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Friday, March 22, 2013

Harry Reems and the Death of the Sexual Revolution

NOTE: This post isn't particularly salacious, but the links may be, so click at your own discretion.


It may be difficult for today's generation, with its easy access to all manner of online pornography, to understand that there was a time when people had to get really creative when it came to their lustful cravings. Sears catalogues, National Geographic magazines and a glimpse of their second cousins all provided fantasy fodder.

Naturally, the birth of film gave birth to the pornographic film, and France, of course, was first to jump on the bandwagon. These films were made for brothels to help waiting customers pass the time, kind of like watching the video at the entrance of the old "Back to the Future" ride while waiting to get in.

The invention of the smaller and lighter 16mm format gave birth to "stag" films that became regular viewing at smoke-filled men's clubs and union lodges all around the country. And they became Americanized: by the 1930s, lookalikes of then-famous female stars were appearing in porno shorts, allowing lusty males to fantasize about what Jean Harlow would look like naked and in flagrante delicto. There were also "Tijuana bibles," crude comic books depicting the same.

Even though Hollywood was kind of naughty during the silent era and even for a couple of years in the '30s, it cleaned up its act after stories of scandals, addiction and the stars' dissolute lives spread across America. Fearing state-enforced censorship, the studio heads instituted the Hays Code, a forerunner to the MPAA film ratings of today, which assured that any film released by a major studio would provide wholesome (yawn) family entertainment.

As a result, "the 40 thieves," an opportunistic gang of theatrical showmen, many of whom started as carnival hucksters, sprang up and began traveling from town to town, setting up shop in individual (often abandoned) theaters and screening beat-up prints of films they'd acquired by legal and not-so-legal means, giving them such provocative titles as Sex Madness and She Shoulda Said No.

They promised graphic sex on the screen but instead delivered cheesy, low-budget VD tracts or puritanical warnings against sexual misbehavior. Instead of sex at 24 frames per second, audiences got a lot of blather. To keep the horny hayseeds in attendance from busting up the theaters, these slippery exhibitors would put on a "square-up" reel consisting of random footage of genitalia to quell the angry masses.

The '50s gave rise to American arthouse cinema, and I don't mean today's definition of highbrow imported or independent fare. I mean international films re-edited to emphasize the nudity and sex, however insignificant. Even the great Ingmar Bergman became fodder for exploitation when his early film, Summer with Monika, was re-edited for American drive-in theaters, cutting out most of the plot and emphasizing the frolicking.

And mainstream Hollywood took a couple of shots at freedom, too. Elia Kazan's Baby Doll, with a screenplay by Tennessee Williams, was denied a seal for its depiction of a child bride (Carroll Baker) romanced by a surly stranger (Eli Wallach). And Otto Preminger's The Moon is Blue dared to mention the word "virgin." Gasp!

By the 1960s, the Code was on its last legs. The changing times and the rise of the youth movement made the restrictive strictures ridiculously chaste for these new audiences. Frank Sinatra wanted to graphically depict heroin addiction in The Man with the Golden Arm. Walter Hill wanted to show Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway blasted to shit in Bonnie and Clyde. And, finally, old stalwart Harry Warner campaigned to allow Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to play George and Martha in the 1966 film adaptation of Edward Albee's notorious Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with all of the salty language more or less intact.

Then of course there were those goddamn hippies. Always protesting the war, taking drugs, getting nekkid. Hell, they were even nekkid onstage in New York in Hair. And they were changing people's minds. No longer was sex something to be marginalized or hidden away; it was now something that should be celebrated — and preferably have a sunflower painted on it.

So we're poised in this world of instability and change. By 1972, the Vietnam war was a never-ending meat grinder. Nixon was in the White House. Suburbanites were indulging in key parties and started to dabble in the same drugs the hippies are doing. And then came Deep Throat.

"Babe, we've already done the swapping...let's go see that movie." My Dad and his wife even went to see it. They never talked about it to us kids, of course, but I can imagine what they saw: a bunch of white, middle-class couples sitting in a theater, shocked by the coarse images being beamed on the screen, or maybe the sounds of masturbation around them.


And, good God, it's no masterpiece. Made for $25,000, it's grainy, ugly and certainly more repulsive than titillating. But it eventually racked up $600 million and became a cause celebre, stirring up a national debate about obscenity. Police raided movie theaters and seized prints. Even projectionists were arrested. All this did what make it more of a must-see than ever for mainstream adult audiences, and they went in droves.

Now let's focus on the two unlikely stars of that film. Harry Reems, who passed away this past Monday at the relatively young age of 65, always looked like a creepy guidance counselor to me with his giant moustache. And Linda Lovelace, gone since 2002, didn't exactly possess movie star looks either. But Deep Throat hit at just the right time, when America was at its most permissive, and porno chic became the order of the day.

Reems originally signed on as lighting director, but when the man hired to portray the doctor didn't show, well...

Reems actually got arrested and indicted for his involvement in Throat, but it was subsequently overturned. Amazingly, he continued to work in porn until 1989. Then, he entered a 12-step program, got religion, moved to Utah and started selling real estate!

Lovelace made a couple more films (if you don't count the one she made before Deep Throat, a silent short with a dog), the R-rated Deep Throat Part II (what's the point?) and Linda Lovelace for President, but she became an anti-pornography activist, even testifying before congress. She died in a car accident in 2002 at age 53.

Anther big star of the era was Marilyn Chambers, who ironically started out as a model for Ivory Snow soap powder. Her big breakthrough was 1972's Behind the Green Door, in which she engages in a lengthy bout with well-endowed African-American boxer Johnny Keyes. The notorious Mitchell Brothers, who made the film, paid her a then-unheard of salary and percentage of the profits because they realized her wholesome good looks contrasted with all the extreme sexual acts she was performing would make the film a sensation. And it was.

Chambers tried to move into mainstream, even starring in David Cronenberg's Rabid, and she's not bad in it at all, but porno called and she carried on into the 2000s. Interestingly, she was married to Lovelace's ex, Chuck Traynor, for ten years. She died in 2009 at age 56.

Probably the most remembered — and notorious — porn star of the era was John Holmes. Skinny and not particularly attractive, he nevertheless possessed an enormous penis and was very...productive (hence the nickname "Johnny Wadd"). He was the first of the 70s superstars to go, and it's his story that really drew the curtain on the era.

He made hundreds and hundreds of features and "loops" (eight-to-10-minute films shot silent and sold in adult bookstores). I saw him in action in The Erotic Adventures of Candy (1977) at a theater in Mishawaka, Indiana.

It was kind of sad; the theater had obviously been the town's Radio City Music Hall at one time but had been reduced to porn films and live shows as the new mall multiplexes lured customers to the suburbs. The strippers were so skanky; one of them snatched the glasses off a guy's head, rubbed them on her crotch and gave them back. Instead of putting the specs back on, he held them out in front of him as if hoping for some disinfectant!

But I digress. Holmes hit superstardom with a series of Johnny Wadd action pornos. But in 1981 he was arrested for the Wonderland murders, a drug deal gone bad. Finally acquitted in 1982, he served 100 days for contempt of court.

Porn, meanwhile, began a transformation. Gone were the shot-on-film epics with attempts at actual storylines. Now it was manufactured quickly on videotape and plots were jettisoned in favor of churning out tons of product to feed the VCRs that had suddenly become part of America's entertainment centers. Gone too were the hippie types with natural breasts and prodigious public hair, replaced by shaved, plucked and implanted porn queens with the sexual attractiveness of blow-up dolls.

Holmes managed to flourish in this new world, often in cameos or below the line, but the onslaught of AIDS changed the face of porn and sexuality in general. People became fearful as their friends and neighbors were taken by the disease and the government ignored it. AIDS took Holmes, too, in 1988, but by that time the Sexual Revolution was already a fading memory.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great history! I recall now that my father had a Dumb Dora comic. Now I understand!

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