As a brave musical once told us “the internet is for porn”, and it would appear mainstream cinema. Not that films have become more sexually explicit, actually save for Paul Verhoeven and the occasional Brian De Palma film we appear to be lacking in overtly sex-based films. No, the real interest cinema has in the adult film world is depicting it.
When it comes to the depiction of the adult film industry it's often biographical. Taking real life people who entered the world of pornography and looking at what that did to them. The crossover between mainstream and adult only stems from the film Deep Throat starring Linda Lovelace. Lovelace became a celebrity as a result of the film, one considered a key work in the Golden Age of Porn, and her life has been written about extensively.
Lovelace's autobiography Ordeal was used in part as the basis for the film Lovelace that charts her relationship with husband Chuck Traynor. Given her fame it's no surprise that much has been made about Lovelace's life, but it's the fact that she was not an active participant in her own career choice that appears to be the draw. Given there is still a stigma around adult films, someone like Lovelace – who was horribly abused by her husband, forced into this line of work and eventually spoke out against pornography wholesale is going to attract the attention of people who have an agenda.
Filmmakers have often cited Lovelace as an example of what is wrong with the adult film industry, and it's fair to say that she was trafficked into the industry which is why so much is made of this. Biographical films often centre on conflict, and Lovelace is someone who was abused and chewed up by the adult film machine. Especially given the time when there was no internet and so the discussion around pornography was much smaller than it is now, there was much less regulation, less scrutiny and no way for women to take control of their bodies. The film makes an interesting companion piece to the Jon Ronson podcast The Butterfly Effect that charts the rise and repercussions of PornHub. Both paint pictures of people in the world of porn who become victims, along with the resulting uproar.
Given that the golden age of porn was in a time when to see adult films you had to actively seek them out at bespoke movie theatres or once the advent of home video came into it's own, it's no surprise that many of the biggest names in porn came from that time. Just as Linda Lovelace is brought up in film as an example of how porn is about the abuse of women, John Holmes The prolific adult actor, John Holmes and his involvement in the Wonderland murders have intrigued people.
Holmes was famous for having an apparently very long sexual organ, and performing in over 500 films during his career between 1971 and 1986. Holmes being such a high profile performer meant that any involvement he had in murder (he was found not guilty of anything except contempt of court) meant that eventually a film was to be made. Wonderland sees Holmes played by Val Kilmer as a drunk party animal and violent thug. The film uses the notoriety of Holmes to show that the industry is filled with sadistic people and it's true that Holmes was involved but the film depicts him as attacking a woman at the scene of the crime – there is no proof such a thing ever happened.
Moreover, the legend of John Holmes was used for the Dirk Diggler character in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. Taking inspiration from the Golden Age of Porn, the film sees Mark Wahlberg as a well endowed newbie to the adult film world. The sequence in which Diggler finds himself at shifty Alfred Molina's house is drawn from the Wonderland murders and much of the film explores the darkness of the film industry.
It's true that the adult industry carries with it a very high body count for people under the age of thirty. Jon Ronson's podcast series The Last Days of August, charting the death and life of 23 year old suicide victim and adult actress August Ames makes the point of saying that in the same year five other women under the age of 35 and working in the industry also died. Anderson depicts the negative effects of the world of pornography, addiction and violence, mental illness all of which are present but which the world of mainstream film tends to ignore.
Had the sexual content of Boogie Nights been removed and it was instead about a mainstream film being made it wouldn't be all that different. Many mainstream actors are addicted to substances like cocaine, many are violent and abusive to their co-stars and / or spouses, several have horrific mental illnesses and some are murderers. Boogie Nights takes it's cues from both Holmes and Lovelace, showing that people in the adult industry are victims of circumstance, enticed by the glamour of the age but undone by their choices. By the film's end many of them are left broken and with little left in their live, and despite not wanting to Diggler and co-star Amber Waves are forced to go back into the adult film world. This is played off like their lot in life but it only exists because society looks on the adult industry with contempt.
Mainstream comedies also look to undermine the legitimacy of sex work. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut Don Jon focused on a man who is unable to form meaningful relationships with women because of his porn addiction and his frustration with potential girlfriend Scarlett Johansson and her obsession with rom-coms. What the film seeks to say is that consuming large amounts of porn is damaging to the process of forming intimate connections. While true in some cases, and porn addiction is a legitimate and serious issue, demonising the industry because of one person's demons appears to be knee-jerk and overtly discriminatory. After all, there are hundreds of alcoholics out there but the alcohol industry is as successful as it's ever been.
Jon's issue in Don Jon is that he is equating a fiction with a reality, but the film posits that the world of porn and the world of real sexual relationships are worlds apart. In fact depictions of sex are as old as any other form of media. The Kama Sutra is a text based on finding fulfilment from pleasure with a partner. For many the boom in so-called “ethical porn” from filmmakers like Erika Lust and her Lust Cinema brand are exactly the same, offering narrative depictions of intimacy that can also help couples or people looking to explore their sexuality. There is not such a divide between adult films and the mechanics of sexual relationships, it's the lack of understanding that many people have that serve to stigmatise the adult industry.
All of which brings us to Sean Baker's most recent offering Red Rocket in which former adult film actor Simon Rex plays Mikey Saber, an adult film performer down on his luck and money and his desire to seduce a young woman who works at a local donut shop. Saber's interest in her appears to be driven by a desire to reclaim his former glory. Baker's films have always shone a light on those on the fringes of society so it seems somewhat suspect that his decision to depict the world of an adult film actor would opt to portray one as predatory. After all, there are dozens of cases of adult performers having their lives tarnished by this misconception. It also implies that life can be unfulfilling for adult performers, again focusing on the negative and negating the positives that the industry definitely does have.
Red Rocket is a critically lauded film and one nominated for multiple awards which many have commented makes it's absence from this year's Oscar race all the more suspicious but it adds up. Fictional depictions of fictional sex workers are often lauded – Boogie Nights for example – but films about real adult film actors or films starring adult film actors often get ignored. As a mainstream actor Rex has been in the movie business for twenty years and this is his first lauded film. Until now the actor has spent time in Scary Movie 3, Scary Movie 4 and Scary Movie 5. These often cheap films are devoid of much merit and often offer little in the way of meaningful work. That Rex, who here shows a depth of acting no one has seen, has been stuck in these films for so long is again showing the stigmatism around adult actors trying to transition into mainstream films.
The Girlfriend Experience
Perhaps to date the most obvious example of an adult film actor moving into mainstream films is Sasha Grey. Much like Rex, Grey's most lauded work sees her play a sex worker though in a different line. In Stephen Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience Grey plays Chelsea, a high end escort who is paid to act as a man's girlfriend for the night. Of the films that Grey has appeared in this remains the highest rated and the only one to garner mainstream awards notice if not nominations. Outside of that much of her work has seen her cast in horror films like Open Windows or Would You Rather both of which offer the chance for her to be punished on screen in horrific ways.
It appears that outside of playing sex workers the route for many adult film actors breaking into the mainstream is to appear in horror films. Look at any modern “Grindhouse” film in which sex workers are often pitted against monsters. Perhaps most worrisome of all is Bree Olson, one time Charlie Sheen girlfriend and adult film superstar who turned to mainstream films to break away from porn only to be cast in The Human Centipede: Full Sequence, the third entry into the canon.
Now, generally speaking there is no shame in appearing in horrible exploitation movies, most people we respect made their name in them but Olson is the sole main woman in the film and is treated horrifically even by the film's standards. Olson's character acts as a secretary to psychotic prison warden Dieter Laser. The film acts as even more meta than the second film which acted as a commentary on the first. The third film sees writer-director Tom Six appear as himself to give advice to Laser and Laurence R Harvey's characters about making a human centipede.
Considering this is a film that features characters that are rapists, child abusers and murders, and that Laser's character eats dried out human genitals, it seems suspect that the person who is punished the most is Olson's character Daisy. As a character Daisy is nothing but a slightly clueless employee. However, over the course of the film Daisy is insulted, beaten into unconsciousness, raped whilst in a coma and then made part of the centipede. She receives the worst kind of punishment over the course of the film and the indignity appears to be accepted because she is played by a porn actress.
This difference is rather stark- women from the adult world are punished in films, brutalised for the enjoyment of teenage boys who are the main audience for both horror and porn. Meanwhile, despite a lack of glamour to it, Simon Rex was able to get away with not being brutalised on screen.
More overt would be James Deen, porn icon and accused abuser, who has managed to segue into supposed prestige drama. Despite claims of misconduct and abuse from people in the adult industry, Deen was cast in Paul Schrader's drama The Canyons. The film, while long winded and ultimately boring, is a far cry from the sort of film most adult film women would find themselves in. Both Ellis and Schrader are massively respected in their fields, Deen was acting in scenes with Lindsay Lohan, admittedly not the draw she once was but a movie star all the same, and in some scenes with director-actor Gus van Sant.
Two other adult film actors appear in the film, Danny Wylde and Lily Labeau but their roles are silent and involve sexual scenes and nudity. For Deen, he was put in a leading role and arguably gave a more lauded performance. The Canyons, perhaps because of the pedigree involved, was seen as a possible awards film. Not least because it deals with the film industry itself. Deen, as a result became Ellis' choice for Christian Grey when he met with producers to write the screenplay for Fifty Shades of Grey. That Deen, a man accused of actual crimes and working in the adult industry can get main roles so easily while women performers are forced into low rent horror says a lot about the way we treat the two genders.
The Forty-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up
The mainstream world and the adult world most obviously collided when it became clear that then-President Donald Trump had previously paid for sex with adult film legend Stormy Daniels. Daniels had been somewhat known to people due to her appearing in Judd Apatow productions The Forty-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Seth Rogen was quoted as saying it's easier to hire people from porn to do nude scenes in strip clubs or other sexual scenes than mainstream actresses as it's easier for them to take their clothes off and not do anything else.
The outrage surrounding Trump's affair was not because he had cheated on his then pregnant wife Melania, but that it was with an adult film actress. The perceived idea being that as a result she was more open to disease and being unclean. Actually anyone who takes even a passing glance at a former or current adult film actors memoirs (there are several and all are fascinating reads) would find out that before each scene people are tested rigorously for everything, that there are certain places people are expected to go to be tested, they must be verified, and preparation goes into it. In fact the real danger in that affair is not that Trump might have caught something from Daniels, it's that Daniels was opening herself up to getting something from Trump.
Saturday Night Live
Daniels would appear on Saturday Night Live in a cold open with Alec Baldwin as Trump mocking a faux confessional phone call showing the scope of her entering the world of the mainstream thanks to this. But it's the outrage that Trump would “lower” himself to the world of adult film actors that has raised alarm.
On the flip side, teen idol from Boy Meets World Maitland Ward had retired from mainstream acting by 2007 as there were fewer and fewer roles. Transitioning into adult film work some twelve years later, Ward has carved a niche for herself and has stated that the adult film world is a savvy business move. In viewing it from the other side, someone from the mainstream deciding to go into the adult world does offer some kind of “legitimacy” to the adult world if someone who was known for family friendly TV like Ward can do it, then it must not be the horror show the media appear to think it is. In fact, one could argue that the popularity in cougar and milf content makes the adult film industry much more welcoming and inclusive for women over forty than Hollywood does.
Ultimately, the adult film industry remains a taboo subject, only really looked at through the prism of tragedy by outsiders who know the sensational headlines of Linda Lovelace or August Ames and not the day-to-day world of other people who enjoy the work and thrive. It shows that as a society we remain every bit as repressed as we were years ago, the advent of the internet has only deepened this and not opened it up.