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R.I.P. Peter de Rome, The ‘Grandfather of Gay Porn’

R.I.P. Peter de Rome, The 'Grandfather of Gay Porn'

Several claims can be made for the achievements of
the erotic film pioneer Peter de Rome,
who died June 21st aged 89. But perhaps the most significant is that
the gay porn industry we know today can be traced back directly to him. Prior
to de Rome there were amateur loops and the occasional artistic experiment,
e.g. Jean Genet’s “Un chant d’amour” (1950).
But it was de Rome’s short films which inspired Wakefield Poole to make “The Boys in the Sand” (1971), the
first hardcore porn movie to cross to the mainstream. This was the gay
equivalent of “Deep Throat” (which
Poole’s film preceded).

De Rome was also responsible for inventing at least
two elements that became gay porn staples. An often audacious film-maker, he used
secretly filmed footage of a famously reclusive movie star, and men having real
sex on the New York subway, in his productions. But although his work was
superior to that of almost all his porn contemporaries, de Rome was only
briefly a “name”. His stature as an erotic artist was recognised as he neared
the end of his life.

Born in Juan les Pins, France, and raised in Kent,
England, de Rome was a lifelong film fan, playing truant to go to movies,
sometimes with a boyfriend. He knew before he reached teenage that he was gay
and always claimed that his sexuality was never an issue. (He testified for the
Wolfenden Committee, which recommended the decriminalization of homosexuality
in the UK). He began as a stage actor but soon switched to film publicity and
in 1957 took the opportunity to move to New York to work for producer David O.
Selznick. He divided the rest of his life between New York and Kent.

De Rome first bought an 8mm movie camera to record
his time in and around Birmingham, Alabama, where he and his actress friend
Madeleine Sherwood fought (sometimes literally) for civil rights. Soon he was
using the camera to film men he picked up in the street and took home for sex.
As the films became artistically more ambitious – de Rome always preferred
erotic titillation to the sex act itself – they gained a following at private
parties.

In 1971 de Rome’s film “Hot Pants” won a prize at Amsterdam’s Wet Dream Festival. De Rome
was approached by producer Jack Deveau, who released several de Rome shorts
under the umbrella title “The Erotic
Films of Peter de Rome” (1972).  They
included “Underground” in which two
men had genuine sex on a subway train; “Mumbo
Jumbo” with its first person cum shot (later a gonzo prerequisite); and “The Second Coming” featuring arguably
the first no-hands cum shot (although de Rome later admitted that the penis was
a prosthetic).

De Rome went on to make two features for Deveau, “Adam & Yves” (1974), which
included footage of Greta Garbo walking down the street in Manhattan (it was to
be the star’s last screen appearance); and “The
Destroying Angel” (1976), a bizarre porn/horror combo, which writer Rupert
Smith later described as “a mess but a masterpiece.”
 

De Rome continued to make shorts until the AIDS
crisis hastened his retirement. He was largely forgotten until 2005, when Smith
wrote about de Rome’s oeuvre in a British gay magazine. This encouraged the
British Film Institute to acquire de Rome’s archive and bring the man himself
to London for a personal appearance. The BFI released “The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome” on DVD in 2012. The British
Board of Film Classification, notoriously squeamish about hardcore sex, passed
the DVD uncut, perhaps official recognition of de Rome’s importance and integrity.
 

In the last few years of his life de Rome was the
subject of a number of film documentaries, the last of which, “Peter de Rome: Grandfather of Gay Porn”, premiered
earlier this month at the Sheffield Documentary Festival. De Rome was due to
travel to Sheffield but was suddenly taken ill with the leukaemia that was to
kill him. As the executive producer of the film I reluctantly took his place at
the Showroom cinema, telling the audience that “Peter is not just a part of gay
porn history, or gay history, he’s a part of history.” 

David McGillivray is the producer of “Peter de Rome: Grandfather of Gay Porn,” a documentary currently making the festival rounds. 


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