Want to know how a multibillion-dollar industry rose from the muck of the peep-show booths? What it’s like to be a porn star? To work in an industry that guarantees you the admiration of Howard Stern and the enmity of — well, just about everyone else? Those are among the many things you won’t discover in the 590 pages that comprise Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osbourne’s intriguing but lopsided “The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry.”
It’s hard to believe the world went so long without an authoritative look at the people who create X-rated movies. However, until recently readers had only scholarly texts like Dr. Robert J. Stoller’s excellent “Coming Attractions” and “Porn: Myths for the 20th Century” or peek-a-boo posing as philosophy, such as Ian Gittler’s creepy 1999 collection of stark photographs and even starker essays, “Pornstar.”
With “Other Hollywood” missing several publication dates in the seven years it took to roll off the presses, it stands as the latest entry in a wave of porno nonfiction. Some are celebratory, such as Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ “XXX: 30 Porn Star Portraits.” Traci Lords’ “Underneath It All” is a collection of condemnation and regret. Jenna Jameson’s publishers don’t want to be caught on either side of the fence, so her autobiography is saddled with the half-hearted title “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale.”
In the introduction, McNeil makes it clear he intends to play it straight, to let readers hear the real stories of making porn in the players’ own words, without “cheap put-downs and hip moralizing.”
On that count, he succeeds. “Other Hollywood” is an oral biography, a format McNeil and Gillian McCain used to fine effect in “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.”
By editing interviews and other sources to create an unfiltered narrative, a panoply of witnesses trace porn from the “nudie-cuties” of the 1950s through the 1998 HIV outbreak, with Mark Wallice as the industry’s own Patient Zero.
Among the hundreds who have their say are exploitation producer Dave Friedman; porn star-turned-heroin addict-turned-health educator Sharon Mitchell; porn star-turned-Adult Video News publisher Tim Connelly; and even “Sideways” producer Michael London, who covered the tragic story of porn star Shauna Grant when he was a reporter at the Los Angeles Times.
At its best, straight stories in “Other Hollywood” become larger than life, like the tale of undercover FBI agents Pat Livingston and Bruce Ellavasky. They took on the identities of Florida-based pornographers and indicted 55 distribs, but Livingston became so enamored with his own porn identity that he eventually destroyed the case it took him four years to build.
Other tales, however, suffer from too much telling.
John Holmes’ Wonderland murders are overly familiar to anyone who’s seen “Boogie Nights” or “Wonderland.” Two chapters devoted to John Wayne Bobbit’s brief porno infamy are two too many. And the Mafia’s involvement, while a vital portion of porn’s history, becomes an indistinguishable parade of names like DiBernardo and Zaffarano and Castellano.
A few snoozy moments could be expected in a book that embraces nearly 40 years. However, these glitches become aggravating when the authors give only passing notice to some of the most significant elements of the modern-day porn industry.
After all that mob talk, you might expect a few good stories to follow the legalization of porn production — something about how the power centers shifted from New York to Los Angeles and how legitimate companies like Wicked Pictures and Vivid Entertainment pushed out the Mafia families. Unfortunately, Wicked prexy Steve Orenstein is all but mute; Vivid founder Steve Hirsch is mentioned only in passing.
And while the mainstreaming of porn has become a hoary topic for daytime talkshows, it would be interesting to look at the roots of that trend. However, there’s no indication of how these companies develop porn stars big enough to advertise on Sunset Avenue billboards.
Finally, this is an industry based on the hundreds of women who have sex for the cameras every year, but in “Other Hollywood,” its stars are mostly silent.
Although the authors make good use of the bawdy and loquacious Mitchell, there are no interviews with present-day porn stars; even Jameson is all but invisible.
It would be unfair to presume these gaps were intentional. It’s probably no coincidence that the most fascinating descriptions in the book are of worlds that no longer exist — shooting nudist camp movies that couldn’t show “pickles and beaver,” the “boxed lunch” at Show World in Times Square, Oscar-winning “Million Dollar Baby” producer Al Ruddy reminiscing about doing business with “Deep Throat” backer Joe “The Whale” Peranio. But as “Other Hollywood” moves closer to the present day, its stories become sketches, lacking vivid details.
Frustrating, but not surprising. After all, porn stars make their living on exploitation.