Underwear is all about the private colliding with the public, so it is little wonder cinema and television have long exploited this tension, using the display of underwear as a powerful motif to explain character, plot, social mores and historical framing. Here are a few highlights:
Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
When Bryan Cranston stepped out of a battered Winnebago in the New Mexico desert and into television history, he did so in a pair of daggy Y-fronts. As chemistry teacher turned crystal meth cook Walter White, Cranston’s character represented – within one conflicted psyche – the eternal struggle between good and evil, and his chunky jocks in the show’s opening scene helped to define his ordinariness. Granted, his desert outing involved the illicit drug trade, but he was still, at that point, a middle-aged family man just trying to do his best. During a session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last month, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan told Adam Spencer he offered Cranston the choice of donning something warmer for the scene, given the temperature in the desert at the time was below 5 degrees. ‘‘I said, ‘would you be more comfortable in a pair of sweat pants’, and he said ‘yes, but that’s not the point. The point is for his character to be who he is’.’’ The ‘‘tighty-whities’’, as Gilligan described them, later fetched $US9900 ($10,600) at an auction of Breaking Bad memorabilia.
Was it gratuitous to show Sigourney Weaver in her undies just as she thinks she has escaped the Alien for good? Or was it symbolic of her vulnerability? The psycho-sexual overtones are great: and the woman wins, blowing that sucker to hell.
In an echo of Alien, Sandra Bullock’s fragile situation is accentuated when she floats around in her perilous tin can in skimpy undergarments – and when she climbs out on to the beach.
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Colin Firth in leopard-skin undies stuck outside in the snow is indeed amusing – but fans still mourn that he was never sighted in 18th-century underclobber in Pride and Prejudice (the closest he came was the famous ‘‘wet shirt’’ swim). In the title role as Bridget, meanwhile, Renee Zellweger endures an awkward seduction, during which her ‘‘absolutely enormous panties’’ prompt the lecherous Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) to proclaim: ‘‘Hello Mummy’’.
Basic Instinct (1992)
There are many stories about whether Sharon Stone did or did not know quite how revealing her pantyless leg-crossing scene was going to be. Apparently, the looks on the faces of the men in front of her were not contrived.
The scene with Orlando (Tilda Swinton) grimacing as her corset is roughly tightened by her lady’s maid conjures the historical hardships of womanhood. Orlando began life as a man in the 1600s and became a woman, mysteriously; here, she experiences the torments of feminine life in the 17th century.
Risky Business (1983)
That Tom Cruise’s stardom began from slipping around the floor in white socks, white undies and a shirt in this famous, oft-ripped-off scene speaks volumes – it’s all macho posturing.
The Graduate (1967)
The look on Dustin Hoffman’s face while watching the much older Mrs Robinson sensually roll on her stockings is magnificently done. Underwear can be just as sexy going on as it is coming off.
Seven Year Itch (1955)
How enduring has this silly scene been – Marilyn with her dress blowing up around her while standing over a subway grille, revealing her undies. Her tittering and sheer enjoyment of it kept it light.