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"Boogie Nights" and Its Unique 1970s Nostalgia Trip
Just a handful of films under his belt, Paul Thomas Anderson has proven himself as a well-respected and critically acclaimed writer/director with smart scripts that feature outstanding acting ensembles. In 1997, “Boogie Nights” was his breakthrough on the scene that featured a terrific cast that painted a spotlight on the behind-the-scenes of “the golden age of porn” in the 1970s. Like any epic story, “Boogie Nights” recounts the rise and fall of a group of actors and filmmakers in a taboo industry that also pays tribute to the culture of the iconic time period.
Mark Wahlberg plays the young naïve Eddie Adams, who commutes from his parents house in Torrance, California to the San Fernando Valley in hopes of making it big. He believes “everyone has one special gift”... his happens to be his large appendage and his love making ability. His bedroom is littered with 70s pop culture nostalgia (posters of “Serpico,” Bruce Lee, and the infamous Farrah Fawcett portrait). Upon breaking into the business, he creates his stage name, Dirk Diggler, a name that “could cut glass.”
Both Joaquin Phoenix and Leonardo DiCaprio were considered for the role of Diggler before Wahlberg was cast. In fact, DiCaprio would have turned down his star-making performance in “Titanic” if he took this role. Wahlberg, who originally made his name as a white rapper in the early 1990s, may or may not have been the perfect choice for this role. With all due respect, Wahlberg isn’t the greatest actor. Aside from the entertaining role in his Oscar-nominated performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” Wahlberg’s acting tends to be one-dimensional. However, it should be noted that his character Eddie Adams / Dirk Diggler is supposed to be a nobody who happens to have a body part that proves well in the adult entertainment industry. His character’s ability to act doesn’t fit with mainstream Hollywood roles but finds its place in pornography / B-movie roles. He’s also a young, naïve kid who gets in over his head and later gets involved with excess while trying to attach himself to a family that loves him. So perhaps this proved to be the right role for Wahlberg’s acting ability.
Early in the film, Adams meets up with director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds in his comeback role) at a Reseda nightclub. Adams is introduced to actresses Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), who serves as a mother figure to Horner’s acting ensemble.
Jack has his own vision of creating pornographic films that are more than just people getting it on on-screen. He wants to create stories that will leave the audience in the seats long after they pleasure themselves. Aside from the adult erotica, Jack sees himself as the next Cecile B. DeMille but in reality is your run-of-the-mill B-movie director.
Eddie (still a teenager) runs away from home and is instantly embraced by this newfound “family” in the golden age of 70s porn. He is introduced to would-be co-star Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), who is a long way from your typical porn stud. On the DVD commentary, Anderson states that he has been long-time friends with Reilly and refers to him as the funniest person he knows. In the years since, Reilly has been a welcomed addition to comedy films such as “Step Brothers” and “Walk Hard.”
Over the course of the film, the supporting cast is worth noting as many of whom are frequently cast in Anderson’s films:
Don Cheadle plays Buck Swope, a pornographic actor and part-time stereo salesman. While he proves himself as a porn actor, his real passion is in stereophonics. Unfortunately, his love for country western music puts off most of his customers.
William H. Macy plays “Little” Bill Thompson, the assistant director for Horner who is burdened by his wife’s (veteran porn actress Nina Hartley) not-so-subtle infidelity with male porn stars.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Scotty J., the boom operator with a secret crush on Diggler.
Robert Ridgely plays Colonel James who funds Horner’s productions. Upon meeting Diggler for the first time, he is left with a genuine stunned look upon gazing at Diggler’s endowment.
Philip Baker Hall as Floyd Gondolli, a financier who convincers Horner of cutting cost by filming on video tape as the new technology emerges in the early 1980s.
Diggler’s first scene is a look into the film-making process itself. It isn’t just two attractive people getting freaky. It’s two actors surrounded by a dozen crew members filming a production on a staged set. Yet, the film crew is amazed by Diggler’s on-screen sexual prowess.
As his films take off and is enjoying early success, Diggler indulges himself in the disco-era fashion and nightlife. Soon, Diggler and Rothchild pitch the character duo Brock Landers and Chest Rockwell, a mix of action and erotica. After making his mark at the annual Adult Film Awards, Diggler’s ego goes from naïve upstart to self-important star who believes his work is well-appreciated and deserves further respect.
On New Year’s Eve 1980, Amber introduces Diggler to cocaine, which would later contribute to both his personal downfall and the decline of the “golden era” of the porn industry depicted in the film. That same night, “Little” Bill catches his wife with another man for the umpteenth time and has had enough, climaxing in the murder-suicide at the party and the mark of the end of the 1970s for this “family.” This scene marks a low-point in the story despite most of the characters’ optimism towards the 1980s decade.
Deep into his cocaine addiction, Diggler is unable to perform on set and gets into a nasty fight with Horner. Rothchild follows suit. Cut to 1983 and the two try to get a record deal in a humorous scene inside a record studio demonstrating their (lack of) talent.
Deep into their addiction, the two reside with their drug-runner friend Todd (Thomas Jane). Meanwhile, Amber and Rollergirl engage in endless cocaine abuse while developing a faux mother-daughter bond. Soon, it’s revealed that Amber has been in a years-long custody battle for her biological son against her ex-husband but is denied due to her background in pornography and arrest record. The film’s second act climaxes in an intersecting night in the valley that proves to be the low-point in three character arcs: Diggler resorts to prostitution for drug money, Horner and Rollergirl attempt to film an impromptu scene inside a limo by picking up a random stranger, and Buck finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time at a donut shop while his pregnant wife Jessie St. Vincent (Melora Waters) waits in the car.
The following scene has since remained one of the most memorable of the film. Diggler, Rothchild, and Todd attempt to scam a local eccentric drug dealer (Alfred Molina) but get in over their heads. What follows is an insane exchange and escape set to Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” and Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.”
The film concludes with the cast attempting to reach either redemption or new stages in their lives. Whether it’s mending old relationships, starting families, or running their own business, the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” serves as a fitting song that runs over a montage of various character epilogues and closes out the film that covered such a hectic time period for such a unique industry.
Upon the release of this film, Anderson received much deserved acclaim but at the same time a lot of comparisons were made between him and Scorsese, particularly “Goodfellas.” True, both “Goodfellas” and “Boogie Nights” chronicled a close-knit ensemble cast set to period music, long tracking shots, and a blunt presentation of adult themes and violence. But Anderson has gone on to say that he is more influenced by the likes of Jonathan Demme and Robert Altman. More than a decade on, “Boogie Nights” remains an important mark in independent filmmaking, storytelling, ensemble acting, and a tribute to a lost culture.