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Is John Waters the Next Robert Osborne? Filmmaker to Host Playboy’s Classic Porn

Playboy is hoping it can do for old porn what Time Warner’s Turner Classic Movies does for the best cinema of yesteryear.

The adult-entertainment company’s premium cable outlet, Playboy TV, will on Saturday night start a series called “Groundbreakers,” which will feature film director John Waters presenting and commenting upon some of the porn industry’s earliest commercial film successes.

“Porn classics are another extreme element of show business,” Waters said in an interview. Playboy reached out to him to host the series, and he was immediately interested, he said, having a strong interest in the history of cult cinema. “It’s an educational opportunity. You learn about the shows that you masturbated to for the first time.”

Others have tested the format. Showtime enlisted comedian Dave Attell to make fun of clips from old porn movies as part of “Dave’s Old Porn,” and he is often joined by comedians as well as actors from the films.

Waters will host five viewings of porn films including 1972’s “Deep Throat,” 1978’s “Candy Stripers,” 1973’s “The Devil In Miss Jones,” 1976’s “Tell Them Johnny Wadd Is Here” and 1978’s “Debbie Does Dallas.” The first will be shown Saturday, January 17, at 10 p.m., with the others following on four more Saturdays, skipping Valentine’s Day, which is reserved for other programming.

“Some porn is obscene,” said Waters, whose own work has often walked a line between cult and mainstream. (He is best known for films like 1981’s “Polyester” and 1972’s “Pink Flamingos” that often explore subjects once believed to be too taboo for quotidian moviegoers. Yet two of his later movies, 1988’s “Hairspray” and 1990’s “Cry-Baby,” were adapted for Broadway.)

Even so, some of the genre’s earliest work became part of popular culture, he said, recalling press reports of Jacqueline Onassis and Truman Capote seeing “Deep Throat.” He will offer comments on the five films in segments that appear before and after the movie starts and also in three segments that will appear between segments of the films, said Wendy Miller, vice president of development and current programming at Playboy TV.

These relics may be dusty, but the controversy these films sparked when they were unspooled in theaters in the 1970s strikes a chord in 2015. The movies, which show graphic sexual scenes and other elements not deemed appropriate for mainstream audiences, spurred a huge debate over freedom of expression, much as the recent killings of staffers at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo have done. Waters said he has issues with some of the heterosexual porn presented today, but noted “that is the extremes of free speech that we have to put up with.”

The director said the films created a milieu he still remembers today: Theaters in his old stomping grounds of Baltimore that would show the movies, and the people and organizations who were outraged by them. “I pretended I owned a dirty movie theater. That’s how I played as a child,” he recalled.

It’s the history that might attract viewers, suggested Miller, the Playboy TV executive. “You might think of them as just old smut, but each of them has a really interesting story,” she said. She came up with the idea a few months ago, and found that January had room in the programming schedule. “Why don’t we really do something, run the movie and give some history, and show why they are actually important movies that played a role in history?” Playboy TV does not run commercials and is viewed only by subscribers.

Procuring the films for the network posed a small challenge, Miller said. While some of the movies are now part of the public domain, in other cases some companies claim to control the rights, and that had to be navigated.

In other cases, getting a high-quality print of the films proved difficult. “Some of them were hard to find,” she said. For “Deep Throat,” for example, executives actually examined Playboy founder Hugh Hefner’s 16-milimeter copy of the film before chancing upon a digital print, said Miller. Despite the search, some of the movies “are a little worse for wear,” she said. “These are movies that never were protected. Why would you?” she asked.

Both Miller and Waters are interested in continuing the effort, providing the initial foray is received well. “I’m ready to film the sequel,” said Waters. “Let’s put it that way.”

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