The Woman Putting the Star Into Porn

The Woman Putting the Star Into Porn

Why does she get on the trampoline, again?

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Why you should care

America’s dirty little secrets aren’t so secret after all. 

Pornography has always existed in a place well beyond irony in American life. Which is why the Swedes first sold their porn to American audiences of the ’70s as “educational.” Americans were like teenagers: They’d heard a lot about sex and took a teenager’s far-from-blasé delight in it. Simultaneously, despite all of the naughty, transgressive fun they were having, they felt sort of dishonestly prudish about screwing.

Something that got blown straight out of the freakin’ water in 1972 when 20-year-old, Connecticut-raised Marilyn Ann Briggs decided to do on film for pay what most of us do in private for free. “Behind the Green Door wasn’t the world’s greatest movie or even the world’s greatest porn,” says Judge Roy Bean, former editor for porn review site SkullGame. But what it was, was the perfect vehicle for getting to a place where its lead, now Marilyn Chambers, had been trying to get to for years: famous.

“You take an actress with real-world bona fides like a credited movie with Barbra Streisand and the famous Ivory Snow soap box,” says Bean, “and America’s dirty little secrets were now not secret at all.” Absent were any oily tales of Chambers being drunk, duped or otherwise deceived into doing it. The now-infamous — and deceased — San Francisco–based Mitchell brothers Jim and Artie sold the role to her on the grounds of the one thing they could deliver outside of the giant salary and then-unheard-of 10 points on the film’s final gross she demanded: that fame thing.

Why is Chambers on the trapeze? Why the psychedelic flying semen?

Which after grossing more than $50 million on a budget of $60,000 in the same year that saw its East Coast counterpart Deep Throat usher in “porn chic,” Behind the Green Door delivered in spades for Chambers. Based like it was on an anonymous short story that existed only on copied sheets of paper, Behind the Green Door told the tale of a woman abducted, taken to a sex club and promised that she’ll be loved like she’s never been loved before. A statement that subsequently sees her having sex with groups of women and men. Maybe more notably, the movie also features the first professionally filmed interracial sex scene (Chambers and boxer Johnny Keyes).

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She got her fame.

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Beyond that, the movie is, well, just sort of nuts. “It really is a terrible movie,” says industry insider Michael Voss. Why is Chambers on the trapeze? Why the psychedelic flying semen? Why seven minutes of psychedelic flying semen? And speaking of semen, why the multicolored, slo-mo semen shot? Why does Chambers have no lines? And why does the film’s narrator break the fourth wall and run out of the club with her at the end?

Doesn’t matter. The mainstream press loved Chambers, people at Cannes loved her, the public couldn’t get enough of her even if Ivory Soap dumped her and the courts tried their damnedest to kill the movie. Chambers, whose face appeared on every poster and whose name appeared above the title, had arrived, and our collective what-if sex fantasies were spread over screens worldwide on the strength of her ebullience and sheer good-looking American normalcy. In short order, Chambers had notoriety, fame, a memoir, runs in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, bad marriages, divorces, jail time, drug addiction and, in 2009, after an aneurysm and a cerebral hemorrhage, death.

“What was most significant about Marilyn,” Bean says, “is that she put such a pretty and wholesome face on all of our most degenerate fantasies.” For which we imagine she’d be glad to take all of the credit/blame even if in the end she derided porn as empty and pointless. “Yeah,” Bean says, “but at the very least she gave us license to have those fantasies.”

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