1/6/10

The Decade of Decadence #2: Porn Chic



A few months ago, I published a post called "When Movies Were Gratuitous" which dealt with the fact that movies during the 1970's routinely contained explicit and gratuitous nudity.  By 1984, sexual content, especially the gratuitous kind, declined sharply.  That post had some very long, in depth comments which tackled the issue of why this occurred which really made me reflect on the subject further.



You might ask: Isn't there better things to do with your time than wonder why films show less T&A? Sure. But if you're a regular reader of Retrospace, you know there's a certain pleasure in looking at trends and cultural climates of the times. It's a history lesson in popular culture - and the great thing about studying the past is that it sheds light on aspects of the present day. Plus, I like to get inside the times, read the newspapers, watch the movies, browse the catalogs - not just read dates and lines in a textbook.  And like it or not, if you want to get inside the 1970's, you're bound to get a little dirty.





Dirty indeed.  The 1970's were truly the golden age of the porno.  This is the only time in the history of cinema where pornographic films were semi-legitimized. "Porno chic" was in full effect - Behind the Green Door was shown at Cannes and Debbie Does Dallas and Deep Throat were raking in untold millions, and big name celebs like Jack Nicholson and Johnny Carson were in line to see these films.  Legislation was extremely permissive at this time, and pornographic theaters and bookstores were popping up everywhere.


Deep Throat was released in 1972 and was made for about $23,000.  The movie quickly became the most profitable movie of all time (and still is today), pulling in over $600,000,00!  In the 1970's, it was a commonly expressed belief that the porn industry would actually meld with Hollywood. Bob Hope was even making jokes about it: "I went to see Deep Throat cause I'm fond of animal pictures. I thought it was about giraffes." [insert laugh track]



Of course, it's not as if there were no obstacles to pornography whatsoever.  There were tons of lawsuits filed against the so-called smut peddlers, and it was an uphill battle for guys like Larry Flynt. In fact there was actually LESS pornography than there is now ($57 billion annually worldwide)- the big difference is that it was more blatant, the shame was gone. No more anonymous males in trench coats at the Pussycat Theater - now it was trendy and hip. "Porn chic" made it cool. Today, two-thirds of all hotel movie purchases are for pornos [source], but it's not the same - the sexual revolution was thrilling and controversial in the seventies; today, it's just a drab commodity no one really wants to acknowledge in the red states. (yawn)


So, what happened? A combination of things in the early 1980's ended the Golden Age of Porn:
(1) VHS recorders allowed people to watch pornography in the privacy of their home
(2) AIDS ended the notion of hedonism without consequences
(3) The cultural climate became much less openly permissive


If you have something to add to this discussion, please drop a comment, I'd love to hear your take.


[Note:] In 1968, the MPAA created the G, M, and R ratings - the "X" rating was not trademarked. Movies that fell outside these ratings literally gave themselves an X rating. There's a big difference between a movie like Midnight Cowboy and Deep Throat, although both were rated X. Subsequently, the NC-17 rating was developed by the MPAA in 1991 to help the situation.

15 comments:

  1. Actually DEBBIE DOES DALLAS was on the tail end (pardon the pun) of the porn boom, several years past the point of porno chic.

    Interesting to note the celebs who supported DEEP THROAT early on such as Carroll O'Connor and Sammy Davis (now known to have ulterior motives but still.

    Dris Day and Jackie O made news when they went to see LAST TANGO IN PARIS and I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW)respectively.

    Even Fred Astaire was said to frequent adult theatres in a threadbare disguise.

    Burt Reynolds was constantly touted as the most likely superstar to have real sex in a mainstream film. Former Oscar winner Aldo Ray actually did do a couple pornos (non-sex roles) as did ex-cowboy star Lash Larue.

    A few small-time mainstream actresses had real sex in European "art films" (much like Chloe Sevigny more recently) on the assumption that real sex would soon be the norm in all films and they would be pioneers. It generally got reported in the movie mags and then they were never heard from again when that didn't happen. At least Chloe's real bj scene was so boring she still gets work in regular films.

    Finally, there's the case of TATTOO (1981) with its "He said, she said" between Bruce Dern and Maud Adams. Dern claimed thye did and Adams swore they didn't!

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  2. If you went to a porno theater in a major city in the 1970s or 1980s, you would find the theaters full of men cruising for sex. While that was good news for other men similarly inclined, it made for an uncomfortable experience for others. With the spread of AIDS, public cruising greatly diminished around the same time that most households got their first VCRs.

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  3. flying under the radarJanuary 06, 2010

    Actually, Sylvester Stallone did do a porno in the early 70s: PARTY AT KITTY & STUD'S. When he made it big with ROCKY, prints were sold in Hollywood for $10,000 so movie moguls could watch in private. When he learned of this, Stallone quipped, "For ten grand I'll come over!"

    The X-rating predated the MPAA code. British films long had an X-rating (more frequently slapped on horror films than adult movies!) and American film distributors applied it to their own product. There were several unofficial sub-categories, such as soft X (female nudity, no male frontal nudity, no sex real or simulated), hard X (male & female frontal nudity + simulated sex), XX (actual sex), and XXX ("This one goes to 11"). The above definitions, BTW, were in a book by the late Bill Rotsler on the subject of adult films. Rotsler, in addition to being a Hugo winning author and cartoonist, was also a men's mag photographer and director of several sexploitation films (MANTIS IN LACE is probably his best known).

    When the MPAA rating system came along, most soft X was folded into the R rating (which unofficially had soft-R -- female nudity above the waist -- and hard-R -- full frontal female nudity + simulated sex).

    A few major studio releases had X ratings (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, and BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS being the most famous) but over time got folded into the R category.

    I think the VHS killed the porn chic movement because it enabled people to (a) watch in private and (b) fast forward to the good stuff, which spurred pornographers to spend less and less time on making actual movies and more and more on just documenting various performances if you know what I mean and I think you do. I think porn chic existed only when one had to go to a theater to see it; the pornographers may not have wanted to spend a lot on their movies, but they did want to think they were actually making movies.

    Once video cameras came along, the technical bar dropped even lower. Now we've got people uploading their homemade videos online (or so I've been told... )

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  4. Hi, Retro,

    Additionally, regular popular films wouldhave gratuitous sex and violence as part of their texture. Horror films of the '70s rated PG have an amazing amount of shower scenes and knives-into-bosoms that they can't get away with anymore. I think the ratings seperated all elements into ghettos and niches. Teen horror films have never been the same, now you get either "I Know What You Did" (no nudity, no blood), or "Saw " (too much blood, no nudity) or those jiggle-straight-to-dvd films.

    Keep up the good work!

    Ro

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  5. I for one miss sex-tacular movies.

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  6. Those ads are so good, that when I was little and was asked to pick out a movie, I pointed to the coolest looking one (I couldn't read yet), which was indeed XXX related, and of course my grandmother and aunt were quite aghast. I think what I really wanted to see was 'At the Earth's Core'.

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  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  8. Ahhh...the good old days, when folks weren't so uptight about sex.

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  9. I remember being a kid looking at those ads in the Tulsa(!) newspaper. I remember the Devil In Miss Jones and the Life and Times ones specifically. They must have run for a long time.

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  10. I think that Suzy8track comes closest to scoring (see what I did, there?).

    First, a little background. My uncle built a drive-in after he got back from Korea, and ended up as honcho for the local drive-in operators' association. I am a librarian, and frequently while doing obituaries searches (our paper, one of the oldest in the States, and still going strong) I'll run across the 'Now Showing' page- I was there then, though young, but unlike some others I have some actual documentation to back up my position.

    The juxtaposition is shocking. You'll see halftones for 'Pete's Dragon' right next to showtimes for 'They Call Her One Eye' (ever seen it? Not just a Revenge picture, it's blue blue blue, with one scene in particular that's mindboggling NOW, much less for 1973).

    As Suzy8track had said, there was a LOT going on in the culture at the time. There was a feeling that people needed to get over themselves, and ditch some of the lingering Puritanism that's always been a problem for us in America. 'Hang-ups' were seen as something embarrassing, to combat and triumph over.

    Times have certainly changed, and I don't know why. The recent kerfluffle over Adam Lambert on ABC is an example- compare this to footage of Bowie or Roxy Music on TV, which passed without comment THIRTY YEARS AGO, and you could forgive the time-traveler from the 70s who visits us and decides we're insane.

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  11. I think part of what happened was that "porno chic" allowed a lot of people to get over their inhibitions, but at the same time films had to go to greater and greater lengths to "shock" the average viewer. The 70's and early 80's horror films that mixed gore, nudity, and violent sex scenes were being played in a lot of the same theaters that were showing regular films or regular porn and I don't think people knew what to think over the mixed genres. By this time the country was headed for it's conservative backlash and of course, as you said, the rest is history.

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  12. Although generally a huge fan of the awesomeness that is this blog, I don't like how your tackling this. Yes, let's talk about "Deep Throat" and why not talk of the physical abuse and coercion of Linda Lovelace, who also *starred* in bestiality porn. And while we're at it: Let's also talk about feminism and why I really don't wish to see a film of the ultimate male heterosexual fantasy of a woman whose clitoris is in the back of her throat at my local cinema. Can I have one with a man whose penis is made of tongues and feathers, please?! WTF? You missed feminism in your list.

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  13. Sorry, Kat. This wasn't meant to be read as pro-porn propagada. More of an observation than a celebration of pornography's moment in the sun.

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  14. lets not forget russ meyer!!! he made his movies that almost ried to be porn...but were right on the edge. roger ebert helped write his movies!!!

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  15. Good balance of example movie posters and history

    girls-in-magazines.blogspot.com

    And I mean GIRLS

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