Two movies came out this past week, both to great financial success that few saw coming. Both the male stripper movie Magic Mike and raunchy comedy Ted exceeded expectations, and yet as different as both of these films are, it struck me that neither movie would exist in their present form if it wasn’t for a certain film that came out fifteen years ago this October named Boogie Nights. Magic Mike cribs almost its entire plot structure (as well as certain scenes outright) from Boogie Nights, and because of the success all those years ago of this movie, Mark Whalberg went from being a pop culture punchline much like Vanilla Ice to a respected and bankable actor and eventual Oscar nominee. And all because of one low budget flick about making porn in the swinging 70′s San Fernando Valley.
Boogie Nights was like lightning in a bottle, with all the right elements coming together in just the perfect way, from script to cast to score. Written and directed by a then 25 year old Paul Thomas Anderson, the film was based on his own short film he made at the age of 17 called The Dirk Diggler Story, a mockumentary about the rise and fall of a John Holmes-esque porn star in the 1970′s and 80′s. Always having had an obsession with the films of the 1970′s 16mm porno heyday, Anderson used the short film he made as a teenager as the basis for Boogie Nights. The core of the story was still the rise and fall of Dirk Diggler, but the cast extended to several other characters in the X rated movie business as well, and became an ensemble piece. It also became, at least in my humble opinion, one of the greatest movies of the 1990′s.
Boogie Nights attempts and succeeds at both being an intimate character piece as well as a snapshot of a certain time in America. In the early to late 70′s, before the age of home video, X-rated movies were shown in real movie theaters, not just porn theaters, and it wasn’t just horny single guys who went to see them. For a brief time in this country, it was trendy for couple to go see the newly legal pornography on the big screen together on date night. Movies like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door were among the highest grossing movies of their respective years of release; not just highest grossing X rated movies mind you, but highest grossing movies period. Amidst all the character drama, Boogie Nights chronicles the end of this era of porn as quasi legitimate film, before it became disposable VHS product with low production value for mass consumption in the 1980′s, which of course led to the “everyone’s a porn star as long as they have a computer” world we live in today.
It isn’t to say Boogie Nights wasn’t appreciated in it’s day, because it certainly was. Boogie was nominated for multiple Oscars, (for Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore most notably) and made a decent return on its $15 million dollar budget. $43 million may not seem like a lot of money by today’s standards, but fifteen years ago for a nearly three hour R rated epic about the porn industry in the San Fernando Valley to make that much was a pretty big surprise to almost everyone. And yet it feels that unlike movies like Pulp Fiction, Heat, The Usual Suspects and other ensemble movies from the 90′s, Boogie Nights doesn’t quite get the recognition it deserves today (although not too long ago, Empire Magazine readers voted it #152 on their 500 greatest movies of all time list, so someone out there other than myself feels as strongly as I do) So in honor of the film’s 15th Anniversary, here are just a few reasons why I think Boogie Nights is one of the best and most influental films of the past couple of decades, and why if you haven’t seen it already you should do yourself a favor and Netflix this sucker today.
I first saw Boogie Nights when it was released theatrically back 1997, and I remember being completely blown away by it. I remember that I just sat their in my seat dumbstruck, way past the credits rolling, realizing I’d just witnessed a movie I felt was surely destined to be a classic. I’d barely seen any of the cast before in any movie that I could recall (with a few exceptions, most obviously Burt Reynolds and William H. Macy) but I knew that if there was any justice in this world, every single actor in this movie would go on to greater stardom and success.
Turns out they just about all did; the careers of almost the entire principal cast was pretty much made by Boogie Nights. Prior to Boogie, almost everyone had steadily worked in movies before, but with most of the cast, you can view their careers today as Pre-Boogie Nights and Post-Boogie Nights. Of course, no other member of the cast was effected more than one Mark Whalberg. It turned him from a has-been pop star and late night talk show punchline into a serious actor to contend with. Prior to this movie, Whalberg was best known as one hit wonder Marky Mark, and as a Calvin Klein underwear model. He attempts at acting ranged from the bad (Renaissance Man) to the decent (Basketball Diaries) to the absolutely ridiculous, most notably 1996′s Fear, a kind of Fatal Attraction for the 90′s MTV generation, remembered today mostly for a scene where Whalberg finger bangs a young Reese Witherspoon on a rollercoaster to the song Wild Horses. Seriously, that happened once.
Originally meant to star a young Leonardo Dicaprio in the lead, when filming for Titanic interfered with Boogie, he suggested his buddy and Basketball Diaries co-star Mark Whalberg as his replacement. Titanic ended up making Dicaprio a superstar, and Boogie Nights gave Whalberg legitimacy as an actor, so I’d say it all worked out for the best. Although Whalberg didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Dirk Diggler, he was instantly hailed by every movie critic just about everywhere, and no one joked about “Marky Mark trying to act” ever again. Well, if they did, they weren’t taken seriously anymore. The former street thug turned rapper turned underwear model proved to the world he had serious acting chops.
Julianne Moore was another actress who had worked steadily in Hollywood for years, but it was her Oscar Nominated portrayal as porn star Amber Waves that really set her career on fire. Much like Whalberg, you can look at her career now simply as pre and post Boogie Nights. The same applies for Don Cheadle, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Thomas Jane, Heather Graham, and John C. Reilly; Even bit players like Broadway actress Joanna Gleason, who has little more than a cameo as Mark Whalberg’s crazy mother, and Alfred Molina, as speedo wearing drug dealer Rahad Jackson, shine in their all too brief moments in the movie. If one were to make a movie with this cast today, the budget would be pretty enormous. But back in ’97, no one knew who almost any of these actors were, except for some hardcore fans of indie films. I don’t think it is overstating it to say that all these actors owe a tremendous debt to Paul Thomas Anderson and to Boogie Nights.
Of course, not everyone’s career fared so well post Boogie; seen as a casting coup for the film of course was getting 70′s icon Burt Reynolds, who played porno patriarch Jack Horner. Reynolds’ career had hit the skids by the 80′s, and Boogie was seen as his big comeback. When Reynolds first saw a rough cut of Boogie Nights, he hated it so much he fired his agent. However, after it received rave reviews from the critics (not to mention both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for him) he was persuaded to go on a radio promotion tour by director Paul Thomas Anderson. Apparently, PTA hogged the spotlight so much in interviews that about a week into the tour, Burt punched him in the face and quit doing any press for the movie. Burt had been slated to play the part of sex guru Frank TJ Mackey in PTA’s follow up film Magnolia, and instead the part went to Tom Cruise, for which he ultimately received an Oscar nomination. While the rest of the cast’s careers soared after the release of the film, Reynolds seemingly squandered his comeback mojo with another string of bad movie choices that returned him to obscurity. Maybe firing his agent wasn’t such a good idea. Still, his performance in the film arguably remains his best performance in anything to date.
While a lot of other movies about the same era simply used whatever songs were on the Hot 100 radio charts at that particular moment in time (movies like Summer of Sam and 54 both spring to mind) Boogie Nights wisely understood that in real life, people listen to music from all eras, not just stuff that’s recent and on Top 40 radio. While the soundtrack to Boogie has plenty of the disco hits from the era that you would expect to hear, it also has just as many songs from earlier times. And every song on the soundtrack, from the Beach Boys’ classic God Only Knows to lesser known songs like Do Your Thing and Magnet and Steel, accompanies every scene they are used in to perfection. And there has never been a better use of cheesy 80′s power ballad Sister Christian in anything, ever. (Sorry Rock of Ages) Geeks everywhere also owe a special debt to the film for reviving interest in the wonderfully cheestastic The Touch by Stan Bush from the original animated Transformers movie, used to hilarious effect in Boogie Nights by wanna be rock star Dirk Diggler.
The Refreshing Lack of Moralizing About Sex
While the film certainly portrays the excesses of the era, especially when it comes to drugs, and correctly points out the that most people who make their living in pornography often have certain issues in their past that lead them to choosing sex as their profession (especially back then, a lot less so today, when everyone’s a porn star) it never condems the pornography itself as being bad or wrong or sinful in any way. No one is “saved” from porn at the end of Boogie Nights, if anything it shows how for some people, porn is what saved them. Because really….what else was Dirk Diggler going to do for a living? For a Hollywood movie to be so non judgementel about sex is still almost unheard of.
It Introduced The World To PT Anderson
Although the little seen movie Hard Eight was director Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film ever released, it was Boogie Nights that really put him on the map with both critics and audiences. The fact that someone so young at the time could make something this brilliant was only a sign of greater things to come. At least two of his next three following movies are outright masterpieces (Magnolia and There Will Be Blood) and his upcoming thinly veiled expose on the world of Scientology The Master is one of my most anticipated films of 2012. Without the success of Boogie Nights, it is quite possible none of these would have ever happened, and as lovers of film we’d all be worse off for it. PT Anderson is simply one of those “once in every generation” type of talents.
So there you have it– if you haven’t seen Boogie Nights in years, or if you haven’t seen it ever, then again, do yourself a favor and rent it. More likely than not you’ll be glad you did. And if you were thinking of paying real money to see Magic Mike, I heartily recommend saving your money and watching Boogie Nights instead. You’ll thank me for it later.