It’s big dicks, disco balls and addiction in Paul Thomas Anderson’s dazzling depiction of the porn industry’s golden age
They say everyone has a special talent. Some are artistic. Others are practical or good with their hands. Many are born athletes, possessed by the kind of unwavering ambition shared by the world’s great entrepreneurs. Some, like Boogie Nights‘ charismatic porn director Jack Horner, have an eye for talent, are leaders who charm, manage and manipulate on a personable, almost familial level, but it’s not always so complicated. Sometimes it’s simple, a case of pure physical genetics. Talent, defined as a ‘natural aptitude or skill’, can often be something as elementary as crossing your eyes, rolling your tongue, turning your eyelids inside-out, or, in the case of Mark Wahlberg’s endearingly naïve protagonist Dirk Diggler, having a big dick.
Diggler’s penis isn’t just big, it’s huge, 13 inches to be exact, but unlike the person it’s attached to, it’s much more than a slab of innocuous meat. Through the lens of Boogie Nights writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s a tool for superstardom, a precious artefact, a weapon of pure, mystical power and persuasion, forging a career path almost entirely by itself. Horner, who views sex with the queer detachment of an everyday commodity, senses it from across the dancefloor of a nightclub where the seventeen year-old works as a dishwasher. Diggler, real name Eddie Adams, isn’t particularly special at first glance, but he’s handsome and innocent enough to become Horner’s latest porn flick protégé, even if his mother, an emotional train wreck pinging off the walls of her suburban stronghold, is adamant that her child is a dumb loser with no redeeming qualities. He’s certainly dumb, incredibly so, and for the time being very much a loser blowing in the wind, but if Horner’s instincts are right (and in this business they usually are) the kid is a born star.
Not only is Horner right about Adams, he completely outdoes himself, and it’s all in the trouser department. Girls, drawn to the kid’s spectacular bulge, are queueing up to take the industry’s newest weapon for a test drive. World-weary porn stars are equally enamoured, losing themselves in the moment and begging for his seed at the expense of the all-important money shot. Even male acquaintances, gay or otherwise, are immediately smitten. There’s a brilliant scene, juxtaposed with the monotonous everyday mechanics of the porn industry, that captures his special something, that bright spark amid the clockwork tedium. A fame-hungry Adams, instantly at home with his surrogate family, performs for the very first time. There are nerves on his part, creases to be ironed out, but once the magic wand is unleashed the crew are instantly spellbound, time standing still for a few glorious moments. Suddenly full of confidence, Adams no longer wants to be referred to by his real name. Against all odds he has found his true calling.
Initially, Boogie Nights is very much a celebration of not only the movie’s star, but his extended family of industry players, the kind so dysfunctional they make Family Guy‘s the Griffins look like they’ve stumbled onto the set of Little House on the Prairie. There’s a likable, Brandy Bunch charm to not only Diggler, but Horner’s entire entourage, a decadent band of spiritually wounded strays who find solace in an indecorous bubble that makes their other lives, existing on the tenuous fringes of emotional malfunction, seem toxic by comparison. It’s flighty and innocuous to begin with, capturing the period’s bell bottom grandeur, but even before the gang’s almost complete capitulation as both a family unit and individuals, events are littered with moments of darkness, overdosing teenagers removed from Horner’s premises with the rational indifference of a morning clean-up.
When I close my eyes, I see this thing, a sign, I see this name in bright blue neon lights with a purple outline. And this name is so bright and so sharp that the sign – it just blows up because the name is so powerful… It says, “Dirk Diggler.”Eddie Adams
Despite such barely registered distractions, life is good for the industry’s first real stars, particularly the newly self-christened Diggler, a boy consumed by fame and fortune who is still only ankle deep in the shallow tide of a soon-to-be tumultuous sea. As growing habits simmer beneath the everyday banal of sun-kissed glamour, flashes of reality threaten a solar eclipse, but there’s such a humour and energy to events, a Scorsese flamboyance that celebrates the unseemly and immoral as though existing in a freaky, queerly uniform alternate universe, the movie’s colourful ensemble of characters, portrayed just as ineffably by some of the era’s finest actors, uniquely endearing. There’s a real sense of family and togetherness, of honesty and warmth and unity, all of it captured with charm and amiability. There’s no real sense of stigma. These people enjoy each others’ company. For the most part they’re content with their arrangement.
Of course, this is the late 70s, an era when addictions were formed and values relinquished. Even the porn industry, as expanded upon in David Simon’s astonishing period piece The Deuce, a show that owes more than a debt to Anderson’s inimitable comic drama, was facing a dramatic fall in standards, not just in terms of production values and artistic endeavour, but general morality. The advent of home video significantly reduced costs in the adult entertainment industry, the comparatively tricky and time-consuming processes of old made obsolete. All notions of artistic adult filmmaking, however tenuous, went out of the window. In sync with the evolving global model, convenience and mass production was the future as society raced towards an era of triple X-rated films, cosmetically enhanced body parts and devastating AIDS epidemics, the kind celebrated as heaven-sent retribution in America’s most extreme religious corners. It was a brave, unscrupulous new world tinged with everyday tragedy, a sobering end to an era of experimentation and free love.
Boogie Nights benefits from a flawless ensemble of talent. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a cast this impressive in any film of any era. Wahlberg is exceptional in his breakout role, banishing his pop star stigma with a truly fearless performance of astute comic timing and genuine despair. It’s amazing that he was able to more than hold his own against some of Hollywood’s finest. Anderson wanted either Leonardo DiCaprio or Wahlberg as Diggler after seeing their projection of drug-addled destruction in Scott Kalvert’s biographical drama The Basketball Diaries. The former chose Titanic, a movie that catapulted him to Hollywood superstardom. DiCaprio, arguably the finest actor of his generation, would surely have knocked it out of the park as Diggler, but in hindsight it’s hard to imagine anyone else but Wahlberg in the role. Taking his cue from a life of manufactured, pop culture contrivance, he has the pretty, likable aura of Eddie and the raw, unpredictable electricity of Dirk down to an almost effortless tee.
Burt Reynolds is nothing short of a revelation as porn industry patriarch Horner, a practical businessman with the persuasive powers of a circus master who, despite his pimp-like qualities, has something of an artistic vision, exhibiting ethical sentiments in an industry seemingly devoid of them. He also has the uncanny ability, like any professional exploiter, to make people feel important and secure and ultimately loved. He’s in it for himself, sure, but when the going is good he’s good to those who make it possible. He can be just as ruthless when the chips are down. There’s betrayal, startling instances of moral insouciance, a ruthless ignorance to the nebulous nature of his ship, but there’s a genuine affection there. In an industry crawling with emotionally unstable waifs, it could be worse. Much worse.
Despite almost universal praise for an Oscar-winning performance that proved something of an acting renaissance for the star, Reynolds wasn’t so enamoured with the way things turned out. He even expressed a desire to never work with Anderson again, citing a lack of chemistry personality-wise, but that wasn’t his only issue. Though he admitted to having never seen Boogie Nights, he was unhappy with the movie’s themes, which were pretty radical at the time and much more controversial onscreen, claiming to have turned the role down an incredible seven times before finally being convinced by his agent, who he immediately fired, despite glowing reviews for the film. On his dislike for Anderson, Reynolds would explain, “I think mostly because he was young and full of himself. Every shot we did, it was like the first time [that shot had ever been done]. I remember the first shot we did in Boogie Nights, where I drive the car to Grauman’s Theater. After he said, “Isn’t that amazing?” And I named five pictures that had the same kind of shot. It wasn’t original. But if you have to steal, steal from the best.”
Harsh words considering this was only rookie director Anderson’s second feature after the 1996 crime thriller Hard Eight, an extension of his acclaimed Sundance Film Festival short Cigarettes and Coffee. Despite receiving glowing reviews for his first effort, the 26-year old, who would go on to have an impressive career, earning Academy Award nominations for Best Screenwriter (Magnolia), Best Director (There Will Be Blood) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Inherent Vice), was still a relative unknown who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It was Anderson’s fortunate meeting with New Line Cinema executive Michael De Luca, whose philosophy was to take a chance on Hollywood’s newest and brightest rather than compete for the services of the industry’s big players, that led to his breakout movie. New Line, who would hit it big with The Lord of the Rings in 1999, had been transformed from a struggling indie company into a relatively successful industry player thanks in large part to the success of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, but they were far from secure, significant losses on two 1996 releases, The Island of Dr. Moreau and Renny Harlin’s criminally underrated The Long Kiss Goodnight, enforcing a more frugal and cautious approach.
For the longest time, Boogie Nights looked like three duds in a row for the stumbling New Line. Originally inspired by an article about adult film star Shauna Grant’s rise to stardom, Boogie Nights was somewhat ahead of its time thematically. Scorsese had broke the mould in terms of glamourizing unseemly characters back in 1990 with revolutionary gangster epic Goodfellas, a film that refused to highlight the pitfalls above all else, but the porn industry was an even more taboo subject that predictably repelled test audiences. So negatively received were test screenings that the film was almost relegated to the ignominious realms of direct-to-video until proving a critical hit at the New York Film Festival, which is often a more reliable signifier of a film’s quality. New Line founder Robert Shaye, who had always put a lot of stock in test screenings, would even produce his own cut in an attempt to salvage the movie. “Yeah, ‘Boogie Nights’ scored horribly,” De Luca would recall. “They recruit for these [test screenings] off a paragraph [synopsis] in the mall, and the paragraph for ‘Boogie Nights’ made it look like a sitcom, and then they come for this three-hour exegesis on existential crises in porn. It got to a point where Bob Shaye, my old boss, chased good scores on that movie, and that movie was never going to score high.” “I was starting to think, “F—, I should have done ‘Starship Troopers,” Wahlberg, who would go on to become a producer in his own right, would add.
The fact that Wahlberg benefitted from such exceptional support, both onscreen and off, no doubt lightened the burden, as did the film’s keen eye for cultural nostalgia. In-line with the movie’s celebratory first act, which explosively relishes in the short-lived extravagances of fame and fortune during the porn industry’s golden age, Boogie Nights evokes the colourful, capricious extravagance of 70s California, an era of disco music and roller skates, of exploration, experimentation and unbridled decadence. Horner is the Orson Welles of a niche industry that was almost like a scaled-down version of Hollywood during those formative years, a glamourous, fascinating world of award ceremonies, designer wardrobes and unbridled indulgence. The film’s playful direction, dynamic performances, and a killer soundtrack that puts us right at the heart of a never-ending pool party of sex, drugs and familial, almost incestuous revelry begins as an oddly winsome experience. You grow to love these characters before the cracks threaten to swallow them whole.
The character most indicative of such a Jekyll and Hyde existence is the one who seems to be holding it all together. Julianne Moore delivers an astonishingly authentic performance as veteran porn star and surrogate matriarch Amber Waves, the film’s most tragic figure and a blueprint for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s similarly afflicted Eileen ‘Candy’ Merrill in HBO’s aforementioned porn and prostitution drama The Deuce. A quasi-incestuous mother superior who projects her repressed maternal desires onto Horner’s family of outcasts, wraithlike redemption for inadequacies suffered by her estranged son, Waves exists beneath a veneer of synthetic tenderness, simultaneously soliciting and comforting the likes of Adams/Diggler, himself still a child, while misguidedly leading them along the semen-sticky track. One minute she’s a tower of affection, the next she’s a ruinous catastrophe of manic highs and devastating lows. A cocaine-fuelled scene late in the movie involving Heather Graham’s similarly afflicted Rollergirl, a high school drop-out and sex-funded addict with her own paternal lusts, is absolutely excruciating, as accurate a depiction of soulless cocaine frenzy as you’re ever likely to experience.
Amber, are you my mom? I’m gonna ask you, okay? And you say yes, okay? Amber, are you my mom?Rollergirl
The movie’s dialogue, which is never less than natural and always an accurate reflection of its characters and themes, was just as important to those scenes. Coke is everywhere in this movie, and, crucially, so is its vacant, unbridled residue. Anyone who’s been around cocaine at any stage in their lives will have experienced those meaningless, washed-out torrents of absolute nothingness, interactions with people who talk but don’t listen, who claim everything and mean absolutely nothing, evaporating in the room’s vapid, spiritually oppressive atmosphere. “The three scenes where Amber and Rollergirl are on a coke binge. This movie has many Achilles heels, but when I watch those scenes I put my ego hat on and say, ‘Okay, we nailed those scenes’,” Anderson would say in an interview with Creative Screenwriting. “I’ve done a lot of coke and had those insane conversations. I was struck by the dialogue in the scene where Mark Wahlberg’s character, Dirk, meets his sidekick, Reed Rothchild, played by John C. Reilly. Just by knowing those kinds of guys when I was growing up, and loving the absurdity of those conversations. John [Reilly] and I have a similar sense of humor and we’ve spent hours riffing with dialogue and laughing. I wrote that scene to give John something he could have fun with.”
Thanks to the movie’s offbeat presentation and penchant for gallows humour, some of those scenes, dripping with hopeless narcotics burnout, can be as hilarious as they are despairing, disco decadence giving way to a fever dream of sweat-dripping mullets, shallow hair band anthems and mindless consumerism. As with all exultant highs, there are crashing lows, and as was common during a decade of anti-hippy, Wall Street decadence, our characters fall headlong into the emotional abyss, America’s counterculture dream well and truly in the toilet. The trigger for that capitulation arrives on New Year’s Eve of 1980, which proves a perilous crossroads for the majority of the film’s cast, their vibrancy washed out in an avalanche of arrogance, tragedy, heartbreak and betrayal. As Horner’s cast and crew buzz around in a stoned haze of insulated complacency, the industry that keeps them ticking verges on a revolution that will have serious repercussions for all involved. Horner, forced into a power-sharing transition in the medium of video, becomes yesterday’s news, lost in the degradations of a new format that makes his comparatively tasteful visions obsolete. Video is a simpler, cheaper process, creating a world without stars free from monopolistic star-finders. Much like the home video boom of the 1980s, adult filmmaking was no longer such a specialist, elitist venture. Every Tom, Dick and Harry with a camcorder could produce a skin flick, old school taboo dissolving in a haze of lurid extremities.
Triggered by the blunt and unexpected double murder/suicide of William H. Macy’s meek and mistreated assistant director “Little” Bill Thompson at a crowded New Year’s Eve party, Boogie Nights grows incredibly bleak as the 80s dawn. It also becomes funnier, a testament to the movie’s fine, cocaine-infused line between emotionally affecting drama and delirious satire, the two often existing simultaneously. Thompson’s plight, though a long time coming thanks to a shamelessly exhibitionist wife who thinks nothing of banging strangers in their bed or even surrounded by crowds at parties, is absolutely startling, totally against character for such a beleaguered doormat. An integral part of Horner’s day-to-day operations, Thompson is the catalyst for the gang’s collective diffusion, which grows to excruciatingly combustible levels before exploding in a quickfire torrent of beautifully orchestrated scenes in the Pulp Fiction vein. Macy, off the back of his star-making turn as Fargo‘s snivelling shyster Jerry Lundegaard, was so blown away by Anderson’s work that he claimed he would, “do the Yellow Pages” as long as he was directing, quite the commendation given Reynolds’ criticisms. He repays Anderson with a typically enigmatic performance of quirky ironies and repressed sadness.
No character is tarnished by the plight of cocaine like Wahlberg’s Diggler, though his inimitable gift keeps him perilously afloat thanks to Horner’s hugely popular Brock Landers series, a ludicrous, side-splitting riff on the funk-heavy detective genre of the 1970s, but it could never last. Soon enough, Diggler’s spiralling drug use affects his ability to perform. By that point, a shrewd and calculating Horner already has his next Diggler lined-up, sparking an unceremonious parting of ways and a desperately hilarious descent into pop industry ignominy. Those studio scenes with a coke-addled Wahlberg and John C. Reilly uselessly belting out Stan Bush’s ‘The Touch’ are just priceless — air guitar hollow thanks to a blanket of nasal snow but genuinely tragic due to a complete lack of self-awareness and the shallow desire to remain special. This leads to financial ruin and arguably the film’s most memorable scene, an excruciatingly tense and seriously misguided robbery attempt on Alfred Molina’s decadent drug dealer, Rahad Jackson. Thanks to a nerve-popping firecracker motif, Thomas Jane’s deliriously whacked-out and deeply misguided cocaine parasite Todd Parker, and a palpable air of unbridled paranoia, Anderson delivers a masterclass in uneasy tension that perfectly captures the emotional exhaustion of what proves a deeply sobering journey.
You’re not the boss of me, Jack. You’re not the king of Dirk. I’m the boss of me. I’m the king of me. I’m Dirk Diggler. I’m the star. It’s my big dick and I say when we roll.Dirk Diggler
Diggler’s unceremonious rise and fall is a thoroughly engaging experience that belies the absurdity of it all, inspiring humour, pathos, empathy and ultimately endearment. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that Anderson, who developed the film from his high school mockumentary short The Dirk Diggler story, was well schooled in his subject. The Dirk Diggler Story was in turn based on the real-life 1981 documentary Exhausted: John C. Holmes, The Real Story, the Diggler character directly inspired by the life of Holmes, a similarly well-endowed porn industry legend who purportedly slept with 14,000 men and women during a decades-long career of similarly unbridled degeneracy. Though we part ways with Diggler while still active and disease-free, Holmes’ story was even more tragic, a drug-fuelled whirlwind of robbery, murder and fatal illness captured more loyally in James Cox’s 2003 crime drama Wonderland, a movie based on the infamous ‘Wonderland Murders’ that Holmes was central to. Diggler may be one of the most queerly enigmatic characters in modern cinema, the personification of a world that will remain alien to most of the population, but Holmes is the total embodiment of the idea that reality is indeed stranger than fiction.
Unable to fund his spiralling addiction, Holmes helped orchestrate the armed robbery/home invasion of nightclub owner Eddie Nash, recruiting a a group of heroin-addicted cocaine dealers known as the Wonderland Gang having fallen into their debt. Following the theft of some jewels and a large quantity of cash, Nash caught wind of Holmes’ subterfuge and beat the identity of his accomplices out of him, forcing him to aid and abet a revenge plan that culminated in a horrifying multiple murder at 8763 Wonderland Avenue in the Hollywood Hills. Though his level of culpability is still unknown, Holmes was later linked to the murders by police following testimony from Liberace’s lover, Scott Thorson, who was present for Holmes’ beating. Holmes’ handprint was also found at the crime scene. Described as the Elvis Presley of the porn industry, Holmes was acquitted of all charges after a three-week trial, which, ironically, set a precedent as the first case to introduce videotape as evidence. A 43-year-old Holmes would die on March 13, 1988 from AIDS-related complications.
Through torturous custody battles and fatal shootouts, Diggler’s surrogate family suffer the consequences of their debauch, even the previously impermeable Jack Horner, reduced to shooting sex with random men in the back of limousines while in pursuit of home video success. That particular scene, culminating in the brutal beating of a horribly besmirched Rollergirl’s former high school friend, feels like the end of an era, but despite the synthetic highs and excruciating lows, Anderson refuses to bail out on a moralistic bum note, giving us the family ending that his characters and their audience ultimately deserve. As for Diggler, he’s given the Raging Bull treatment as he prepares for his big comeback, just a man and his incredibly large penis, a teetering tower of false confidence craving the dwindling highs of a barely remembered dream. It’s unlikely that he’ll get there. In fact, this is almost certainly the false dawn before the Holmes-like capitulation, but in that moment Diggler remains a star. A big bright shining star. Some talents are just impossible to tame.