It’s a strange thing to consider but for all of the power that sex wields to start wars, topple the powerful, and put people into financial or personal ruin, the porn industry is small time. That’s not to say that the porn business doesn’t make boatloads of cash. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I mean, if one really wants to believe that the only things subsidizing the porn industry are the spending habits of amoral perverts, that person may want to try and show their math on that assertion if only to sooner realize that there just aren’t that many degenerates wandering the earth. In other words, a whole lot of people you encounter at work, in the streets, and (gasp) at church have at least dipped a toe or, more likely, engaged in a full baptism into one of the four corners in the pool of the sex industry. But yet, for all of the dough the films generate, there are precious few hardcore actors or directors that have been able to transcend the hermetic shell of the adult film world either in name or deed. For every John Holmes, Ron Jeremy, or Sasha Grey, there are a thousand others whose stopover into the world of porn occurs because it’s a place that, if they can’t build a legacy, they can definitely make a buck.
It is because of this that, despite actually working at a General Cinemas theater at the time, I’m unsure as to what went through the public’s mind when they saw the expertly cut and energetic trailers for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights prior to its release in the summer of 1997. Here was a film that was going to be playing in the multiplexes and malls across America that would, in seemingly frank terms, follow the story of an ersatz John Holmes as he navigated the literal ups and downs in the pornographic film industry in the 1970’s and 80’s. Would America be able to reckon with its very real attachment to pornography to feel comfortable enough to go and see it and give it the respect it deserved or would the film flop given the culture’s mind-bogglingly puritanical attitude towards THIS KIND OF SEX™️? If there is anything to challenge the accepted notion that sex sells, it’s to invite people to sit through two-and-a-half hours of it.
But Boogie Nights was a hit and, surprisingly, a quite sizable one. Anchored in the front by a dynamite and keenly sensitive central performance from a then-risky Mark Wahlberg and, in the back, by a jaw-dropping return to form by Burt Reynolds with incredible, fearless performances by Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (among others) between them, Boogie Nights was received as a rollicking, exhilarating American epic that was an intoxicating mix of Scorsese-like rhythms and editing being navigated by Demme/Ashby-like heart across an Altman-like canvas; the most joyous piece of pop filmmaking since Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction three years earlier.
Boogie Nights appeared at just the right time in America to make the splash that it did. The years of peace and economic expansion under the Clinton administration turned the 90’s into a freewheeling party which saw the birth of the internet and, also, a certain lax in our social mores as latchkey kids from the 70’s who grew up sneaking peeks at their parents’ poorly hidden porn stashes rolled into their twenties with a more permissive, NBD attitude towards Boogie Nights’s subject matter. All of the moments within the film that focused on the lo-fi approach to adult filmmaking (and its spot-on recreations of the final product; a direct homage to hardcore auteur Bob Chinn) were met with the appropriately knowing chuckles of an audience that couldn’t do anything but acknowledge that they understood exactly what they were looking at and, in the words of Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, it was (at long last) ok with them. And it was the good fortune of everyone cast in the film that the worm of American culture had somewhat turned as Boogie Nights is a virtual “who’s who” of talent that was just beginning to crest a professional summit out of indie-world and the film’s success would propel almost every single one of them to mainstream fame.
One of the things that has continued to work in Boogie Nights’s favor almost a quarter century later is its anticipation of the succeeding generation’s devotion to 100% acceptance and the encouragement of full positivity among its peers. To this end, Anderson doesn’t excuse his characters’ flaws but is ultimately sympathetic to all of them (save and except Diggler’s mother, Joanna Gleason in a ferociously monstrous performance). The characters are small time but, almost presciently, exist in a world of total support and encouragement; one in which, from the point of view of those on the ground in the actual time and place, seemed like more of a legitimate enterprise than, say, selling blowjobs on Hollywood Boulevard for a hot meal and/or somewhere to sleep. So maybe it’s technically not especially correct (and borderline irresponsible) for Julianne Moore’s mother-surrogate, Amber Waves, to fawn over Wahlberg’s decidedly not-very-talented (but massively endowed) Dirk Diggler as “so fucking talented,” but is it really worse than how his actual mother treats him in the neatly trimmed “normal” world of Torrance? Sure, Jessie St. Vincent’s (Melora Walters) paintings are uniquely awful but, really, are they any more subpar than some of the tacky prints that adorned the walls of suburbia at the same time? Are those adult award shows any more moronic and stupidly self-congratulatory than the Oscars? Certainly, the ephemeral static attached to the porn industry doesn’t make it look like the most ideal environment to people who are used to living a nine-to-five existence but, as the film makes crystal clear, the need-driven support structure within the industry is mighty alluring for the socially outcast, the marginalized, and the abused. Or, as retired adult film actress Hyapatia Lee said in an interview in 2013, “If you have a normal life, you don’t run off and join the circus.”
And Boogie Nights was never going to be a movie that reveled in its orgiastic excess for its own sake. Much like Goodfellas, there is a real “set ‘em up and knock ‘em down” formula to the film’s structure. The film’s first half looks like a total blast of wanton abandon; an effervescent celebration of the largesse of the sexual revolution replete with a pulsating soundtrack and the promise of a perpetual California sunset. As an audience member, you WANT to be there, even if you’re just hanging out in a lounge chair poolside while drinking a margarita while everything else swirls around you. But, sweet Christ, brutal is the comedown that occurs in the second half of the film when the organic pleasures of the 70’s are replaced with the synthetic coke high of the 80’s. A nonstop stack of nightmares including a murder-suicide, crippling addiction and its accompanying sexual dysfunction, mounting legal challenges, the cold yet practical move from film to video, and violent moments of terrifying, rock-bottom sobriety show that Boogie Nights is just as eager to argue the downslope as convincingly as it does the ascension, though without any kind of sanctimony in regards to its characters’ plights or their profession.
But as much as Robert Altman utilized the titular city to examine America as a whole in 1975’s Nashville, Anderson is using the porn industry in the bracketed time frame to explore the fluid boundaries of family much like he did in Hard Eight the year before and he would in Magnolia two years later. And, to be sure, the world of Boogie Nights remains his best Petri dish in which to study this dynamic as the film’s libertine atmosphere mixes with its members’ outcast and discarded statuses which create disarmingly moving and powerful moments throughout the film, most especially those involving any combination of Wahlberg, Reynolds, and/or Moore.
And so it is that Boogie Nights endures not just because it’s a naughtily hilarious and dramatically satisfying film, well-remembered by Gen-Xers who pine for the sun-kissed days of the mid-90’s. It endures due to the fact that it was written and directed by a guy not yet twenty eight who could resist the easy temptation of sniggering at its subject matter in favor of focusing on the longer view that included poignancy, care, and familial love shared among its characters, ensuring that it would continue to pay dividends to its audience well into the future.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain