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A new kink in cinema’s porn habit

Graphic sex in mainstream movies isn’t new. Hiring a porn star for her conversation is.


 

A new kink in cinema’s porn habitSasha Grey is not the first porn actress to make the leap to mainstream movies. As early as 1977, David Cronenberg cast Marilyn Chambers in Rabid as a zombie with a flesh-piercing phallus in her armpit (though it may be stretching it to call Rabid mainstream). Traci Lords parlayed her infamy as an underage star of adult movies into a string of roles as bimbos and vampires. And Jenna Jameson has built an empire on straddling the median between the adult and mainstream industries. But Grey must be the first hard-core porn actress cast in a lead role by an Oscar-winning director.

In The Girlfriend Experience, a stylish low-budget film by Steven Soderbergh, she plays Chelsea, a high-priced Manhattan call girl. But Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Thirteen) doesn’t exploit Grey’s obvious assets. There’s no explicit sex and not much nudity. Set during last fall’s U.S. presidential election, the story concerns Chelsea’s relationships with her affluent but needy clientele as they fret over economic doom. Improvising dialogue with a cast of non-professional actors, Grey plays a version of herself, a sex worker trying to keep her dignity while selling intimacy.

What makes this prostitute upscale is the charade of friendship—we see her on a movie/dinner date with a client, discussing the finer points of the documentary Man on Wire. And like Chelsea’s customers, who pay $2,000 an hour for a “girlfriend experience,” Soderbergh has hired Grey more for the conversation than the sex. And that’s a new kink in the strange and tangled relationship between porn and serious cinema, which have been kissing cousins for a long time.

Before the Internet turned porn into a blockbuster industry, cinema’s avant-garde had always flirted with erotic extremes. Respected auteurs often led the way, including Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses), Bernardo Bertolucci (The Dreamers), and Ang Lee (Lust, Caution), who have all shot graphic sex with mainstream actors. But sometimes it’s easier just to hire a professional. For a hard-core scene in Romance (1999), French feminist director Catherine Breillat cast porn icon Rocco Siffredi—who, coincidentally, would be Grey’s first partner when she made her adult film debut at 18.

Now 21, Grey has 166 titles under her belt, from Hairy Movie to Face Invaders 4. She has a taste for rough sex, and her scenes rank with the most hard-core stuff out there, featuring virtually every stunt on the adult menu. But she doesn’t fit the usual image of a porn star. Slim and surgically unenhanced, she could pass for the girl next door. And unlike most porn stars who graduate to mainstream roles, she hasn’t disavowed her roots.

On the phone from Australia, where she’s promoting Girlfriend Experience, Grey says she’s sick of hearing complaints from reformed porn stars: “It’s always the redeemed sinner—‘it was all a mistake and someone tricked me into doing this.’ But you know what? If you can’t say no, then you shouldn’t be in this business.” While cultivating mainstream roles, Grey has created her own company and plans to direct, produce and star in her own adult films. On a mission to bring art to smut, she’s the poster girl for a reborn porn liberation movement. Brace yourself for Porn Pride.

Girlfriend Experience is not Grey’s first brush with the mainstream. At 18, she appeared on The Tyra Banks Show, mortifying the host with unapologetic tales of enjoying a gang bang with 18 men. That year she was also the subject of a magazine profile, which is where Soderbergh encountered her. No doubt he was tickled by the fact that, as a film student, this California girl (then Marina Ann Hantzis) was an ardent fan of the New Wave, especially Soderbergh’s idol, Jean-Luc Godard. For her porn alias, she considered calling herself Anna Karina—after the French actress who became Godard’s first wife—before naming herself after Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. As Soderbergh says, “She’s a new breed of something.”

Grey, who’s had the same boyfriend for three years, may identify with the call girl in Girlfriend Experience—whose live-in boyfriend is a personal trainer—but says she could never do her job. “At the end of the day, you’re both having sex for money,” she explains, “but it’s not something I would be comfortable doing, because it’s not safe. I have my partners tested two days before a scene.” With protocols like that, there are some lines between art and porn that may never be erased.


 
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A new kink in cinema’s porn habit

  1. Need to check out a Sasha Grey film LOL JK!!!

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