By John H. Foote
26. BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)
Honest statement, I have not ever been a fan or watcher of hard-core pornography. The simple fact is I would rather be having sex than watching naked, writhing couples on a TV screen, and frankly just find most of porn insulting to women. What porn I have seen has always been misogynistic, which does not interest me or bring me any pleasure. Believe me I know of people who are obsessed with porn and watch it everywhere and on any device they can get it, from their televisions, laptops, computer screens, to their iPad and cell phones, they get their jollies watching. I sat beside a guy on the subway during TIFF and heard the sounds of porn from his phone as he watched in a heated daze. Um, OK. Workplaces often block out porn sites to avoid potential lawsuits (think about it) and frown intensely on the viewing of porn during hours of work. And despite being a warped version of the cinema I so love, porn thrives. The internet allowed an explosion of sorts in the porn industry, permitting amateurs creating their own films to showcase them on the web.
Walking in to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) at a special screening at TIFF in the fall of 1997, I was aware the film was not finished. It was being shown as a work in progress to gauge the reaction from audiences by Anderson and the studio. Three hours later Boogie Nights was the talk of TIFF and it was very clear that Anderson was the next important film director. Merging the intensity of Scorsese with the free flowing, many character, multi-narrative of Altman with the grittiness of Lumet, this young director with just his second feature turned all eyes onto himself with this film. Oscar buzz had begun before the film even left Toronto, and by the end of December Boogie Nights was on many critics (Mine!) year-end 10 best lists.
While not the seismic event of Pulp Fiction (1994) three years earlier, the making of that film certainly allowed Boogie Nights to happen. Without Pulp Fiction I doubt many films from the second half of the nineties would exist. Boogie Nights certainly would not.
Anderson had long been a watcher of pornography and wanted to make a film that shone the light on the under belly of the sometimes dubious industry over two decades, marking the transition from 16 mm film stock to video. Rather than spending the outrageous amount of twenty to thirty thousand dollars, video would allow them to cut down on film stock costs substantially as well as processing.
We are introduced to young Eddie (Mark Wahlberg), an innocent wide-eyed young man with an enormous penis in his pants, something he shows for a couple of bucks to interested parties. One is Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) who is stunned by what he sees, and being a well-known producer of porn, sees an immediate star in Eddie. He invites him to join his surrogate family, all who seem to converge on his house, some living there, others having places of their own. To get away from his hateful mother (Joanna Gleason) who takes pleasure in verbally abusing her son, Eddie moves in and is welcomed into the business, changing his name to Dirk Diggler. Among those around the pool on any given Sunday are Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) a major porn star and main girl of Horner’s, Rothschild (John C. Reilly), Roller Girl, no kidding, (Heather Graham), Scottie (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and many others we encounter through the sprawling narrative of the film. They are like a huge dysfunctional family who have sex together on film and make loads of money. Scottie, the grip on sets or boom operator, is in love with Dirk and attempts to kiss the stunned Dirk, and though initially shocked, they remain good friends.
Suffice to say Dirk becomes a big star, winning awards at the annual adult movie awards, and his star ascends within the group. But when cocaine is introduced into the porn world, Dirk is a willing participant, filling his mind with paranoia. He sees the latest new talent who he should welcome as he was welcomed as a threat and insults the young man and tries to push Jack around like the star he is. Back into the family comes Todd (Thomas Jane), based on John Holmes, a porn star who left Jack’s home and films to strike it out on his own but instead got involved with drugs and cocaine. Finally thrown out of Jack’s home, Dirk and Reed attempt a musical career (truly horrible) but find they cannot get their master tapes without paying their bill for studio time. Deeper and deeper they sink into debt, until Todd has the idea to scam a dangerous but wealthy drug dealer by selling him baking power as cocaine. They go to his home where Rahad (Alfred Molina) is dancing around his house in his underwear, obviously high, while his latest boy toy tosses lit firecrackers around the home, unnerving Dirk. They realize they are about to try and scam a dangerous guy and want to get in and get out. But Todd foolishly has other ideas and pulls a gun to rob Rahad of whatever he has in the home and, most important, the safe in the bedroom. Both Dirk and Reed are terrified, especially when Todd shoots and kills the bodyguard, and Rahad runs into the bedroom and emerges with a shotgun and begins firing. Todd is killed, and the boys manage to get out, escaping barely with their lives. Broke, broken, homeless, frightened, Dirk returns to Jack where, after a long apology, he is welcomed back into the open arms of his friend and father figure. All goes back to how it was; the family complete again. The only major change is that porn films are now shot on video, making them cheaper to make, they now have the ability to make them much faster, and the millions are pouring in.
And of course, at the end of the film, we finally see what all the fuss is about with Dirk, that massive member hiding in his pants. Obviously a prosthetic, but yes, we get it. He is huge, and this is why he is a big star.
Boogie Nights was well reviewed by the critics, who favourably compared the film to the works of Scorsese and Altman, Lumet and Pakula, and suffice to say a new star director was born. With his camera in constant motion, the film had an inner energy that was exciting to behold, it never seemed to cease moving.
And the performances!
Surrounding Wahlberg were a host of stunning supporting performances that seemed to elevate his work. An average actor at best, Wahlberg has certainly grown as an actor since this film. Here he is a naïve young man who has no idea of where he can go in the porn industry with his size. Unsure of himself, with little or no self esteem thanks to his vicious harpy of a mother, brilliantly portrayed by Joanna Gleason (just hateful), she actually gives him the drive he needs to join Jack’s family and cast.
In a career best performance Burt Reynolds is superb as Jack Horner. Though the part was written for Warren Beatty, and Reynolds initially hated the performance, once the rave reviews started coming in, he changed his tune. Calm, very aware of the egos he is managing constantly, he is the surrogate father to many and lover to Amber. It is a beautiful performance from Reynolds, his finest work since Deliverance (1972).
Moore is brilliant as Amber Waves, a former wife and mother now a famous porn star seeking visitation with her children, though constantly denied because of the world she inhabits. Thus her work becomes where she can be a mother to the younger actors. Long established in the porn world, she becomes den mother to Rollergirl and Dirk, taking care of them but at the same time being a willing sexual partner on screen.
Heather Graham is a nice surprise as Rollergirl, who in one scene explodes in fury at being disrespected and her rage is both shocking and upsetting. Is it self-loathing on her part? Possibly, or maybe she just feels she deserves the same respect as other girls despite what she is famous for.
William H. Macy has a nice role as a technician on the set who is constantly discovering his wife having sex with other men. He finally gets tired of it, finds her in bed with a guy, goes to his car, gets a gun, shoots them both dead before turning the gun on himself! Phillip Seymour Hoffman is all awkward foolishness as Scottie, trying so hard to be as cool as Dirk and Reed but never being able to do so. He is the least cool guy at the parties, on set, in life and sadly knows it.
I quite liked Don Cheadle too as a porn star dreaming of getting out of that life to operate his own stereo store, and the manner in which he gets the money to do so is both horrific, yet strangely just.
For me the finest performance in the film comes from Alfred Molina as drug lord Rahad, an energetic, bouncy performance in which he creates a man who is pure danger. The moment Dirk and Reed go with Todd into this man’s home, they want out, because you can feel something very bad is going to happen, and there is nothing they can do about it. The terror begins the moment they walk in and hear the firecrackers bursting in the room, and then the fake cocaine is sold for five grand. Handed a stack of bills, they should leave, but Todd foolishly has other plans which he did not relate to his friends. Guns are drawn, fired and Todd is shot and killed, as Rahad follows Dirk and Reed out the door blasting at them with his shotgun as they make their escape. Molina is stunning in the small role, energizing the film like a bolt of lightning.
The screening I attended announced the arrival of a major new talent who had made a film about the porn industry with very few actual sex scenes and those in the film were matter of fact and in good taste. Hailed by critics as an American masterpiece, Boogie Nights was nominated for three Academy Awards – Best Supporting Actor (Reynolds), Best Supporting Actress (Moore) and Best Screenplay. It was thought, certainly by me, that it might be a Best Picture and Best Director nominee, but that would come later for Anderson. Today over 20 years later Boogie Nights still packs a wallop.
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.