The Golden Age of Porn, or porno chic, refers to a 15-year period (about 1969–1984) in commercial American pornography in which sexually-explicit films experienced positive attention from mainstream cinemas, movie critics, and the general public. It began with release of the 1969 film Blue Movie directed by Andy Warhol, and the 1970 film Mona produced by Bill Osco. These films were the first adult erotic films depicting explicit sex to receive wide theatrical release in the United States. Both influenced the making of films such as 1972's Deep Throat starring Linda Lovelace and directed by Gerard Damiano, Behind the Green Door starring Marilyn Chambers and directed by the Mitchell brothers, 1973's The Devil in Miss Jones also by Damiano, and 1976's The Opening of Misty Beethoven by Radley Metzger (considered by award-winning author Toni Bentley, the "crown jewel" of the Golden Age).
- Deep Throat
- The Devil in Miss Jones
- "Porno chic"
- Supreme Court's 1973 Miller v. California
- Post 1973
- Feminist criticism
- Golden Age stars
- Second wave stars
- Films of the period
Following mentions by Johnny Carson on his popular TV show, and Bob Hope on TV as well, Deep Throat achieved major box office success, despite being rudimentary by mainstream standards. In 1973, the more accomplished, but still low-budget, film The Devil in Miss Jones was the seventh most successful film of the year, and was well received by major media, including a favorable review by film critic Roger Ebert. The phenomenon of porn being publicly discussed by celebrities, and taken seriously by critics, a development referred to, by Ralph Blumenthal of The New York Times, as "porno chic", began for the first Time in modern American culture. It became obvious that box office returns of very low budget adult erotic films could fund further advances in the technical and production values of porn, making it extremely competitive with Hollywood films. There was concern that, left unchecked, the vast profitability of such films would lead to Hollywood being influenced by pornography.
Prior to this, thousands of U.S. state and municipal anti-obscenity laws and ordinances held that participating in the creation, distribution, or consumption of pornography constituted criminal action. Multi-jurisdictional interpretations of obscenity made such films highly susceptible to prosecution and criminal liability for obscenity, thereby greatly restricting their distribution and profit potential. However, the US Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Miller v. California, narrowing and simplifying the definition of obscenity, resulted in dramatically fewer prosecutions nationwide. Freedom in creative license, higher movie budgets and payouts, and a "Hollywood mindset" all contributed to this period.
However, with the increasing availability of videocassette recorders for private viewing in the 1980s, video supplanted film as the preferred distribution medium for pornography, which quickly reverted to being low budget and openly gratuitous, ending this "Golden Age".
Pornographic films were produced in the early 20th century as "stag" movies, intended to be viewed at male gatherings or in brothels. In the United States, social disapproval was so great that men in them sometimes attempted to conceal their face by subterfuge, such as a false mustache (used in A Free Ride) or even being masked. Very few people were ever identified as appearing in such films; and performers were often presumed to have been prostitutes or criminals. Vincent Drucci is said to have performed in a pornographic film made in 1924. Candy Barr, who appeared in the 1950s Smart Alec, was virtually unique among those appearing in stag films, having attained a degree of celebrity through her participation.
In the US, during the late 1960s, there was regular semi-underground production of pornographic films on a modest scale. After answering New York newspaper advertisements for nude models, Eric Edwards and Jamie Gillis, among others, appeared in these films, which were silent black and white 'loops' of low quality, often intended for peep booth viewing in the proliferation of adult video arcades around Times Square. The product of the New York porn industry was distributed nationwide by underworld figure Robert DiBernardo, who commissioned the production of much of the so-called 'Golden Age' era films made in New York. Although not the first adult film to obtain a wide theatrical release in the US, none had achieved a mass audience, and changed public attitude toward pornography, as Deep Throat did.
Blue Movie by Andy Warhol, released in 1969, and, more freely, Mona, by Bill Osco, released in 1970, were the first films depicting explicit sex to receive wide theatrical distribution in the United States. Although Blue Movie involved sexual intercourse, the film, starring Viva and Louis Waldon, included substantial dialogue about the Vietnam War and various mundane tasks. Besides being a seminal film in the 'Golden Age of Porn', Blue Movie, according to Warhol, was a major influence in the making of Last Tango in Paris, an internationally controversial erotic drama film, starring Marlon Brando, and released a few years after Blue Movie was made.
The film Mona differed from Blue Movie by presenting more of a story plot: Mona (played by Fifi Watson) had promised her mother that she would remain a virgin until her impending marriage. Later, in December 1971, the film Boys in the Sand, one of the first adult erotic films, after Blue Movie in 1969, to be reviewed by Variety magazine, was released and opened in theaters across the United States and around the world.
The 'Golden Age of Porn' continued in 1972 with Deep Throat. It officially premiered at the World Theater in New York on June 12, 1972 and was advertised in The New York Times under the bowdlerized title Throat. After Johnny Carson talked about the film on his nationally top-rated TV show and Bob Hope, as well, mentioned it on TV, Deep Throat became very profitable and a box-office success, according to one of the figures behind the film. In its second year of release, Deep Throat just missed Variety's top 10. However, by then, it was often being shown in a double bill with the most successful of the top three adult erotic films released in the 1972–1973 era, The Devil in Miss Jones, which easily outperformed Deep Throat, while leaving Behind the Green Door trailing in third place.
The Devil in Miss Jones
The 1973 film The Devil in Miss Jones was ranked number seven in the Variety list of the top ten highest-grossing pictures of 1973, despite lacking the wide release and professional marketing of Hollywood and having been virtually banned across the country for half the year (see Miller v. California, below). Some critics have described the film as, along with Deep Throat, one of the "two best erotic motion pictures ever made". William Friedkin called The Devil in Miss Jones a "great film", partly because it was one of the few adult erotic films with a proper storyline. Roger Ebert referred to The Devil in Miss Jones as the "best" of the genre he had seen and gave it three-stars (of four). Ebert also suggested the film's box office receipts were inflated as a way of laundering the profits from illegal activities, although such a method would have required organised crime to be paying taxes on their illegally obtained income.
The Devil in Miss Jones was one of the first films to be inducted into the XRCO Hall of Fame. The sound-recording, cinematography, and story-line of The Devil in Miss Jones were of a considerably higher quality than any previous porn film. The lead, Georgina Spelvin, who had been in the original Broadway run of The Pajama Game, combined vigorous sex with an acting performance some thought as convincing as anything to be seen in a good mainstream production. She had been hired as a caterer, but Gerard Damiano, the film director, was impressed with her reading of Miss Jones's dialogue, while auditioning an actor for the non-sex role of 'Abaca'. According to Variety's review, "With The Devil in Miss Jones, the hard-core porno feature approaches an art form, one that critics may have a tough time ignoring in the future". The review also described the plot as comparable to Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit, and went on to describe the opening scene as, "a sequence so effective it would stand out in any legit theatrical feature." It finished by stating, "Booking a film of this technical quality into a standard sex house is tantamount to throwing it on the trash heap of most current hard-core fare."
An influential five-page article in The New York Times Magazine in 1973 described the phenomenon of porn being publicly discussed by celebrities, and taken seriously by critics, a development referred to, by Ralph Blumenthal of The New York Times, as "porno chic". Some expressed the opinion that pornographic films would continue to extend their access to US theaters, and the mainstream film industry would gravitate toward the influence of porn.
Supreme Court's 1973 Miller v. California
Supreme Court's 1973 Miller v. California decision redefined obscenity from "utterly without socially redeeming value" to lacks "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value". Crucially, it made 'contemporary community standards' the criterion, holding that obscenity was not protected by the First Amendment; the ruling gave leeway to local judges to seize and destroy prints of films adjudged to violate local community standards. The Miller decision stymied porn distribution. The Devil in Miss Jones, as well as Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, was prosecuted successfully during the latter half of 1973; the Supreme Court's Miller decision closed much of America to the exhibition of adult erotic films, and often led to it being banned outright. Porn films would never again feature so prominently in the mainstream movie business, until the emergence of the internet in the 1990s.
In the aftermath of the Supreme Court's decision to have put mass box office returns beyond the reach of pornographic films, the leaps in the films' quality that had occurred between 1972 and 1973 was not sustained. With their relatively modest financial means, a predicted move of organised crime into Hollywood failed to materialise. Pornographic films continued to be a highly profitable business, and thrived throughout the rest of the 1970s, leading to the concept of porn 'stars' gaining currency. Ostracism of porn performers meant they almost invariably used pseudonyms. Being outed as having appeared in porn usually put an end to an actor's hope of a mainstream career. An indication of the returns still possible was that a 1976 release, Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Comedy, favorably reviewed by film critic Roger Ebert in 1976, reportedly grossed over $90 million globally. Some historians assess The Opening of Misty Beethoven, based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (and its derivative, My Fair Lady), and directed by Radley Metzger, as attaining a mainstream level in storyline and sets. The film has been considered, by award-winning author Toni Bentley, the "crown jewel" of the 'Golden Age'.
In general, after 1973, adult erotic films emulated mainstream filmmaking storylines and conventions, merely to frame the depictions of sexual activity to prepare an 'artistic merit' defense against possible obscenity charges. The adult film industry remained stuck at the level of 'one day wonders', finished by participants hired for only a single day. The ponderous technology of the time meant filming a simple scene would often take hours due to the need for the camera to be laboriously set up for each shot. Repeated sustained performances might be required on cue at any time over the course of a day, which was an issue for men without the recourse to modern Viagra-type drugs. Production was concentrated in New York where organized crime was widely believed to have control over all aspects of the business, and to prevent entry of competitors. Although their budgets were usually very low, a subcultural level of appreciation exists for films of this era, which were produced by a core group of around thirty performers, some of whom had other jobs. Several were actors who could handle dialogue when required. However, some participants scoffed at the idea that what they did, qualified as "acting". By the early 1980s, the rise of home video had led to the end of the era when people went to movie theaters to see sex shot on 35mm film with production values, ultimately culminating with the rise of the internet in the 1990s.
The 'Golden Age' was a period of interactions between pornography and the contemporaneous second wave of feminism. Radical and cultural feminists, along with religious and conservative groups, attacked pornography, while other feminists were pro-pornography, such as Camile Paglia, who defined what came to be known as sex-positive feminism in her work, Sexual Personae. Paglia and other sex-positive or pro-pornography feminists accepted porn as part of the sexual revolution with its libertarian sexual themes, such as exploring bisexuality and swinging, free from government interference. The endorsement of female critics was essential for the credibility of the brief era of "porno chic".
Golden Age stars
Major pornographic film actors of the first part of the 'Golden Age', the "porno chic" era, included:
At the time of the maturation of the second wave, movies increasingly were being shot on video for home release.
As their popularity rose, so did their control of their careers. John Holmes became the first recurring porn character in the "Johnny Wadd" film series directed by Bob Chinn. Lisa De Leeuw was one of the first to sign an exclusive contract with a major adult production company, Vivid Video, and Marilyn Chambers worked in mainstream movies, being one of the first of a rare number of crossover porn actors.
Major producers during the first wave of the 'Golden Age', the "Porno Chic" era, include:
Films of the period
Some of the best-known adult erotic films of the period include: