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The 5 Ways Hollywood Gets Porn Wrong

The 5 Ways Hollywood Gets Porn Wrong

Hollywood has a dirty secret… Alright, Hollywood has thousands and thousands of dirty secrets, but it has one that’s extra-dirty, and extra-secret. It’s this: it’s not the only movie business in America, or California, or even L.A. Just up the road, there’s a whole other system of studios and stars and sound-stages, and Hollywood really, really doesn’t like to talk about it.

It’s not like the world in general doesn’t talk about porn—it’s practically impossible to read a serious newspaper or a media-savvy website right now without encountering someone pontificating about porn: porn’s role in our society, porn and men, porn and women, porn and children, porn and culture. But the same is not true of the movie industry—an industry that likes talking about itself, but really doesn’t like talking about its pervy little brother up in San Fernando. (A little brother, by the way, that has absolutely no problem at all with talking about its older sibling: no major Hollywood film comes out now without a meticulously produced porn parody in which the actual sex often seems secondary to straight-up fan service, as fascinatingly chronicled by Buzzfeed a little while ago.)

“Adult movies” have been accessible without going down to Times Square in a big raincoat for decades now, and since the millennium, you haven’t even had to leave your room (hence all the moral panic), but in all that time, Hollywood has treated them mostly as a punchline, sometimes as a cautionary tale, occasionally as a bit of razzle-dazzle, and very, very rarely as something complicated and interesting and worthy of intelligent commentary. Mostly, it hasn’t treated them as anything at all.

But maybe that’s changing? This cinematic year has been, by Hollywood’s low standards, peculiarly interested in porn. Earlier this year, James Franco produced a documentary “Kink,” about the BDSM site kink.com, and prolific British director Michael Winterbottom (director of 2004’s “9 Songs,” a “mainstream” film featuring unsimulated sex and little else) released “The Look of Love,” a biopic of porn baron Paul Raymond. This week, “Lovelace”, the Amanda Seyfried-starring biopic of the “Deep Throat” star, arrives in theaters, joining the  much-discussed “The Canyons,” which is not a porn movie per se (though it features graphic sex), but stars adult film celeb James Deen. And to top it all off, Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s September directorial debutDon Jon” is also about porn and porn addiction.

So now seems as good a time as any to ask how exactly Hollywood does deal with the other movie industry, when it deigns to do so. Briefly, the answer is “not very well.” And while the quality may range between the movies discussed below, the key factor for many is that their approach gets them off on the wrong foot to start. How? Let us count the ways:

1. By Making Porn Comic
This is Hollywood’s go-to response to porn, and to sex in general, really: naked people (especially naked fat people, or naked old people, or naked people of the same gender) are funny. So people whose job it is to be naked must be, like, really funny, or at least, laughing at them must be really fun.

It isn’t. Two years ago, Tom Brady and a cabal of deeply evil people headed up by Adam Sandler released “Bucky Larson: Born To Be A Star,” which turned out to be not just the worst film about porn in quite some time, but also probably the worst cultural product that humankind has ever produced. The arrival of ‘Bucky Larson,’ a story of painful idiocy about a Midwestern hick determined to make it in porn despite having a tiny penis (hilarious!), was redeemed only (and even then only partially) by the opportunity that it gave critics to exercise their bile glands.

But though ‘Bucky Larson’ is the worst such film, others in the same vein have also failed to raise a smile: 2005’s “The Amateurs” (starring Jeff Bridges) was largely just embarrassing for its way-too-good cast, while 2010’s “Elektra Luxx” proved that moving away from brash, fratty sex comedy to arty, ensemble sex comedy doesn’t help at all. A dishonourable mention here must also go to Luke Greenfield‘s teen rom-com “The Girl Next Door,” which is very confused and confusing in its approach to the porn industry (as embodied by Elisha Cuthbert) depicting it by turns as glamorous, hilarious and tragic, frequently in the same scene, depending on what’s convenient for the story.

It may be encouraging that this year’s crop of films about porn doesn’t, for once, include anything in the gross-out comedy vein. On the other hand, quite a lot of it swings to the other end of the spectrum, which can prove just as bad.

2. By Making Porn Tragic
The flipside of the “porn is hilarious” approach comes almost as instinctively to filmmakers who want to make serious, adult movies about “adult movies”: porn is heart-breakingly sad. For whom? For everyone, of course!

On the one hand, producing porn is a tragic business, a cruel starlet-crushing machine ideally suited to lazy Lifetime biopics about shy young girls from nice small towns who get seduced into a seemingly glamorous world of sex, drugs and easy money, until they etc. etc. etc.: fill in the blanks.

This is clearly the route that “Lovelace” has chosen to go down (see our review) and while its true that Linda Lovelace did have a rough and complicated life, it’s also true that there’s a huge amount of interesting discussion to be had about the cultural atmosphere that created her career, and the subsequent cultural impact that that career had. For everyone who wails about how porn is so much more present in the mainstream today than it was in the past, you would do well to remember that for many months in 1972 you could just go into your friendly neighbourhood cinema and watch “Deep Throat” as though it were a mainstream release. “Lovelace,” unsurprisingly, doesn’t really bother getting into any of that, though the 2005 documentary “Inside Deep Throat” does and is more worth your time.

On the other hand, however, consuming porn is also apparently a tragic business which transforms you into a gnarled, emotionally stunted beast (if you’re a man; if you’re a woman, you obviously don’t consume porn). This was the attitude on display in, for instance, Steve McQueen‘s much-praised “Shame” (although in fairness, that film is really about how sex obsession transforms you into a gnarled, emotionally stunted etc., and porn is just a subset of that). It’s also a problem that “Don Jon” deals in (our Sundance review is here), with a lighter touch, but still. Is it too much to hope for a film about someone watching porn and living a normal life?

Such a film would be especially welcome in an era in which people who make porn are visibly living a normal life, as documented on social media, where stars with some level of mainstream profile, like Stoya and James Deen, document lives just as quasi-normal as those of any celebrity. In fact, is there any difference left?

3. By Flirting With Porn Stars, But Not Going All The Way
Once in a while (more so recently, but still not much), a cinematic director actually hires a porn performer and inevitably, a ripple of discussion is set off about whether it’s possible for someone to make the professional leap from porn to mainstream movies. The answer so far seems to be “no,” but not through any fault on the actor’s part. Because when pornstars get offered a mainstream role, they usually end up getting screwed.

Sasha Grey, then the industry’s biggest star, had a good try in 2009 with Steven Soderbergh‘s “The Girlfriend Experience,” and though mainstream stardom didn’t follow, neither did disaster. Previous attempts at this kind of breakout (notably Nina Hartley‘s) had tended to involve B-movies, not indie flicks by major, respected and interesting directors. But still, Grey was hired to play an escort in a movie directed by a man who got famous for a film called “sex lies and videotape.” Reviews were sniffy and she hasn’t made much headway in the mainstream since. (Her most notable role afterward was an arc playing herself on “Entourage“).

Perhaps the biggest name in the industry since Grey is James Deen, who is now attempting to pull off the same trick in “The Canyons.” Although Deen has a higher profile than most in the XXX industry, it is looking like his participation in Paul Schrader’s movie will be a one-off lark. His day job is still whipping it out on camera, and it doesn’t seem like the doors are being blown open by offers for Deen to join any other notable mainstream productions anytime soon.

Still, Grey and Deen did better than some. Also, here’s a weird fact about Nicholas Winding Refn‘s beloved “Drive”: two porn stars had parts in the film that were cut before it ever hit cinemas. Apparently, stamping on a man’s head 17 times was something audiences were expected to love, but sympathetic characters played by porn actresses weren’t, and on that assumption, they never made it into the final film. Which is symptomatic of maybe the biggest problem of all…

4. By Being Scared to Talk About Sex
The idea that Hollywood is prudish is hardly a new one, nor is the specific claim that Hollywood is far less comfortable with graphic sexual content than it is with graphic violence: see Kirby Dick‘s brilliant documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” for the perniciousness of these double standards. But at the risk of stating the obvious, it’s a little hard to make a movie about porn if you don’t want to show—or even talk about—sex.

Back in 2008, Kevin Smith ran up against this when he made the sex comedy “Zack and Miri Make A Porno” and discovered that many places wouldn’t display the title of the film or use this poster. This is Kevin Smith we’re talking about, of course. As a man who loves a good tantrum, this news was music to his ears, and he courted it, but it was still illustrative of just how jumpy people get around the p-word. When Smith released “Red State” two years later, an exuberantly violent film about homophobia, no-one batted an eye.

5. By Pretending Porn Has Nothing To Say About Hollywood
So, to recap: no-one wants to talk about porn, most of the films mentioned above just aren’t very good… Oh, and most of them also lost money, sometimes spectacularly. ‘Bucky Larson,’ in a rare bit of satisfying box-office justice, was a catastrophic, career-wrecking bomb. 2009’s “Middle Men,” a true-story flick about internet porn financiers that starred Luke Wilson and Giovanni Ribisi and was briefly touted as a counterpart to “The Social Network” in the “internet start-up tycoons” genre, actually turned out to be not just a massive bomb but a scam: the real-life basis for Wilson’s character financed the film using the money from the very same company that the film was about, and when it bombed, it triggered a string of lawsuits and accusations. Maybe producers are gun-shy not just because the subject is considered both immoral and embarrassing, but because, historically, these movies lose money?

But for a very brief period there they weren’t gun-shy. For reasons passing understanding, between late 1996 and late 1997, a clutch of brilliant films about pornography were released to choruses of controversy and admiration. Milos Forman made “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” a biopic of the eccentric mogul behind Hustler magazine, masterfully embodied by Woody Harrelson; David Cronenberg released the disturbing and complex “Crash”, which deals with fetish porn; and Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “Boogie Nights,” a portrait of the ’70s porn industry, reached our screens (honorable mentions also go to Spike Lee‘s “Girl 6” and Betty Thomas‘ “Private Parts”).

“Boogie Nights”—which was nominated for three Oscars—expertly displays the excesses, triumphs and disasters of Hollywood using the industry just up the valley. In doing so, it reveals the real reason the movie industry doesn’t like to think about the other movie industry: because the similarities unsettle “legitimate” film-makers. “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Crash,” meanwhile, used porn to dissect and examine all manner of things—freedom and American ideals in ‘Flynt,’ violence and obsession in “Crash.” They’re complex, eloquent, genuinely adult movies, and their insights haven’t been equalled by anything in the list of more recent flicks above. Which is a real shame, because in the present era of radical technological, sexual and social transformation, it’s hard to imagine a better starting point, a better prism through which to examine the ways the world is changing. 

If there was a single, highly visible, sometimes glamorous, sometimes edgy, headline-grabbing business intimately involved with technology, money and human relationships that didn’t involve people taking their clothes off and didn’t seem uncomfortably close to home, you can bet Hollywood would be all over it, and doing much better it than they are with this one. 2013 may be a year with more than few options at the multiplex and arthouse about porn, but the quality hasn’t changed much.

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Comments

the real zinjo

Jennifer, i have seen the light and i will obey.

jennifer croissant

Zinjo my old mate, i think you should get your priorities right, whether or not the word 'repertoire' is in "The Sayer of the Truths" vocabulary is something that simply should not be concerning you, the ONLY thing you should instead be concerning yourself with is the fact that "The Sayer of the Truth" IS INDEED the ultimate truth (as his name would suggest obviously). Just absorb the wisdom of "The Sayer of the Truth", everything else is total bull-shit, believe me.

The Real Zinjo

*Ahem*, if you are going to impersonate someone junior, you might want to at least demonstrate a bit of, shall we say "balance" in your comments.

Show yourself, use your own name and let's see who you REALLY are, or do we add cowardice to your repertoire of identity theft and libel? (I bet repertoire is not even in your vocabulary….)

zinjo

Another key point here of course is that Americans love to wallow and revel in their own hypocrisy, its a very important part of their lives, especially with regards to everything pertaining to sex, yet another reason why the 20th century will always be remembered by future historians as "THE TIME OF SEXUAL REPRESSION" and we`re the poor bastards who had to live through it, and you wonder why i`m so bitter ! ? ! ?.

zinjo

Agreed, i just want to see beautiful gorgeous sexy 18 year-old girls being buggered and sodomized all day long, Hollywood doesn`t provide that so why would i want to waste my time with Hollywood ever again ! ?.

the sayer of the truth

Practically every Hollywood movie and TV show is an endless line and succession of sexual inuendos and situations, why are people still watching all that ludicrously out-moded and hypocritical garbage when the real McCoy is now freely available at the touch of a button on the internet ! ?, I dont really understand how that abomination known as Hollywood is still getting away with their ludicrous lies and hypocrisy in this day and age, Hollywood has been getting away with its loathsome deception for over 100 years now, isn`t it time for that deception to end ! ! !.

the sayer of the truth

Porn is the truth and is there-fore the future, Hollywood is lies and hypocrisy and is there-fore the past.

Zinjo

Thank you for NOT peppering this article with pontificating socio-politcal morals about the porn industry. The reality is porn is to sex as Hollywood is to reality! Unlike Europe where a porn star can be elected to government, the US is so entrenched in it's schizophrenic hypocrisy of publicly denouncing of porn as much as it secretly consumes it, that it cannot accept that performers in the industry simply are not scarred or imprisoned by it as the moralists (religious or other) wish them to be. These people "must be punished" for not shooting up a theater but having sex in one instead! I suspect the film, "About Cherry" has to be the closest to reality for a porn set. The matter of fact sex, over performed for the cameras ending with a polite "thank you" from the co-stars and director. Nothing glamorous or traumatic for anyone, just a "job". Granted "Cherry" has issues about how much was too much to fit into a limited amount of cinema time, but I found it to be a refreshing addition to the subject matter. It didn't preach it simply gave the audience a look at the journey of a young woman from a difficult family life getting involved in the porn industry. It could have been better, but as already described in this article, it could have been much worse.

Free

Maybe I missed it, but for an article that attempts to state what's wrong with porn in Hollywood, I didn't read much in the way of solutions. Also, unless there's actual proof that the people from Drive were cut BECAUSE they were porn stars, that's a big presumption.

David

The issue is not that Hollywood get porn wrong (the same could be said about porn getting Hollywood wrong), but most importantly that Hollywood gets sex wrong. Once the latter is fixed you can start to fix the former, if needed be.

j

Here's the way i see it pornography isn't addressed in a intellectual context .It's not for intellects its more about sensual pleasures.So when hollywood or any legitimate film makers do a film on pornography it falls by the waste line.I think the way to remedy that is instead touch upon the idea of what sex means .Deal exclusively with sex in its own context not in the one of pornography .Which is very 1 dimensional sex is not and intellectual game and when you have a bunch of brainy people talking about it .Or making films about the particular subject they are doing it from a intellectual perspective .Porn doesn't need to be philosophized over its pretty objective and too the point .What really should be tackled is just sex period which its obvious that.These film makers who do make films about porn have no idea what the hell they are doing.

Elspeth Chagall

There is actually one other porn star who has successfully (depending on your point of view, but I think so) made the jump to mainstream: Brent Coorigan, going by the name now of Sean Lockhart. Saw him recently in a LGBT film called 'Judas Kiss' where he had a supporting role in. Recently, he starred, co-wrote and produced a film that was test screened in Philadelphia at this year's QFEST, Truth, which happened to be an interesting psychological thriller. He has another one coming out sometime next year (don't remember the name off the top of my head). I certainly realize that it's relatively rare that a porn stat can successful make the jump to mainstream film. Brent has demonstrated he was some real acting chops and it seems that the projects he's been getting look very interesting. The trick is that these guys have to know how to promote themselves in order to be success. That's what makes the difference between the big stars, even in porn, and the 'also-rans'.

Alex

Don Jon is not about porn and porn addiction (that's why they changed the title of the film from "Don Jon's Addiction" to "Don Jon"). It's about how media consumption can distort our expectations about each other and about love and sex.

"Is it too much to hope for a film about someone watching porn and living a normal life?" Why hope for a movie ABOUT that? It'd make a boring story.

Nathan

The porn industry is floundering like this year's summer crop of blockbusters. I'm not sure if there's a parallel there or not, but I guess we shouldn't expect Hollywood to address that fact anytime soon when they can just make another lightweight, Oscar-baiting biopic about an obscure porn star. This seems like territory only Errol Morris could really do justice.

MGS

Concerning Porn Sars crossing over into Mainstream: Sibel Kekilli had been a porn actress before starring in 2004's "Gegen die Wand" which won her the best actress award at the Berlinale. YOu might know her as "Game of Thrones" Shae!
So there have been succesfull carreer switches, though maybe not in the US.

Chris

Great article.

TheoC

Liked the feature, mostly agree. Hollywood tip toes around porn like it is still taboo, in reality it's like professional wrestling, the truth about what goes on behind the scenes is probably equally daft and depraved and we watch for the same reasons, it's either funny or stupid and we know how it ends.

Doug

OK. Well for a through article, you sure missed one porn star that crossed over, and was semi successful. At least in B movies and on TV. "Traci Lords" was infamous for her unintentional destruction of some of the larger porn distribution companies. This happened when her mother informed the Authorities that the young Traci was indeed underage. She started her career far to young but looked over 21. She gave them fake documents and they accepted them. So all her work became "Kiddy Porn" thus the FBI confiscated it and destroyed all of it. She became a outcast in the porn industry. Did one more Porn film in France and then went to main stream Hollywood to get into film, etc. The funny thing is she is in one of the movies you mentioned. The sex comedy “Zack and Miri Make A Porno". I read a interview with her and she stated she had just had a child and they were going to ask her to do a topless scene and she said, "NO". It wasn't a deal breaker so she was in the film. Long before this she was in a TV show on Sci-Fi Channel. It was called "The First Wave" and I thought she did a fairly good job, and rarely had problems overacting in my opinion. It aired from 1998 to 2001 . Traci Lords was Jordan Radcliffe in season three. She was also in at least a few B movies. So again, she didn't make it big but she did score a role on a fairly well liked Science Fiction show several years ago now. She was a big deal in Porn till she refused to give her mother money one day and her mother ended her porn days.

Marco

How is Shame a Hollywood film?

CR

Thanks, Kate – was going to mention STARLET as well; an underseen gem, with a heroine who has a lot of agency.

BEF

Great write-up … even something like "Flight" our introduction to Kelly Reilly is her going to a porn set to score some money for drugs, and it's like the easiest way to let the audience know — she's in trouble right now.

Gabe Toro

Bobbi Starr's role in "Drive" was recast with Christina Hendricks, so at least they could be considered taking more… bankable? approach? Which is a pity, because Ms. Starr wrote a lovely essay about being cast, and about the barrier breaking down between performers in the different industries.

Chris

His name is Kirby Dick, not Dick Kirby. And "This Film is Not Yet Rated" isn't the slightest bit brilliant, offering anecdotes and a few nice insights from individual filmmakers but spending the majority of the movie inexplicably trying to expose the identities of the people on the ratings board like some cheap paparazzo. I've read 300-word articles with more to say about the absurd MPAA ratings system than that movie.

Kate

The porn industry is only a backdrop in 'Starlet', but it's an interesting portrayal nonetheless. Neither tragic nor hilarious, mostly banal.

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