An Interview with the Legendary Susie Bright: Looking Back at the Changing Face of Porn

It’s always such a pleasure to chat with Susie Bright. I think it’s fair to say that she’s had more of an influence on the development of sex-positive porn than almost anyone else. With the upcoming Indie Erotic Film Fest event with her on September 17, I thought it’d be fun to ask her some questions about the history of porn.

What started your interest in porn? How did that change over time?

I was hired by Jack Heidenry in 1986 to write for Penthouse Forum, a pocketbook-size sex journal that porn mogul  Bob Guccione published during his heyday. I had no idea that Jack’s plan was rather experimental. All I knew, was that I’d never been paid professionally to write before, though I’d worked tirelessly on newspapers and underground magazines since I was a teenager. A volunteer. I’d also never watched an X-rated movie. Typical for most women I know!

I didn’t tell Jack either of my secrets.

Heidenry  found me because he admired my writing and editorship of a two-year old anti-establishment lesbian sex magazine called On Our Backs. I was shocked he’d even heard of us. Our tiny posse in San Francisco didn’t publish our manifesto with men in mind. We were single-minded about making lesbian-centric erotica and radical sex manifestos. Jack asked me to write a monthly column, “The Erotic Screen, to review and report on the latest in erotic cinema. A year later, he added an advice column so I could respond to erotic film questions.

I was the first independed erotic cinema critic, i.e., I wasn’t paid by advertisers to write PR copy, I wrote “real” reviews and reported on the erotic film business as if it were any other part of Hollywood. That was unprecedented. Nowadays we’re accustomed to daily papers and TV covering the porn biz, but that was UNHEARD of when I started. The SF Chron dubbed me “The Pauline Kael of Porn.”

I was a complete lamb when I started; I didn’t know a thing, but I caught on fast. It really was the “Arab Spring” of porn when I started, the climax of the Golden Age, the changing of the guard. Video was beginning. The inmates were taking over the asylum, and there were some mad talents. Some of the original “Silent Generation” guys who innovated erotic film were also soon to become legends.

When you started writing porn reviews for Penthouse Forum, how did people respond? And how did that influence the industry?

It was amazing. Remember, this is the days of snail mail, and I got hundreds of letters. I was so surprised to see how many women read Forum, and how intelligent they were. Sure, I got the occasional, “Me So Horny” type letter, but that was the tiny minority. There was a genuine interest in sexuality and movies, and people wanted to be treated like adults, not weirdos with black bars across their faces.

“The Industry” was pretty shocked by my arrival. Who WAS this little girl? Was it some kind of joke? The major distributors were very conservative, their basic line to me was, “Dont’ you have a husband at home to take care of?” (direct quote)

I started carrying my favorite videos at Good Vibrations, with long notes and reviews, and they sold like hotcakes. That, plus the reviews, was leverage. You had people like Candida Royalle, Annie Sprinkle, and Nina Hartley speaking out, doing their own videos. There was a punk invasion. Gay people in the industry, both in front of and behidn the camera, started coming out , en masse. When you see the variety and energy bouncing off the walls in my clips show, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Erotic filmmakers were ambitious and rebellious; they were taking on the world.

What makes the clips you’ll be showing different from other porn that’s currently available? What makes these movies stand out?

Oh boy, where to begin! The material I’m showing was unique even at the time it was made; this wasn’t the typical “wam bam thank you m’am” stuff.  Some of it is shot by classically-trained directors, sublime cinematography, actors who did Shakespeare in the Park during the day and porn at night.  It was part of the whole 70’s rebellion against the Hollywood studio system.

These are the directors that peole like Quentin Tarantino would later embrace. There is no ‘Kill Bill” without Russ Meyer, for example. There would be no gay leather aesthetic as we know it today without Christopher Rage. There is no Orson Welles without Gary Graver! Graver was Welles’ DP for decades, and also made some of the finest erotic films ever.

Not everything I’m showing is film, though. Some of it is from the earliest underground video artists, like Old Reliable and Rodney Werdon. These people were doing new approaches to talking heads and breaking the wall between viewer cameraman, and performer. It’s pre-Gonzo. Proto-Gonzo.

There are still innovative independent erotic filmmakers today, don’t get me wrong. And the material being done in “NC-17” and unrated films today is by far the most interesting to me. But the commodification of porn has been extremely BORING. Do I want to see Kim Kardashian give a half-assed blow job to anyone as she ticks it off her resume? No.

It’s a special thrill to witness a whole movement of innovation that broke every rule in its path. Just last night, I found my notes from a somewhat drunken evening with Russ Meyer, and typed them up. I never published them before because of his remarks about George H. Bush’s sex life. He was 74, I was 20-something. What a trip. Take a look!

Want more Susie? Don’t miss her event and the rest of the Indie Erotic Film Fest happenings!

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

You may also like...