By John H. Foote
TIFF, 1997, 11 am.
The line to the screening was immense as word of mouth had leaked that this film was quite something. Having gone to the front and told press was lining up, I began trudging to the back when a hand shot out and pulled me into the line. My friend Katy, a publicist for a major studio, had saved me; a tiny black-haired beauty who should have been a runway model instead of a publicist, I liked her infectious energy. We had become friends over the previous year, chatting on the phone about the films her company was releasing, finally meeting here a few days ago.
With a wink she said for the benefit of those near us, “I kept looking for you? Where did you go?” she said, gently punching me in the arm. Now it must be said the publicists working for the movie companies are undeniably gorgeous and Katy was no exception, but I really did not fancy seeing a film about the porn industry beside this tiny goddess. Call me old fashioned.
We found excellent seats, the film was introduced by one of the producers as a “work in progress” and to a jammed packed house, the film unspooled.
Three hours later I emerged stunned. Katy hugged me and kissed my cheek before bouncing off to work, and I sat down on a bench with a hot coffee to absorb the energy, the absolute genius of what I had just experienced.
Two thoughts were front and centre: Paul Thomas Anderson was an astonishing new talent, a directing star had just been born, and would the Academy possess the courage to honour a film covering five important years in the pornographic movie world? There seemed little argument from anyone who had seen the film that Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore would be Oscar nominees, but who else? The picture was loaded with superb performances and cameos, the actors could dominate the acting nominations.
And everyone was talking about Paul Thomas Anderson.
Merging the grittiness and realism of Scorsese and Sidney Lumet with a Robert Altman inspired kaleidoscope of characters moving in and out of each other’s lives, and a Coppola sense of epic filmmaking without ever losing the extraordinary intimacy, Anderson was a genius. Literally, a star had been born, he was the talk of the festival.
Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is a dishwasher in a club in the San Fernando Valley frequented by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a director of hard-core pornographic films in 1977, and his actors. Hearing a rumour that Eddie is spectacularly endowed, he asks for a peek and is stunned by size of the young man’s penis. Offered work in porn films, Eddie leaps at the chance to escape his abusive, toxic mother (Joanna Gleason … astonishing) and turns up on Jack’s door, where he is welcomed with open arms by the family of porn actors and crew, presided over and fiercely protected by Jack, the father figure Eddie has longed for. He christens himself Dirk Diggler and quickly becomes best friends with Reed (John C. Reilly) a fellow actor, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), and Rollergirl (Heather Graham) who never takes off her roller skates. Dirk’s first audition is with Rollergirl, as Jack watches, and he passes with flying colours landing a role in Jack’s next film.
Very quickly, Dirk is a star within the industry, an instant success, creating a series of films in which porn is merged with an actual story. This was attempted in the seventies with limited success, but the attempt to become legitimate movies was indeed made.
Based loosely on the life of porn titan John Holmes, Dirk allows his use of drugs to govern his behaviour and, jealous of a newcomer, he and Jack break apart. Falling in with Reed, the two attempt to cut an album, but their use of cocaine burns through their savings and they cannot afford to pay the studio fees. Hooking up with former pornstar Todd (Thomas Jane), a dangerous addict, they cook up a scheme to sell some powder as cocaine to a dangerous drug dealer Rahad (Alfred Molina). The home of Rahad is filled with rock music as the dealer lip syncs to Rick Springfield (“he’s a friend of mine”) crooning “Jesse’s Girl” and his boy toy carelessly tosses around firecrackers, blasting to the flinches of Dirk and Reed, who both just want to leave perhaps feeling the danger in the air. When Todd makes his move, foolishly pulling a gun to rob Rahad, Dirk and Reed plead for their lives, truthfully knowing nothing about it. All hell breaks loose, bullets fill the air, Todd is shot dead, and Dirk, broke, broken, empty, turns up at Jack’s asking for his mentor’s help. Welcomed back with a bear hug, Dirk gets clean and very soon is back making movies with Jack and his crew.
The final, controversial shot of the film, Dirk is getting ready for his scene and removes his giant penis from his pants – 10, 12 inches of love muscle. The audience gasped, the credits roll, and Boogie Nights became legend.
OK, the member. Real or prosthetic? Obviously prosthetic folks, right? Well no one was saying.
Critics went mad for the film, loving how Anderson lovingly recreated the decadent seventies, with its disco music, platform shoes, polyester suits and red corvettes. Moving from the use of film, 16mm, to reusable video, we see the porn business evolve before our eyes, the evolution from an underground film, to a worldwide product hotly in demand.
Sex is portrayed in a matter of fact way, an end to a means, a business. As the actors are all good friends, it seems very easy and natural, newcomers coached through it by the veterans. The family Jack has created consists of damaged people, coming from broken homes, victims of various kinds of abuse, divorce or intense child custody fights that have damaged them deeming. They seek to belong; they seek family and find it with this group of porn misfits. Brilliantly the porn is never front and centre, and though there is plenty of nudity, we are comfortable with it because they are.
Anderson gives the film a heartbeat, a pulse through the sheer movement of his camera, and the exceptional performances of his stellar cast.
Wahlberg is wonderful as Dirk, an innocent aware has a gift and he believes everyone has one gift they are born with and should use. His attempts to cut a rock song are laughable, though more because of his belief it can happen missing the fact his singing is bad. Watching Reed, bop and jive in the booth is hilarious.
Moore is sensational as Amber Waves, a coke snorting mother and housewife who is locked in a fierce custody fight over her own kids. Gutted by losing them, she presides like a mother over this gaggle of broken misfits. Oscar should have honoured her with a win.
Burt Reynolds does his finest work here since Deliverance (1972), again proving critics wrong with a fine, tuned in performance. Anderson wrote the part for Warren Beatty who got cold feet being in a film about pornography, opening the door for a Reynolds. He won both the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Awards for supporting actor and like Moore was nominated for an Oscar, losing to Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting (1997).
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is heartbreaking as the boom operator Scotty, deeply in love with Dirk, struggling with his homosexuality, very much an outsider in the group, a tag along, like a puppy everyone puts up with. Equally fine are a Heather Graham as Rollergirl, and William H. Macy, tired of watching his wife have sex with others right under his nose, he shoots her before turning the gun on himself.
Alfred Molina very nearly steals the film in an eight-minute sequence as a Rahad, the coked up, wealthy drug dealer Todd attempts to cheat, then rob. Dancing to music, riffing an invisible guitar, not the least bit worried when at gun point, I could have watched an entire movie about this character.
Anderson keeps his camera moving, prowling through Jack’s house which is usually filled with people partying or making a film. The energy bouncing off the screen, coupled with the superb song track make the film an electrifying experience, a modern classic. Just 10 years later Anderson would deliver his greatest film, an American masterpiece, There Will Be Blood (2007), achieving the reverence that comes with being a great filmmaker.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.