Goodbye to the suburban porn star - Macleans.ca

Goodbye to the suburban porn star

The era of films like ‘Deep Throat’ seems as remote as that of Busby Berkeley musicals

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Goodbye to the suburban porn starSome years ago, at a songwriters’ get-together in New York, I found myself talking to a tanned and rugged fellow who introduced himself as Jack Wrangler. He was very informed on the subject of Johnny Mercer, lyricist of Jeepers Creepers, One for My Baby, Autumn Leaves, Moon River, and much else. I enjoyed the conversation with Mr. Wrangler very much, and said so to a friend at the end of the evening, adding: “Americans have the coolest names. I mean, ‘Jack Wrangler.’ Wow!”

My pal gave me a pitying look, and informed me that Mr. Wrangler was a famous gay porn star. Indeed, for many scholars of the form, he was the gay porn star, an iconic figure from early exposure in New York Construction Company (1970) and Junior Cadets (1970) through big parts in Kansas City Trucking Company (1976) and Sea Cadets (1978). Critics acclaimed his performance in Heavy Equipment (1977) and Boots And Saddles (1982). I don’t want to make it sound as if Mr. Wrangler was an actor of limited range. He also essayed straight porn, such as Debbie Does Dallas 2, which was awfully game of him, considering that, according to him, he’d never done it with a woman, in Dallas or anywhere else, till he was obliged to do it on the big screen.

As far as I’m aware, I’ve never seen Heavy Equipment or Debbie Does Dallas 2. So, had we been chatting about Mr. Wrangler’s film career, I might have had difficulty holding up my end. But he was attending in his capacity as Mister Margaret Whiting. In the early ’40s, Johnny Mercer had signed the young Miss Whiting to his new label, Capitol Records, and she’d had the first hit versions of big songs like That Old Black Magic. Her original Moonlight In Vermont is still hard to beat: she has a wonderfully warm tone, and a very tenderly legato way with the words. Sweet rather than sensual. In other words, not the kind of gal you’d expect to be squiring a porn star round town. But one day in the ’70s she met Jack Wrangler, over 20 years her junior, and they hit it off and she asked him on a date. “I’m gay,” he pointed out. “Only round the edges,” she replied. Margaret’s father was Richard Whiting, who wrote the music for Too Marvelous For Words, Sleepy Time Gal and Hooray For Hollywood. He was a composer but he has one lyric to his credit, a romantically bewildered paean to his wife Eleanor’s inexplicable love for him: (I Got A Woman Crazy For Me) She’s Funny That Way. Jack Wrangler was funny in a whole bunch of other ways, but Margaret Whiting was crazy for him, and they stuck it out together for three decades until he died in early April.

And so a porno stud enjoyed a mid-life career change and became a theatrical impresario: he produced the Johnny Mercer revue Dream on Broadway in 1997, as well as a slightly wacky touring show out on the road interspersing vignettes from Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, the most successful book to come out of Savannah, with songs by Johnny Mercer, the most successful writer to emerge from Savannah. And in his new incarnation as a legit producer it never once occurred to him to ditch his gay porn name: he far preferred “Jack Wrangler” to whatever moniker he’d been born with. On the occasion of his passing, one thinks not of Johnny Mercer but of Frank Loesser:

Little Joe the Wrangler

Will wrangle nevermore

His days with the roundup

They are o’er . . .

A couple of days after Mr. Wrangler, another porn star turned up in the obits: Marilyn Chambers. No post-porn career for Miss Chambers: she did porno, and horror, and porno horror, and horror porn. And then one morning she just died, at the age of 56. As it happens, she starred in an early film by Canada’s David Cronenberg—Rabid—in which she played a young Montrealer who, after a terrible motorcycle accident, discovers she has a vulval orifice in her armpit whence emerges a phallus that feasts on human blood. This was the nearest Marilyn got to going legit, if that’s the word for it. Other than that, any vulvas in her oeuvre (isn’t that an old 1920s novelty song—Vulvas In My Oeuvre?) were unfunded by Canadian taxpayers.

On balance, I prefer Jack Wrangler’s porno sobriquet: Miss Chambers sounds baldly gynecological. But it didn’t seem to hurt. In the late ’60s, she’d been the scrubbed wholesome face of Ivory Soap powder, proudly described by its makers as “99 and 44/100ths per cent pure.” But then the wholesome face and the parts underneath turned up being 99 and 44/100ths per cent impure and apparently enjoying it in Behind the Green Door (1972), so Procter & Gamble decided to get a new face. Green Door and Deep Throat (starring Miss Chambers’s ex-husband’s ex-wife, Linda Lovelace) were the two films that helped to “mainstream pornography” in the early ’70s. Thirty-five years on, it seems as remote an era as that of Richard Whiting’s musicals for Busby Berkeley at Warner Brothers, if somewhat less choreographically precise. Nobody makes porn for suburban cinema audiences, the way they did in the days of I Am Curious (Yellow) and Emmanuelle, Emmanuelle 2, Emmanuelle In Paris, Emmanuelle In Bangkok, Emmanuelle In Sarnia, etc. Instead of the good old days of community porn on Main Street, it’s now a solitary activity via the Internet. Joining the banks and automakers, Larry Flynt applied to Washington for a federal bailout for the “adult entertainment industry”: it was supposed to be too big to fail, but, alas, it’s seen a massive downturn, which is one thing you don’t want to see in an “adult film.” In the long term, the industry fears that “high definition” will kill it off on the grounds that nobody looks good that big and that vivid. I can certainly appreciate that. Coming back to my hotel the other night, I caught the tail end of a rerun of myself on some talk show. And, having seen what my head looks like on a 78-inch plasma screen, I’ve no desire to see my bottom up there.

Still on sex and the obits column, I see the producer Peter Rogers also died this month, at the grand old age of 95. He got rich peddling cheap laughs. One day in 1958 he was sent a serious screenplay about the effects of military conscription on a couple of English ballet dancers. He decided to produce it as a comedy. The result—Carry On Sergeant—was the first of what became the second most successful British film series (after James Bond). There followed Carry On Nurse, Carry On Constable, Carry On Cowboy, Carry On Up The Khyber, and a couple of dozen others, all more or less exactly the same: a bunch of British comic actors, variously prune-faced, lumpy, dozy, camp or emaciated, would set off in improbable pursuit of curvy dolly birds but be stymied by ferocious martinets. Come to think of it, even the dolly birds were rather on the burly side: one recalls Joan Sims as Miss Allcock in Carry On Teacher. The joke underpinning the entire series was that in British English virtually anything can be a synonym for the word “penis.” Thus, in Carry On Henry, Sid James as King Henry VIII gets his Hampton Court—i.e., he gets his hampton caught. A man called Peter Rogers would seem to be the perfect producer for such an enterprise.

Rogers closed the door on the series after getting his hampton caught, box-office-wise, in Carry On Emmannuelle (1978), which pretty much scuttled both franchises. The nymphomaniac Emmannuelle Prevert has her way with the prime minister, the American ambassador and anyone else other than her poor put-upon husband. Key dialogue:

“Why me? You could have Tom, Dick or Harry.”

“I don’t want Tom or Harry.”

One more from the sex ’n’ obits file? Okay. The writer J. G. Ballard died last Sunday. He’s best known for the somewhat untypical semi-memoir Empire Of The Sun, but he also wrote Crash, a novella whose protagonists get sexually aroused by motor-vehicle collisions. Ballard set his book in dreary North London suburbia, but David Cronenberg’s film relocated the auto-eroticism to Toronto and even the 401. At the risk of going all art-house on you, it’s the antithesis of porn: no bumping (apart from the cars), no grinding (apart from their gears). The leading lady, Deborah Kara Unger, chugs through Crash’s innumerable sex scenes looking bored out of her skull, and with the faraway glassy-eyed expression of someone making a mental note to pick up some meringue nests at Loblaws on the way home. Cronenberg arranges Miss Unger’s private parts as if they’re still lifes, and they sit there on the screen for what seems forever, occasionally inching forward like a Honda Civic stuck in traffic on the QEW.

Maybe David Cronenberg should have stuck with Marilyn Chambers. Or maybe J. G. Ballard should have sold the rights to Peter Rogers: Carry On Crashing!