By 1971, the New York Times had dubbed San Francisco "The Porn Capital of America." On July 4, 1969, Jim and Artie Mitchell had opened the O'Farrell Theater, where they would show groundbreaking films such as Autobiography of a Flea (1976). Why groundbreaking? Because not only was it a period piece, it was directed by a woman, Sharon McKnight, and featured the debut of Paul Thomas. The Mitchell Brothers would also make a star out of one of the original "Ivory Soap girls," Marilyn Chambers (real name: Marilyn Briggs). Behind the Green Door (1972) is a psychedelic, arty, very San Francisco sort of porn film which nevertheless "became a lightning rod in the debate over pornography," writes Ford. "Defenders saw Chambers as a nice girl who discovers herself through sex. Opponents saw her character as enslaved and humiliated... Jim and Artie Mitchell loved the fight because it sold tickets to their film."
San Francisco of the 70s was also, of course, the Mecca to which gays and lesbians, bi- and transsexuals, just about anyone whose sexuality was not welcome in flyover country, flocked. Wakefield Poole is credited with making the first modern gay hardcore adult film, Boys in the Sand, filmed on Fire Island and released in New York in December 1971. But for Poole, San Francisco was home and, besides other features, he shot a documentary on the Gay Pride Parade in 1974 before abandoning film in the late 80s. It's not an unhappy ending, though. He's an admired chef and wrote his autobiography in 2000, Dirty Poole: The Autobiography of a Gay Porn Pioneer. In 2002, New York's Anthology Film Archives presented a retrospective of his early films.
But back to the 70s, specifically, to 1972, the year the dam broke. Director Gerard Damiano unleashed the Deep Throat juggernaut in June of that year at the New World Theater on 49th Street in New York City. Turan and Zito report that among those who took in its first run were Frank Sinatra, Spiro Agnew, Warren Beatty, Truman Capote, and of course, Bob Woodward. For the New York Times film critic at the time, Vincent Canby, it was simply a matter of sheer luck, a confluence of social forces: "I'm sure if Deep Throat hadn't caught the public's fancy at this point in history, some other porno film, no better and maybe no worse, would have."
But Damiano was the lucky one, ushering in an age of what that same paper called "porno chic." Deep Throat was the talk of late night TV, "the one XXX film to attend to see what all the fuss was about," writes Merritt, "grossing tens of millions of dollars (totals vary greatly)." It also made a celebrity out of Linda Lovelace, a controversial figure who later claimed that she performed in all her porn films - and there were many, shorts and features alike - at gunpoint. In the 80s and early 90s, Lovelace became a mascot for feminist critics of the porn industry such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon who claimed that porn incites men to act violently towards women. Dworkin and MacKinnon sparked a debate that split feminism down the middle. Katie Roiphe, for example, countered, "Precisely the danger in this kind of feminism is that it creates a dwindling space for men. It makes men into objectifiers - sleazy, brutish creatures only interested in sex."
And Deep Throat itself, as a film? Well, the story is based on a rather unusual premise. A woman, Lovelace, pays her doctor a visit, complaining that she's never experienced an orgasm. Dr. Young (Harry Reems) discovers the cause: Her clitoris is in her throat. Despite the humor, a welcome innovation in the genre, most argue that Damiano's other porn blockbuster of the same year, The Devil in Miss Jones, is the better film. [For more on Deep Throat see the documentary film Inside Deep Throat.]
One other landmark of the "Golden Age" should be mentioned, Radley Metzger's The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1975), widely regarded as one of the best of the era and winner of the first annual Erotic Film Festival Award. Of course, it also marked a move for Metzger's out of the realm of softcore; he filmed it under the name Henry Paris.
That was then, this is now
Anyone who's seen Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights can tell you what put an end to the "Golden Age": Video. The advent of home video, on the one hand, which had a radical effect on the entire industry, not just porn, and on the other, the use of video in production. Suddenly, porn could be made quite cheaply, which was bad news for directors used to generous budgets and a non-assembly line approach, and it could be viewed in the privacy of one's own home, which was certainly bad news for theaters like the O'Farrell and countless others coast to coast.
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