Rachel Pronger investigates the interconnected history of the pornography and film industries as Paul Thomas Anderson’s nostalgic portrait of the “Golden Age” of adult film, Boogie Nights, celebrates its 25th anniversary.
Near the start of Paul Thomas Anderson’s nostalgic portrait of the 1970s LA porn industry, Boogie Nights (1997), director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) sits in a diner across from want tobe star Eddie (Mark Wahlberg) and outlines his vision for a new kind of dirty movie:
It’s my dream to make a film that sucks them in… [so] they can’t move until they find out how the story ends… It’s my dream to make a film that is true, right, and dramatic.
Is it possible for a pornographic film to be true, right, and dramatic? While attitudes toward sex depictions on screen have evolved significantly over the years, most viewers still see a clear distinction between “real films” and pornography. Nonetheless, the pornographic and mainstream film industries evolved in tandem, and there has always been crossover. Hollywood and hardcore film are inextricably linked industries that face many of the same challenges and have inevitably influenced and shaped one another throughout history.
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Anderson seizes on this interconnected history in Boogie Nights, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, presenting an unusually three-dimensional take that has as much to say about Hollywood as it does about porn. Eddie, a young busboy with a modest talent but “something wonderful” in his jeans, is spotted by Jack and invited to join his family, a diverse group of crew and performers that includes glamorous mother figure Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) and inventive Roller Girl (Heather Graham). They collaborate on a series of increasingly epic films, and Eddie, recast as Dirk Diggler, emerges as a breakout star until spiralling egos, addiction, and technological shifts threaten to derail the dream.
The success of Deep Throat announced the arrival of what New York Times journalist Ralph Blumenthal dubbed “porno chic,” a period in which watching pornographic films at the cinema became for a while not just acceptable but cool
The sprawling narrative of Boogie Nights spans the evolution of adult film from “porno chic” in the late 1970s to the VHS boom in the mid-1980s. The film premieres in 1977, at the height of the “Golden Age of Porn,” a period in which hardcore film briefly entered the mainstream. Deep Throat, the first feature-length porn film to break into mainstream discourse, was a watershed moment in 1972. Deep Throat became a box office success, capturing the attention of the mainstream media and turning its star, Linda Lovelace, into a celebrity. Deep Throat’s success heralded the arrival of what New York Times journalist Ralph Blumenthal dubbed “porno chic.” a time when watching pornographic films at the movies was not only acceptable, but also cool. As a result of this new social acceptability, filmmakers began to develop more artistically ambitious projects, further blurring the boundaries between mainstream cinema and porn.
Anderson channels the spirit of porno chic in Boogie Nights through the character of Jack and his dream of making films that are “true, right, and dramatic.” Boogie Nights is jam-packed with clips from Jack and Dirk’s collaborations, which are affectionately made film-within-a-film parodies that highlight the ways in which porn was inspired by Hollywood. The “Brock Landers” films, a series of elaborate James Bond parodies in which Dirk plays a secret agent who seduces his way out of every jam, are the artistic high point of these. After one particularly intense take, the cameraman exclaims, “It’s a real film, Jack.” “This is the film I want people to remember me by,” Jack says solemnly.
In a meta-twist, Boogie Nights could be interpreted as a Hollywood parody. Dirk Diggler’s rise and fall is a classic “star is born” story, complete with Svengali figures, young stars corrupted by fame, and a bittersweet ending. As one would expect from a director as cinephilic as Anderson, the film is littered with references, particularly to Martin Scorsese. A scene in which Dirk sits in front of a dressing room mirror and gives himself a pep talk is reminiscent of Raging Bull, while another in which Dirk plots a cocaine-fueled heist is straight out of Goodfellas. By explicitly borrowing from other films and genre tropes while recasting those beats within the heightened world of porn, Anderson’s approach is similar to Jack’s in that both are filmmakers who liberally borrow from Hollywood in order to create something new.
Jack’s parodies show how pornography has frequently ripped off Hollywood, but this relationship has not always been one-sided. The mainstreaming of porn in the 1970s also fed directly into Hollywood, as Karina Longworth highlights in her podcast series Erotic Eighties. A wave of erotic thrillers released in the 1980s and 1990s, including American Gigolo (1980), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), and 912 Weeks (1986), drew directly on pornographic aesthetics, offering naked movie stars as sex symbols. Aside from these erotic thrillers, a small but significant subgenre of films set in the industry is another way in which porn has clearly influenced Hollywood. Boogie Nights, for example. The best of these films are as concerned with power dynamics and ethical challenges in Hollywood as they are with pornography.
Although not for everyone, Body Double’s self-conscious excess serves a purpose, indulging in Hollywood excess while criticising it.
Unlike other films from the 1980s erotic thriller boom, Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984) is open about the Hollywood-porn crossover. Jake (Craig Wasson), a struggling actor, becomes obsessed with performer/body double Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) and is drawn into LA’s seedy underworld in this campy and heightened B-movie homage. Body Double, an intentionally gruesome and violent film, divided critics upon its initial release. While some praised the film, calling it “an exhilarating exercise in pure filmmaking,” others slammed it as sensationalist schlock and “creepy crud.” Body Double was heavily criticised by feminist commentators who linked De Palma’s depiction of violence to real-life violence against women, an accusation that has followed the director throughout his career. much to his chagrin “I was slaughtered by the press right at the pinnacle of the women’s liberation movement,” De Palma recalled in a 2016 interview. “I thought it was completely unjustified, because it was a suspense thriller, and I was always looking for new ways to kill people.”
Body Double has recently experienced a renaissance, with a new generation of critics recasting the film as a misunderstood gem. De Palma himself has evolved from enfant terrible to filmmaker’s filmmaker over the years, becoming the subject of a laudatory documentary directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow and increasingly celebrated for his influence. Body Double’s bloody fingerprints can certainly be found all over Ti West’s X (2022), a kitsch slasher film about a porn crew being stalked by a frenzied killer that draws heavily on 70s exploitation films but has more than a dash of De Palma’s camp sensibility, dark humour, and stylised violence.
Although not for everyone, Body Double’s self-conscious excess serves a purpose, indulging in Hollywood excess while criticising it. De Palma, like Anderson, constantly references other filmmakers, particularly Alfred Hitchcock (the plot of the film riffs directly on Vertigo and Rear Window), and these references have gained new potency over time. Body Double today reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock’s abusive treatment of actress Tippi Hedren (Griffith’s mother), and this connection adds another layer to the film’s commentary on Hollywood’s abusive dynamics. Body Double has its cake and eats it with its nudity and violence, but it still asks provocative questions. Where does the line between the two industries lie if Hollywood can provide the same salacious thrills – and exploitative dynamics – as porn?