That Old Feeling: When Porno Was Chic

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One step up from anonymity is pseudonymity. Paul Gerber, the writer-director of my own favorite among the early pornos, the 1971 School Girl, was listed as David Reberg on the credits. Damiano put the name Jerry Gerard on Deep Throat. That film's lead players, Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems, were really Linda Boreman and Herb Streicher. The star of Damiano's next film, Devil in Miss Jones, called herself Georgina Spelvin —George Spelvin being the all-purpose pseudonym for a stage actor doubling a role (and Georgette for an actress). Jamie Gillis, another star of proto-porn, says that when he saw his face on a blue-film poster, "I thought, 'My God, I'm a serious actor. People are gonna see this poster and it's gonna ruin my career!'"

Indeed, one of the clues that porn had emerged into respectability was that performers stopped caring about their nominal secrecy. Marilyn Chambers, the star of Jim and Artie Mitchell's Behind the Green Door, didn't mind being known, because it could mean she'd be famous.


The two production centers for early American public porn films were San Francisco and New York, and the movies reflected the temperaments of their respective home towns. The San Francisco films have a grainy, cinema-verite style and a behavioral openness that seems a residue of the Summer of Love. Sex is free, man, sex is beautiful, and as long as we're having sex, why not share it with the camera? I don't know much about the performers in films like Mona and School Girl, but I imagine they were friends of the directors rather than professional thespians.

New York porn was both slicker and edgier, more professional, as were its actors. Gillis cites a Shakespeare gig he did for Manhattan's Classic Stage Company. Eric Edwards starred in a Close-Up toothpaste commercial; it was pulled when he was spotted in a porn loop. In his 1975 memoir Here Comes Harry Reems (quoted in The Other Hollywood), the actor recalls, "I was doing Coriolanus in some marginal coffeehouse where they passed the hat around at the end of the performance." He got more valuable training when he signed on with two burlesque vets to be the set-up guy, or "third banana," on a tour that included Staten Island and Atlantic City. It was there he learned "the crazy doctor bit" that he would use as Dr. Young, the medical hygienist in Deep Throat.

Not all of the on-screen talent was in it for the art. "I purposely would not act," says 70s performer C.J. Laing. "I despised the people in these films that said they were actors. I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me! This is about fucking and sucking!'" But quite a few thought it was about process and progress. Once the off-Broadway types got into porn, they relied on the actor's invaluable gift for self-hypnosis to convince themselves it was somehow legit. Spelvin, who says she appeared on Broadway in The Pajama Game and Cabaret, recalls, of Devil in Miss Jones, "I took the role very seriously. I was doing Hedda Gabler here! The fact that there was hard-core sex involved was incidental as far as I was concerned. I was totally deluded. I had made myself believe that I was an actress. I was showing true life as it really was —including actual sex as it really happened —instead of the phony stuff that you got from Hollywood. That was my raison d'etre throughout the whole thing. It was okay; I was okay; I wasn't a slut."

Early porn directors also talked themselves into believing they were committing art. Ron Wertheim, Damiano's assistant director on Deep Throat, may only have been shooting porno loops but, he says in the documentary, "I approached those films as if I was Luc Godard or somebody." Damiano, who went directly from hairdressing to helming hard-core, had a similar sense of vocation. He says that after the success of Deep Throat, "If people wanted to interview me because I was a porno filmmaker, I just was not interested in talking to them. But if anyone wanted to speak to me because I made films, then I was happy to...."

His ambition was clear in Devil in Miss Jones. Spelvin plays Justine Jones, a lonely woman who slits her wrists in a bathtub. After dying a virgin, she tells a gatekeeper to eternity that she wants to live out her sexual urges, to be "filled, engulfed, consumed by lust." She briefly gets that wish —which includes intimate contact with bananas and grapes, a snake and (Damiano's favorite marital aid) a water tube. (He has a similar scene in Deep Throat and later devoted an entire movie, Water Power, to high colonics.) With plenty of boy/girl, girl/girl and orgy "action," Devil still takes itself solemnly enough to risk being laughable. But heaven knows it's intense, and an honorable attempt to blue the line between porn and "real" films. As for Spelvin, she isn't a slut; she is a theater-trained actress giving her all for her art.

Most directors with a left-field mega-hit would instantly crank out another picture in the same genre. Not Damiano. He used his cash, and cachet, from his silly porno comedy to make a super-serioso drama. Reading the script of Devil in Miss Jones, Reems told his friend: "Gerry, it's a steal. This is No Exit in its thinnest disguise." To which Damiano replied: "Well, what do you expect? I wrote it in a weekend." Though Devil was a substantial box-office hit, Spelvin notes that "it was not really a very successful porno film. I mean, guys came out of that film shaking their heads, saying, 'I came here to jerk off, I didn't come here to think!'" But that's what Damiano had in mind. He wasn't interested in being another Russ Meyer; he wanted to be Ingmar Fuckin' Bergman.

Which is just what we, in the world of serious filmgoing and film-watching, were waiting for.


Movies were getting sexier in the 60s. I mean films. European ones, Scandinavian ones: Bergman's The Silence, Vilgot Sjoeman's I Am Curious Yellow, that not-so-arty art-house hit I, a Woman. Cinema eroticism came with subtitles, until a renegade Hollywood faction got the word and married social and sexual issues in Medium Cool, Easy Rider and the Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy —all rated X, back when that designation simply meant a film for adults, not a porno film. Back when sexually urgent films were made for thinking adults. As I say, this was a long time ago.

There was also a healthy substratum of what were called avant-garde movies, shown at college film societies and, in New York, at Amos Vogel's pioneering Cinema 16 film club. Oh yes, it was instructive and ennobling, watching the elliptical 16mm films that some of us thought would take cinema into the post-narrative age and make it a truly modernist art. We also had to admit that movies like Bruce Conner's Cosmic Ray (a naked woman dances to a Ray Charles song) and Stan Brakhage's Window Water Baby Moving (birth, in gynecological closeup) were also, relatively speaking, hot stuff. Carolee Schneeman's Fuses was 18 minutes of lovemaking —lovemaking turned into an art movie because the artist had painted on, or baked, the film stock, but it was photographed whoopee all the same.

I saw Fuses at the Museum of Modern Art, where I worked for a couple of years in the late 60s, before becoming editor of Film Comment magazine, and where I met the foxy lady who would become my wife. MoMA was a jazzy place when the Vietnam War was wearing everyone down, and the new sensuality was perking most of us up. Members watched avant-porn in the private screening room; some had sex on the carpeted floor. (I should say had love, since three Film Department liaisons, Mary's and mine included, ended in late-60s marriages, and all of them are still going strong more than 35 years later.) One MoMA staffer and spouse had a brief business connection with blue cinema: they rented out their brownstone as a location for the porn epic Inside Jennifer Welles.

It wasn't all intramural fun and games. The Film Department also organized public screenings of hard-core quasi-art. On one electrifying evening in 1972, critic Stuart Byron introduced Fred Halsted's dreamy, grainy, gay-sex LA Plays Itself, about which I rather coyly wrote, in Film Comment: "The cul-de-sac of narrative porn may well be the sadomasochistic fist-in-the-socket scene ... which one critic described as the most spectacular sequence since De Mille's parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments." The crowd in the auditorium was respectful, if disconcerted (At the moment of full-forearm penetration, a few viewers whispered "Ouch!").


The receptiveness of the establishment to the outlaw sub-art in the early and middle 70s was evident at the two major film festivals I took part in, Cannes and New York. In Cannes' unofficial sidebar, known as the Market, Mary and I saw Behind the Green Door, Lasse Braun's Sensations, Max Pecas' Dictionary of Sex and Metzger's Score, where, after a screening of the film's soft-core version, we were invited to stay for an alternate final reel featuring hard-core sex. (Metzger went on to direct one more arty hard-core, the excellent Paris-shot SM drama The Image, before turning to light-hearted New York porn under the pseudonym Henry Paris.) The Market was just that: a film showcase to lure international buyers. But the porn movies on display fit snugly into the tone of the official Festival. They were serious (if not successful) works, as ambitious as they were lubricious.

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