When Sexploitation Goes Bad. Like Very Bad

When Sexploitation Goes Bad. Like Very Bad

Actress Linda Blair poses 1979 in California.

Why you should care

Not everything greenlighted should be greenlighted.

The old saw about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory? Sometimes it happens so stunningly fast and is suddenly complete that not only is nothing the same, but everything has changed.

Witness Linda Blair.

Fresh off her success as an ingenue in one of the biggest films of all time, The Exorcist, Blair was in the eye of a hurricane that blasted all of the right notes. Ten Academy Award nominations in 1973, winning two, along with four Golden Globes and all the celebrity that kind of sudden spotlight brings.

Then, the inexplicable: With all that wind in her sails, the 14-year-old Blair at the behest of whatever kind of management was advising her took a starring role in the made-for-TV special Born Innocent.

If the title wasn’t tip-off enough, Born Innocent carried a creepier tagline that proudly proclaimed, “Only 14 years old and already learning about the terrible realities of life.” Realities that followed a teen running away from physical abuse at home to multiple arrests and an eventual incarceration in a juvenile detention facility. Unlike 1978’s Scared Straight, a sort of torturementary designed to set delinquent kids on the right road, Born Innocent was all about luxuriating in how not right the wrong road was.

And all over America, between 8 and 9 p.m., you could hear the music screech to a halt.

Blair’s character, Chris, is treated no better in teen-girl jail than she was at home, and as she bounces from rung to rung down a ladder of unpleasantness, with apathetic guards and mean girls galore, a horror is unspooling. The specific horror? A rape at the toilet-plunger-wielding hands of her erstwhile compatriots.

And all over America, between 8 and 9 p.m., you could hear the music screech to a halt.

Aired during what was soon to be called the Family Viewing Hour, the world exploded. Gay and lesbian rights organizations objected to the implied causal connection between homosexuality and rape. The National Organization for Women and the New York Rape Coalition piled on. And from the other end of the political spectrum, family-friendly organizations objected to, well, just about everything about the film, which delivered one last and lasting kick in the ass: In the final frame, it’s fairly clear that rather than rising above her travail, Blair’s character Chris succumbs and will face an almost certain future of similar horrible behaviors. Behaviors it fundamentally blames society for.

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Linda Blair on the set of The Exorcist

Source Sunset Boulevard/Getty

The phone lines lit up, forcing the National Association of Broadcasters to try to stave off government involvement by crafting a more specific policy regarding family viewing and what became the Family Viewing Hour. To no avail — lawsuits started to pile up, and copycat crimes had kids raping peers with various instruments. Eventually, a legal challenge made its way to the California Supreme Court, where the film was found not to be obscene and NBC was held blameless for the inspired-by rapes.

As a ‘women in prison’ flick, not erotic. As an NBC movie: What the hell were they thinking?

John S. Nash, film editor

Then the spin. Blair started slinging the line that Born Innocent did, indeed, have redeeming social value in that it had made it easier for survivors of rape to raise their voices. Whatever. In rebroadcasts, the good news was the rape scene was cut, but the rest of the movie wasn’t.

“In general, when they use the word ‘exploitation’ to describe films,” says film editor John S. Nash, “it’s usually sort of fun-loving. John Waters films. Sexploitation. Blaxploitation. Kung Fuploitation. This was not that. Not at all. As a ‘women in prison’ flick, not erotic. As an NBC movie: What the hell were they thinking?”

And Blair’s post–Born Innocent career? Full of films with titles like Sarah T. — Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, Sweet Hostage, Hell Night, Chained Heat, Savage Streets and, most recently in 2016, Surge of Power.

But Blair today? Busy with various charities and spending whatever media time she has talking about them and only slightly irked at having to be hauled back over her film career. “I think I have been extremely polite about answering questions about The Exorcist almost every single day of my life,” Blair told the New York Daily News.

But Born Innocent? “That was just plain really hard to do,” Blair later said to Fangoria. “It was hard. Didn’t like that. But, you know, I hoped it would make a difference, and it did. It really drove people to change their course in life.”

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