: Jessica Alba (“Sin City,” 2005), Lindsay Lohan (“I Know Who Killed Me,” 2007), Jessica Biel (“Powder Blue,” 2009), even Natalie Portman (“Closer,” 2004). Salma Hayek’s played a stripper twice (“From Dusk Till Dawn,” 1996; “Dogma,” 1999), and Marisa Tomei got a best supporting actress nomination playing one (“The Wrestler,” 2008). One former stripper, Diablo Cody, went on to become an Oscar-winning screenwriter.
Actors keep playing them, too, however rarely. “Magic Mike” continues the tradition of “The Full Monty” (1997). That film is in a class by itself among stripper movies. It’s probably the most famous, certainly the most popular, and definitely the only one to earn an Oscar nomination for best picture. Six unemployed Englishmen . . . well, they may not molt but they most assuredly do shed.