At the beginning of Bob Chinn’s California Gigolo, a button-cute and tarted up Kandi Barbour makes eyes at John Holmes and they begin a strange back and forth tease that, after a suspended cable car ride, culminates at the top of a mountain. Cutting between the two as she gives him fadeaways and grins, John Holmes sports a busted bird’s nest of hair and peers over the huge bags in his eyes looking like he’s been awake for days and could pass out at any second. When they finally get to the top and the credits come to a close, they share a sweet and passionate kiss. In reality, Holmes threw a bitch fit about the shoot and, when they reached the top of the summit, he steadfastly refused to do a sex scene with Barbour. Holmes played hardball much like the time he tried to pull the same shit with Chinn and Georgina Spelvin in The Jade Pussycat in 1977. That time, Chinn won and Holmes did the scene. This time, Holmes won the round.

This is California Gigolo in a nutshell. It’s all about John Holmes, and what John Holmes wants, John Holmes gets. As a film, there ain’t much on the surface, but it’s also not ineffective filler. And, like many productions around this time that featured Holmes playing a semi-fictional version of himself, it’s pretty fascinating in a specific way that only an adult film could be. It’s an ode to just what a tough fucking racket it was to be John Holmes, and with every harried eye-roll he throws off when being coaxed into a sexual situation or every time he checks his watch to make sure he’s on schedule for his next encounter, he seems to be quietly screaming “heavy weighs the crown!”

But, as stated before, the cracks are beginning to show as Holmes looks haggard and spent through most of California Gigolo, the film capturing some of the tread as it was coming off the tire. For in California Gigolo, Holmes plays SoCal stud John Loftin whose daily calendar is packed full of encounters with sex-starved women. But even played as a soft parody of his then-superstar status, it’s also easy to see how John Holmes’s growing drug problem and endless supply of sexual partners didn’t do a lot to help him not completely stumble down a rabbit hole where his onscreen persona and his offscreen life fused together in a coke-frosted construction of his own making. Fact and fiction always played a big role in Holmes’s real life so why not a movie that does the same thing? For not only is John Holmes-as-John Loftin an impossibly hung superstud with an address book full of clients, he is also an iron-pumping health nut and a wildcatting oilman who funds and conducts his own geological surveys off the coast of Santo Domingo.

And, goddamnit, has it been mentioned just how IMPOSSIBLY busy John Holmes is in California Gigolo? After squeezing in an early encounter with Joan (Liza Dwyer), a woman who first gets turned on by an obscene phone caller and eventually gets to illustrate why she’s called ‘The Screamer’, John simply cannot fit Mrs. X (Kitty Shayne) into the day. John subcontracts her to his manservant Gomez (an always charming Don Fernando) and their resulting sex scene is playful, fun, engaging, and might very well be the best one on the movie.

Loftin gives Mrs. X up so he can keep his appointment with Mrs. Orangewood (Veri Knotty), a ball-busting businesswoman in a Jean Harlow fright wig who likes to scream into her phone and at her assistant, Kathy, with a More cigarette wedged between her fingers (because this is 1979). Hot and bothered in the middle of the work day, she masturbates to a magazine of John Holmes (or is that John Loftin?) which works towards showcasing Knotty’s big parlor trick of tying her labia in a knot (that’s showbiz, folks). Loftin, dressed as a window washer and dicking around on a high-rise scaffolding no average male prostitute would actually think was worth the money to be on, invades the office space and, in quick order, Mrs. Orangewood. Similar to a scene played out between Paul Thomas and Laurien Dominique in Hard Soap, Hard Soap, the scene isn’t bad but, oh my Christ, is this ever an awfully elaborate trick. It begs the question as to why he tossed Kitty Shayne to the side under the guise of finding her “too weird with her games and her costumes” yet allows himself to be put in mortal danger for Veri Knotty. I suppose that for a man who chases the dragon of ecstasy as hard as John Loftin does, the simple pleasures of having hot sex with a fiery red-head dressed in a Girl Scout uniform are just too simple.

One of California Gigolo’s commercial hooks gives it the distinction of belonging to a tiny subgenre of films in which real folks would find their way into an adult film production just to get test driven by John Holmes in front of a camera. Never one to let an opportunity pass him by, Chinn’s fellow west coast filmmaker and friend Carlos Tobalina built two features in 1978 around this very premise (Lusty Princess and I Am Always Ready) with a game, curious, and mysterious young lady named Ronnie Ross. In California Gigolo, non-professional Vanessa Tibbs fills the bill as a bored socialite who comes across Loftin after he’s run out of gas. Surprisingly, Tibbs has a real easygoing aura and a sparkly charm. In an ode to 1971’s Johnny Wadd, Bob Chinn’s earliest work with Holmes, Tibbs pulls a Mrs. Hamilton and inserts a wine bottle in her vagina while Holmes watches on in bemused amazement. Moments later, Jay Phillips’s music takes on a percussive, bongo-infused break at the point Holmes and Tibbs’s connubial union explicitly commences, a highly reminiscent leitmotif highly reminiscent Chinn’s go-to selections in the nascent days of hardcore features. It is a small pity that, according to Chinn’s memoirs, the scene was an awkward one to shoot as Tibbs’s husband was allowed on set and was present during filming which sounds like a small nightmare.

At 70 minutes, it’s not as if much of a commitment is asked by California Gigolo and, honestly, it all looks pretty great. A credited Laszlo Croveny quit after one day of production so assistant cameraman Joao Fernandes filled in the clutch until Chinn regular Ken Gibb came in to close it out, capturing the opening with Barbour, the Santa Monica beach work (some of the finest in the film), and some of the setups in between. Art Director Bill Wolf completes one of his last assignments for Chinn and though the majority of the sets in California Gigolo are tastefully functional if not terribly spectacular, Liza Dwyer’s red room set with the provocatively cracked curtains is a superfine piece of work. As was the case with parent-production Hot Legs, Jay Phillips’s is credited with the music and, though the Dwyer/Holmes scene seems constricted by its slow-dance, teenage maltshop instrumental, the score for the rest of the film is pretty great, especially its reggae interlude during the beach montage and the lite Burbank-funk present in the Holmes/Knotty scene.

While I’d never say a cross word about filmmaker Paul Schrader (outside his goofy social media posts), it’s hard for me to believe that after spending a considerable period of time in 1979 immersed in the world of west coast adult filmmaking while making Hardcore, American Gigolo is made in a vacuum where Schrader has never heard of or seen California Gigolo. Released the following year, American Gigolo likewise is a glimpse into the life of a high-wattage, Beverly Hills male sex worker. As one is pure fluff and one a serious-minded neo-noir, the most shallow cosmetics is where the comparison between the two films ends. There is, however, another interesting parallel between them. In Schrader’s film, the film’s cocksure protagonist stumbles into a murder mystery and rapidly finds himself humbled by the fact that his transactional relationships didn’t have deeper roots attached to them. In Chinn’s film we’re watching a superstar’s id running amok and being very pleased with itself just as it crested a hill and began to fast-track toward a very real murder mystery of its own. Unfortunately for Holmes, his own story didn’t get a redemptive ending inspired by Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket.

Shoulda have stuck with Mrs. X, John. I hear Gomez is doing well out on his boat these days.

(C) Copyright 2023, Patrick Crain

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