Did Saddam Hussein kill the Hollywood penis? I first asked the question back in 2008, when I found myself staring into the godless face of Jason Segel’s three-foot-long cock. I was watching the actor break up with Kristen Bell in Forgetting Sarah Marshall; he was nude in the scene, on a very big screen, and his lolling little peen had me giggling like a school kid seeing his first diagram of a vas deferens. I’d laughed the same way while watching Ken Jeong get naked in the Hangover movies and when, back in 1999, Saddam whipped out his alarmingly red and wriggly schlong to rub it all over Satan in Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. That schlong turned out to be a dildo, but the laughs—and the shock of the penis—were real.
Somewhere along the path from those scenes of Richard Gere in American Gigolo and Jean-Hugues Anglade in Betty Blue that gave your 13-year-old self those strange pangs you couldn’t quite place, to the cock-slinging clownery of Segel and Saddam, the role of full-frontal nudity at the movies has gone flaccid. In the ’80s, the sight of Gere’s fuzzy member or Rupert Graves’s (in Merchant Ivory’s A Room With a View, no less) was titillating; in the ’90s, housewives wore down their Pause buttons trying to catch Bruce Willis’s cock in Color of Night, while cinemagoers dropped some serious jaw during the final prosthetically enhanced moments of Boogie Nights. The peen had power.
As the decade wore on, however, and we moved into the 2000s, directors and producers like Stone and Parker, Judd Apatow, and the Farrelly brothers—recall, with pain, Ben Stiller’s zipper dilemma in There’s Something about Mary—took that power and twisted it. Suddenly, schlubby schlongs were fucking pies and flopping around in scenes like masked slashers, drawing focus and nervous chuckles from the edges of the frame.
We’re at a tipping point now. On the big screen, a famous penis is a punch line; on every other screen, it’s almost uninterestingly ubiquitous (Mr. Bloom excepted, of course). There are heroes working hard to restore a little pearl-clutching majesty to the movies; witness Mr. Fassbender in Shame or Mr. Hardy in Bronson. But our biggest hope may lie, unsurprisingly, in the cinema of Europe, where the erect penis is very much in vogue among the continent’s auteurs. Did you see Shia LaBeouf’s schlong in Nymphomaniac? Thank you, Lars von Trier—no one would dare laugh at that.