Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes

| 16 Feb 2015 | 05:30

    John C. Holmes had a special talent that measured 13.5 inches, and people are still talking about it. The weird, sad, frequently strange life of America's first male porn superstar is chronicled in Wadd. Cass Paley's entertaining documentary has been kicking around the festival circuit for a couple of years now, and arrives in theaters at just the right point in the Oscar-baiting movie season. It'll be sweet relief to the bawdy-minded, and catnip to those who are fascinated by the history of American porn. In fact, it might as well be packaged as a supplement on future DVDs of Boogie Nights, which was largely inspired by Holmes anyway. The writer-director of that 1997 drama, Paul Thomas Anderson, admits as much, and appears as a commentator in Wadd, telling us that Holmes actually wasn't a bad actor?a least, not compared to some of the people he shared the screen with. Fortunately, Paley doesn't try very hard to buttress Anderson's line of argument; mostly, the film sticks to journalist Mike Sager's take on Holmes: "He wasn't good looking, he wasn't smart, he wasn't brave. He just had a huge dick and he could fuck." It reads like an epitaph.

    You expect stories about porn stars to be sordid, but sweet Jesus, this one's positively Sadean. Though outwardly affable and upbeat, Holmes is portrayed here as a sociopathic monster who started out a slightly dimwitted but likable hanger-on in the Southern California porn scene, rose to fame based on his enormous talent, then took advantage of his friends, ingested huge amounts of coke, turned out his 15-year-old mistress for drug money, went to prison for his tangential involvement in a multiple murder and ultimately died the same way so many 70s-era porn stars died: from AIDS-related complications. Compared to the real John Holmes, Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights was Mahatma Gandhi. Yet for some reason, his legend?or his name?lingers in the popular imagination. People who have never seen a John Holmes film know his name. There are kids out there who know the name even though they weren't even born when Holmes' star was falling in the early 80s. Why? Some of Wadd's witnesses suggest that Holmes had the perfect combination of personality attributes for stardom?not just porn stardom, but stardom, period.

    He was good-looking but a little goofy?too tall, too skinny?which tended to play against the spectacle of his titanic member. A broad-shouldered, gym-ripped thug with a tool that splendiferous might have scared off the audience. But Holmes had a little-boy persona, like Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, and it took the edge off. Women found him sexy and men rooted for him, but neither gender was terribly threatened by him. He was like Leonardo DiCaprio with a monster penis: an all-American stud, the horse next door. (Trivia bit: DiCaprio was originally set to star as Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, but dropped out at the last minute to do Titanic.)

    After watching Wadd, I think Holmes' persistent stardom also has something to do with the rather undemocratic idea of success being something you're born into, as opposed to something you earn. Holmes was a hard worker who claimed to have fucked 14,000 women during his life. "Every woman who made a name for herself in this business sooner or later was ritually enlarged by Mr. Holmes," says Sager. Holmes was also a savvy self-promoter and, er, packager; his porno private-eye character, Johnny Wadd, was the first hero of an ongoing triple-X movie series. But in the end, it was the schlong that did it. When a guy's equipped so spectacularly, it's impossible to resent either the man or the tool. It would be like resenting someone who can levitate or predict the future; if you had a gift that was both rare and real, you'd be a fool not to exploit it?and other people would have to be churlish to root against you.

    Veteran porno director Bob Chinn, the Scorsese to Holmes' De Niro, remembers meeting the kid for the first time when he was a nobody looking for work as a grip, a gaffer, anything. "I said, what have you done? Show me your credentials," Chinn recalls. "And he showed me his credentials."


    Shadow of The Vampire Directed by E. Elias Merhige

    As high-concept art house notions go, this one's pretty good: Back in the 20s, mad German director F.W. Murnau decides to do Nosferatu, an unauthorized version of Dracula, and for verisimilitude, he casts an obscure actor named Max Schreck, who looks and acts the part because he is the part. Yes, this wild-eyed, bald-headed, horny-nailed thespian is, in reality, a bloodsucker. So when you see Schreck onscreen, and his costars are terrorized by his mere presence, it's because Schreck was, in reality, a vampire, and his costars weren't reacting so much to his technique as his clammy undead vibe.

    It sounds like a concept that could become monotonous, and sure enough, Shadow of the Vampire quickly reveals itself as a one-joke movie. But it's a fun joke. John Malkovich makes a strong, screwy impression as Murnau, who's envisioned as a king of proto-Werner Herzog, inflicting misery on his cast and crew in the name of art. (Oddly, Herzog remade Nosferatu in 1979, starring professional creepazoid Klaus Kinski as the vampire.) As Schreck, a pale, drawn, slightly sad loner, Willem Dafoe is as amusing as you've heard. His is a more difficult performance than some might realize?not an impersonation of Schreck, but a reinvention, with a thoroughly gaga premise.

    Merhige's movie playfully suggests that the over-the-top silent-film reactions of Schreck's costars?whose ranks include Eddie Izzard and Catherine McCormack?aren't sops to then-current acting convention, but the reasonable reactions of mortals who'd been put onscreen beside an eerie monster. Murnau's stunt is an early variation on guerrilla filmmaking; he's the director as sick prankster, the Harmony Korine of horror. (What a double bill this movie would make with Bowfinger.)

    Shadow of the Vampire probably could have been a 30-minute short and worked just as well, or better. Still, it does give us moments of thoroughly peculiar pathos, such as the scene where Schreck, deprived of sunlight his entire vampiric life, finally gets to see a sunrise thanks to the wonders of celluloid and projection. Here, Merhige pulls off another amusing little film history joke: Murnau's greatest movie, arguably the last classic of the silent era, was 1927's Sunrise.