We’ve all been there – joking that if we don’t get that job, or pass that exam, we’ll have to become strippers to make ends meet. In The Full Monty, for six men of Sheffield out of a job after the steel factories close, the comic fantasy becomes a reality.
It’s the 1990s in Sheffield. Led by Gary “Gaz” Schofield (Robert Carlyle), a group of down-and-out unemployed men decide to make a bit of much-needed cash by putting on their own strip show, after Gaz sees the success of a Chippendale act that comes to town a few nights earlier to the delight of the women of the city.
Wrangling together an unlikely team of volunteers, nearly all as far from the typical body-type of a male stripper that can be imagined, Gaz attempts to lead the men to stripping glory. His reason for doing so: get enough money together to pay child support in order to continue to see his son.
A surprise win for best score at that year’s Oscars, the film’s soundtrack is a mix of cheesy sex classics and disco grooves. That brilliant ‘Hot Stuff’ scene will probably spring to many people’s minds whenever they hear Donna Summer. The music ranges from the late ’70s to the early ’90s, featuring ‘Sexy Thing’ by Hot Chocolate, and ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’ by Tom Jones.
For some characters, the stripping caper serves as distraction from the bleakness of constant job hunting in a post-Thatcher city, run into the ground by the decline in Britain’s industrial market. The opening sequence intercuts between title credits and a 1972 documentary titled Sheffield: A City on the Move – later released as The Reel Monty due to the film’s popularity. At surface level, it’s an interesting and informative – if overly optimistic – piece of British history.
However, placing sections of it before The Full Monty provides a perfect introduction to the city and characters still living in the fallout of a failed vision. This element of social commentary grounds the film in the time that it was made, adding a layer of realism that is needed for the sometimes quite cruel comedy to work effectively. Like how the first time Gaz and Dave (Mark Addy) meet fellow stripper Lomper (Steve Huison), they almost accidentally let him commit suicide.
The Full Monty is also surprisingly sensitive in its discussion of ideas of masculinity. To Tom Wilkinson’s character, Gerald, the one-time foreman and boss of many of the other men, the idea of being unemployed as an older man is so horrific and embarrassing that he keeps it a secret from his wife in the hope of getting another job before she finds out. No longer the breadwinner of the family, not being able to give his wife the skiing holiday that she assumes they’ll be able to afford, drives him into the group in the strange logic of being able to regain some dignity.
Dave, played by Mark Addy, is more troubled by the idea of stripping in front of the women of Sheffield than most, because of his body type. Making several allusions to his weight problem throughout the film, Dave’s relationship with the group and with the idea of going through with the full monty – removing every item of clothing – concerns him because of his lack of self confidence with his body. Dave is a character that both men and women can relate to, testing out fad diets and weight-loss tricks, and feeling like an inadequate match for his wife because he doesn’t comply with what is considered to be an ideal male figure.
Although Jean (Lesley Sharp) claims she loves Dave and finds him attractive, he still can’t get past the fact that she was one of the women cheering on the hyper-masculine Chippendale strippers who, in Dave’s mind, are more desirable than himself because of their physiques. If not completely sensitive and complete in its handling of this issue, the film is remarkably spot-on in its inclusion of the discussion of toxic masculinity and its effect on normal men (by “normal”, I mean “men who are not Hollywood actors”).
This is something that British realist cinema does particularly well. While the ‘Hot Stuff’ scene was originally going to be cut because it was deemed too unrealistic, the cast and creators do well to address issues that were affecting people when the film was made, and that still affect people now. While something like Magic Mike does fairly well to address objectification of the male body, The Full Monty gives viewers the somewhat comical but important image of “real men”.
Robert Carlyle, for example – cast a year after his terrifying stint as Begbie in Trainspotting – is a good mixture of charisma and unassuming skinniness. He’s a man that most people can relate to, in that the film isn’t about male strippers that satisfy anyone’s fantasies, but about “real men” having a go. The characters are not conventionally attractive for comedy reasons, as well as for the fact that different people find different qualities attractive. Men and women are not, as Hollywood may have us believe, all attracted to people who look forever youthful and have completely symmetrical, unmarked faces and bodies.
The casting is also, I would argue, a way to make a statement on the male habit of objectification. The tables are turned on our unlikely heroes in a standout scene, which comes when the group are reading men’s magazines, commenting on the features of the female models in the pages, to which Dave points out, “you do realise the women will be talking about us like we are about them, right?” much to the horror of the group. The idea that they can be objectified and judged in the way that they judge women in magazines and on TV is alien to them, until the moment that they are about to put their bodies out on display for others to see.
20 years on from its release, you’d think The Full Monty would have wrinkled and sagged with its obviously ’90s look and the kitchen-sink drama that many British films of the time adopted. However, it has become something of a classic of British cinema. Its social commentary, its unlikely but charismatic cast, and heartfelt but humorous writing has made it a film that many people find hard to forget.