David F. Friedman’s love letter to an adult film industry that was already becoming a distant memory in the age of video.
It’s rare to find a movie which marks out the point where a film genre changed course, but Matinee Idol is one such film. If we split the adult film world into two parts – the golden age of theatrical production and the video era which followed – then this film was the last of the former. Shot in 1984, it was the last great X-rated theatrical movie, and by the time it was released almost a year later, the genre was more or less dead on its feet. Video had taken over, and the Pussycat Theatres and other XXX movie houses were closing up shop, unable to compete with the anonymity of the video store. After Matinee Idol, no producers would lavish as much time and attention on their movies for almost a decade.
It’s apt, therefore, that the film is not only a joyous celebration of adult moviemaking but was also produced by one of the industry’s pioneers. David F. Friedman had been involved in adult entertainment since the end of the Fifties, when he and director Herschell Gordon Lewis shot The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, a nudie-cutie film in the style of Russ Meyer‘s The Immoral Mr Teas, which had finally broken the taboo on bare breasts in 1959. Friedman’s subsequent career reads like a potted history of the adult movie. After splitting with Lewis, he moved from lightweight nudie films to so-called ‘roughies’, again inspired by the work of Russ Meyer (this time Lorna). These films would substitute violence for sex (which was still considered a step too far) and mixed rape, murder and pseudo S&M with tame nudity. As censorship became more relaxed later in the decade, Friedman would move into softcore production, with films such as Starlet – a film which would provide a template for Matinee Idol, with its ‘searing’ look behind the scenes of Hollywood’s skinflick industry – and Trader Hornee. When hardcore finally broke out into the open in the Seventies, Friedman was ready, and produced several of the era’s best films: Seven Into Snowy, The Budding of Brie, Alexandra and others. He also formed and headed The Adult Film Association of America at the time, giving this still legally questionable industry a unified voice for the first time.
By the time he came to shoot Matinee Idol, Friedman could see the writing on the wall. Video had first been introduced at the end of the Seventies, and at first seemed as though it would provide a welcome second income for movies after they had finished their theatrical runs. However, by the early Eighties, more and more titles were not only being released straight to video, but were also being shot on this new format, which offered a far cheaper and faster way of making movies. The industry initially thought that straight-to-video would only be for smaller movies (much as it is in the mainstream industry), but as more and more new producers emerged, attracted by the low costs and the fact that you didn’t need much technical know-how to shoot on tape, the theatrical porn business began to suffer. The market for porn was expanding, but the one group who weren’t feeling the benefits were the theatre owners. Going to see a porno film in a cinema was never going to be able to compete with video, where you could rent a film from a general video store, take it home and watch it with your wife – stopping to have sex if you felt like it – without ever having to worry that your neighbours, family or friends would find out. Even when Matinee Idol began production, porn theatres were closing. Realising that it was unquestionably the end of an era, Friedman decided to go out in style (like many other porn producers and directors of the Golden Age, he had no interest in making films on video) and wrote a film which celebrated the days when porn had ambition and class.
His screenplay told the story of an adult movie producer, D.A. Kuntz, who’s Sensational International Studios is plagued with problems. His top male star (John Leslie) is in the midst of a feud with his leading lady (Jesie St James), and the only answer seems to be to find two new stars for them to perform with. St James finds that her pool cleaner (Herschel Savage) is more than up to the task, whilst Leslie regains his zest for life with Angel. However, things don’t work out quite as planned – Savage and Angel fall in love, quit the business and leave the two big stars to carry on bickering, while Kuntz and business partner H.D. Cox (Elmer Fox – a regular non-sex performer in Friedman’s films) carry on tearing their hair out.
Friedman knew he needed a great director for this ambitious production, and turned to the name who, at the time, was at the peak of his career – Henri Pachard. Real name Ron Sullivan, Pachard had, like many directors of the time, been a mainstream film-maker whose dabbling in softcore had eventually led to a lucrative – and lengthy – career in porn. The two of them had worked together on the excellent period drama The Budding of Brie a few years earlier, and Pachard had deservedly won Best Director for Devil in Miss Jones 2 at the AFAA Awards whilst Friedman was originally conceiving Matinee Idol, so seemed the logical choice.
Friedman himself took the role of D.A. Kuntz in a rare screen appearance (his previous biggest role was as a Nazi general in Bob Cresse’s ultra-sleazy Love Camp 7 in 1967) and ensured that the rest of the cast were the best the industry had to offer. John Leslie and Jesie St James were at the peak of their careers when the film went into production – Leslie would go on to become one of the best directors in the business a few years later, and St James retired rather than make the move into video production. Herschel Savage was still a fresh-faced new kid on the block at the time, and so well suited to his role, and the supporting cast included several popular names. Kay Parker was best known as the star of incestuous drama Taboo, and carved quite a niche playing more mature women, being in her thirties when she started her hardcore career. Busty Colleen Brennan already had several years experience in softcore during the early Seventies under her real name Sharon Kelly, before reinventing herself with a new name and becoming one of the most popular women in the business. For her too, this film would be the end of an era, and she retired from the business soon afterwards. Tigr (aka Chelsea Manchester) was another popular starlet, though is possibly best known as Sharon Mitchell’s real-life junkie lover – their squalid mid-eighties lives were captured on the pseudo-documentary Kamikaze Hearts . Also appearing was Laurie Smith, who was one of the endless stream of starlets who have a career lasting a couple of years and then vanish.
The role of Daisy Cheney, hot new starlet, was initially to have been played by Shauna Grant, the fresh-faced blue-eyed blonde who became one of the first video superstarlets. However, on the very day that production began, Grant – a drug dependent, emotional mess at this time – blew her head off with a shotgun. Friedman immediately halted production, eventually resuming the shoot some months later with Angel in the role originally intended for Grant. Angel was one of the cutest starlets of the time (and, significantly, looked nothing like Grant) but had become the butt of industry jokes when a glut of films tried to claim that they featured her first performance. In fact, Angel stayed officially 18 for pretty much the whole of her career, despite the fact that she was older than that when she began in 1982. When Matinee Idol ‘s credits said “introducing Angel”, it was a sly in-joke from Friedman, ever the showman.
The reduced state of adult cinema in 1984 meant that it would take a year for Matinee Idol to find a release, and by then, it seemed quaintly old fashioned – St James had already retired by the time it played a handful of theatres, and the video release was not a success, being buried in the glut of low budget porn flicks that were appearing at an ever-expanding rate. Thankfully, the film has since been hailed by critics as theatrical porn’s last great movie.
Matinee Idol paints a rosy picture of porn production during the Golden Age – the studio sound stages, production offices and general Hollywood-style behind the scenes imagery of the film was always more fantasy than reality. Ironically, these days, porn companies really do have these things. But the film is not concerned with reality – instead, it’s an infectiously fond celebration of the business – a love letter to adult entertainment by one of its founding fathers. And that rare beast – a porn film which works both as hardcore and cinema. Catch it if you can.