Boogie Nights — Fact or Fiction?

Perhaps you’ve seen the film Boogie Nights, which came out last fall to substantial critical attention. It’s about the heyday of the porn business in the ’70s — the so-called “Golden Age” of porn — and follows the lives of several characters involved in making blue movies. The lead, Dirk Diggler (played by Mark Walhberg), is loosely based on superstar John Holmes. Our dear friend Nina Hartley, America’s X-Rated Sweetheart, even has a bit part, as does ’70s star Gloria Leonard: with beautiful ’90s irony, the real porn stars in the film play non-porn stars. (Leonard plays a judge!)

Boogie Nights evokes the party days of the late ’70s flawlessly — whether or not you had anything to do with porn in those days, if you were there, you’ll recognize the music, the “party all the time” ethos, the drugs. The film also explores issues like the effects of cocaine on the porno subculture and the effects the arrival of cheaper, more accessible video had on the shot-on-film industry. (The ’70s are called the “Golden Age” partly because for most of that decade, all porn was shot on film, not video, with bigger budgets, better scripts, and more interesting locations — whereas after the industry had swung towards video, most porn watchers feel the quality of those elements went way down.)

Boogie Nights immortalizes a historical moment in an unusual business that occurred a full generation ago. Certainly things have changed in the culture — and in porno — since then, but I was very curious to hear how people who were there found the film. Was it realistic, from an insider’s point of view? I asked around a little and got some interesting answers.

First I asked Nina Hartley what she thought of the film. In spite of the fact that her character comes to a bad end, she liked the movie and thought it dealt pretty fairly with the issues that are real to porn performers and directors. She came to prominence in the early-to-mid-’80s, so she wasn’t around for the excesses of the late ’70s, but she certainly knew plenty of people who were.

When I saw Boogie Nights I thought it was really a movie not about the adult film industry, but about the effects of drugs on the adult film industry. Its violence (practically de rigueur for a Hollywood movie) feels gratuitous, unless you read the film as a morality play about cocaine. As a matter of fact, Juliet Anderson (aka “Aunt Peg,” so-named after her role in the notorious and popular “Taboo” series) felt very strongly that the drugs-and-violence elements in Boogie Nights were a complete misrepresentation of the industry. She even gave an interview to a San Francisco newspaper blasting the film.

But on the other hand, Annie Sprinkle thought Boogie Nights was perfectly accurate in its look at drugs. It was the subsequent violence that she didn’t relate to — but then, many mainstream reviewers also noted that this part of the film seemed tacked on or gratuitous. But Annie said she knew lots of people in the ’70s just like the characters in “Boogie Nights.”

What’s up? Were Annie and Juliet working in different businesses? Well, in a way, they were. Juliet started her porn career at the age of 40, after many years working as an educator and journalist. She’s not your average porn queen (though who is?), but more than that, the circumstances under which she worked may have been a bit unusual. She got a lot of respect from everyone within the industry for her acting skills, her positive attitude, her love of sex, and — yes — her maturity. It’s my guess that she saw the most professional side of the porn biz. She also worked mostly in San Francisco, where many of the most interesting, skillful, and professional directors were based. She made her first film for Alex de Renzy, still acknowledged as one of the top directors ever. Annie, on the other hand, began making movies when she was quite young. Most of her porn career was spent in the more hard-core New York City, and — as she explains in her new performance show “Hard Core From the Heart” — she often found herself in movies with more hard-edged content, like S/M scenes and raunchy fetishism. On Annie’s side of the porn world, the scenarios explored in Boogie Nights didn’t look so unusual. In fact, for her they were probably kind of tame.

This discrepancy shouldn’t really surprise us. The porn industry is not, and has never been, monolithic. Various companies have made very different sorts of product. And at different times over the past thirty years, standards have been radically different. Things were being done on film in the ’70s that are rarely found in adult videos today — the most notorious example is fisting, which mainstream porn began cutting out in the early ’80s for fear of obscenity prosecutions. Today, outside of amateur or European porn, you just can’t find scenes of fisting. But even in the ’70s, that was a specialty act, and didn’t appear in most videos. While some porn directors and production companies focused on big-budget “movies with sex,” other filmmakers were busy exploring sides of sex that had rarely been shown on film. While some crews eschewed drugs and prided themselves on putting out professional, high-quality product, other crews — full of different individuals — partied down.

And really — which kind of crew do you think Hollywood (that uniquely American marketer of sleaze) wants to make a movie about?

If you’re curious about Golden Age porn, check out our next catalog — it features the best of our ’70s-era collection, which includes films by Juliet Anderson, Annie Sprinkle, John Holmes, and many other Golden Age stars. Examples include Behind the Green Door, Legends of Porn, Devil in Miss Jones, Insatiable, Autobiography of a Flea, Only the Best volumes 1-3, and Alice in Wonderland. And if you’re in the Bay Area, visit our stores — our rental library has classic videos that aren’t even available by mail order.

Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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