When I was a kid, Marilyn Chambers wasn’t just the name of a porn actress, she was some kind of transgressing entity that somehow threatened polite civilization. I didn’t understand porn yet, but in NYC, all the tweenie kids knew her name in the local park playing ball. It was the name of a woman who seemed to be a cipher for the breakdown of walls in the 1970s. Everything was possible, and her name was part of that social force. And none of us had seen a single frame of her porno movies.
People in the ’70s knew two things about Marilyn Chambers: she had appeared as a model on an Ivory Snow box, fondly holding an infant under the corporate slogan “99 and 44/100% Pure”; and she starred in Behind the Green Door, one of the first, weirdest and most popular hard-core movies in that brief period of the ’70s known as “porno chic.” These two factettes, with their colliding irony, made the blond, willowy Chambers the pinup princess of XXX cinema, a notoriety she parlayed into a career in soft- and hard-core sex films that lasted from 1972 until … yesterday.
The sad news is that Chambers, to quote the title from a 1974 movie she did not appear in, is 99 and 44/100% dead. The actress was discovered last night in her mobile home in Santa Clarita, near Los Angeles, by her teenage daughter McKenna Taylor, from the last of Chambers’ three marriages. An autopsy will be performed; foul play is not suspected.
Chambers wasn’t the first person to take the route from modeling and acting to hard-core, from commercials to pervertials. Eric Edwards, whose porn career spanned nearly four decades, had appeared in ads for Gillette razors and Close-Up toothpaste. But of all the shadow stars that emerged from the early porn sensation — Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems of Deep Throat, Georgina Spelvin of Devil in Miss Jones — Chambers was unusual in her Waspy good looks, her girl-next-door appeal and her use of her real name at a time when other actors resorted to jokey pseudonyms. If the Ivory Snow girl could go into porn unashamed, then maybe the genre wasn’t so sooty. She was different, and smart, in another way: when co-directors Jim and Artie Mitchell asked Chambers to star in Green Door, she demanded $25,000 (an astronomical sum in the pinchpenny industry) and a percentage of the gross. And she got it.
It’s pretty weird how the writing has the tone of somebody who grew up jerking off to her films. 🙂 Anyway… It’s also a little surprising to see the SMH run a belated Obit from the London Telegraph a good week later.
She was working as an exotic dancer in San Francisco when she saw a newspaper advertisement seeking actresses for what was described as a “major” film. Only when she filled out the application form did she realise it was pornographic. The producers offered her the starring role.
Shot on a shoestring budget, Behind The Green Door became one of the biggest adult film hits of the 1970s, thanks to its unexpected publicity boost when a photograph from Chambers’s modelling career appeared on boxes of a popular brand of detergent, Ivory Snow.
Chambers went on to be ranked by Playboy magazine as one of the top 100 sex stars of the 20th century and was named among the top 10 adult film stars of all time.
“The adult films have been a total pleasure,” she once said. “They were like getting paid to live out my greatest fantasies. The rest of the stuff … sometimes got to be a real grind.”
Chambers, who was found dead on April 12, was married and divorced three times. One of her husbands, Chuck Traynor, had once been married to porn actress Linda Lovelace. A daughter survives her.
A bit more somber in its tone there.
The 1970s really were weird, and for a moment in history it looked like the sexual revolution was going to overcome all mores. This is from Time Mag back in 1974:
Farewell, Deep Throat? So long, Miss Jones’? Could it be that the lust affair is over? Within the past year, two hard-core flicks (Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones) were among the nation’s top-grossing films and porno stars like Linda Lovelace (Throat) and Marilyn Chambers (Behind the Green Door) became nationally-known figures. Today, hard-core movie houses are half empty. “Business is only 60% of what it was last year,” says Porno Producer David Friedman, president of the Adult Film Association.
The recent Supreme Court decisions toughened local prosecution of pornography, and the FBI now has 90 full-time agents monitoring interstate shipments of film. The real trouble, however, is neither cops nor courts but boredom—the intrinsic tedium in the medium since hard-core hit the screen. “A hard-core film today is as strictly constructed as a medieval morality play,” Friedman complains. “There are just so many positions you can film.”
There are approximately 730 hardcore theaters in the U.S., and about 1 million regular patrons. To make big money, porno films must lure larger audiences. But, says Friedman, “the millions who saw Deep Throat and Green Door have now seen a dirty picture. They belong to the one-time-only club.”
Of course AIDS put an end to that happy prospect, but before the grim days of the 1980s, there was a period where you had ‘cross-over films’. Films that were essentially (and fundamentally porn) that somehow garnered mainstream critical press and audiences.
And if it weren’t for this willingness, kids wouldn’t have come to know the names of people like Marilyn Chambers or Linda Lovelace. It’s actually the sign of the times that the greatest whistleblower of the 1970s William Mark Felt Snr ended up with a codename from a porno flick – ‘Deep Throat‘.
In retrospect it seems unthinkable, but there were porn films with artistic aspirations and ambitions. The weirdness of this terrain got explored extensively in ‘Boogie Nights‘ so I won’t bother with the absurdity of that pretension, but Marilyn Chambers’ career fits right into that arc where for a moment in history, even hardcore porn found mainstream success.
It would be unthinkable to go take a girl on a date and to watch a porno in the movie theatres, but heck, that’s what happened with Marilyn Chambers’ 1970s work (for want of a better word!). The confusion of the times is tacitly documented in ‘Taxi Driver‘ where Travis Bickle played by DeNiro takes Cybil Shepherd’s white crust girl Betsy to the cinema where they are playing hardcore porn. She says she’s uncomfortable but he insists it was recommended highly.
It’s laughable today, but back in 1975, there was a lot of confusion about these things. There’s a certain irony that Chambers got cast in her first porn movie for her resemblance to Cybil Shepherd, and for Cybil Shepherd to end up playing a character who is made uncomfortable by the social changes wrought by those films.
Yet, after all that, the biggest irony of them all might be the loving obituaries that Chambers got this month. In the end it seems, that moment in history when porn broke through to the mainstream mattered more than we thought, if only because she brought so much …err… joy to so many blokes.