This may sound cold, and perhaps a little callous, but does the death of a porn star really merit mention in a motion picture film blog? Granted, sex and exploitation are suspect traditions in cinema, and the rise of the grindhouse in the ‘50s and ‘60s laid the foundation for both modern moviemaking and adult entertainment in the decades to come. Still, what did Marilyn Chambers bring to the artform except her random attempts at Establishment acceptance, a tireless notoriety, and a reputation more potent than her onscreen presence? The answer, oddly enough, is something more important than the mere mainstreaming of hardcore.
You see, when the late actress (who died suddenly on 12 April at only 56) first made her name as the star of Behind the Green Door, she became one of three instantly recognizable faces of post-modern pornography. She was part of the smut chic, a clique which included Linda Lovelace and her Deep Throat co-star Harry Reams. As couples looking to extend the sexual revolution went from suburban roulette to 42nd Street theaters, a whole new notion of self-styled liberation was born, a sense of decadent freedom which would later define the entire decade. Sitting at the top among the disco divas, investigative journalists, failed politicians, and new age filmmakers were the now accepted stars of adult entertainment - and prime among their royalty was Chambers.
She was the daughter of a nurse and an advertising man. As a young woman, she modeled, even earning the then proud distinction of being the Ivory Soap girl (who portentous slogan was “99 & 44/100% pure”). She continued to pursue similar opportunities while in her teens, even though her father was convinced she was never going to make it. After a small part in Barbra Streisand’s racy The Owl and the Pussycat, Chambers found that the only way she could get jobs was by posing nude. A misunderstanding at a casting call landed the young lady in front on XXX industry moguls the Mitchell Brothers. Instantly taking to her blond babe beauty, they hired her for their next project - the soon to be infamous and taboo-busting Behind the Green Door.
Seen today, this standard story-oriented ‘70s porno is not all that groundbreaking. Chambers is a decent actress and her co-star Johnny Keyes made for a perfect meat puppet. No, the real earth shattering element in Door was the blatant onscreen illustration of the still then scandalous concept of interracial love. Keyes, a well endowed black man, has a prolonged 45 minute sex scene with Chambers that many modern lovers of the genre consider one of the best (the spritely blond, so worn from the sequence, supposedly fainted right afterward). Because of the socially controversial pairing, along with the still fresh novelty of widely available pornography, Chambers became an overnight sensation. She hoped to parlay said success into a straight career in films. Sadly, aside from a single significant offer, she was blacklisted because of her hardcore status.
The job came from Canadian provocateur David Cronenberg, whose biological horror films needed a face (and form) like Chambers to accent and amplify his themes. Though he originally wanted recent Academy Award nominee Sissy Spacek for the part, the Carrie actress was rejected by producer Ivan Reitman for lacking “sex appeal” They offered Chambers the lead in Rabid, hoping her reputation would bring out the press. It certainly worked. Newspapers and radios were inundated with stories and ads, all featuring the actress and her ‘provocative’ past. Imagine the surprise on the faces of audiences familiar with her Green Door work when they wandered into a splatter-ific gorefest about a young girl, some experimental plastic surgery, and the penis-like appendage issuing from her armpit that turned an entire population into ravenous, repellent zombies.
Of course, like porn, horror has its detractors, and many found Cronenberg’s decision to hire Chambers to be as reprehensible as the vile, craven images he offered. For her part, a lack of legitimate success meant a return to hardcore, and for the most part, that’s where Chamber’s stayed. Battling drug and alcohol addiction most of her adult life, she balanced her legend between personal appearances, stripping, titillating titles, and the occasional forays into sensual softcore. When cable television took off, and with it, the need for late night programming at places like Cinemax and Showtime, Chambers stepped in and starred in lighter fair like Angel of H.E.A.T. and My Therapist. Still, the lure of adult’s easy money made it hard to quit cold turkey. Even in her 50s, she was making appearances in films, trading on her name (and surgically enhanced figure) to remain relevant.
Yet the most important thing to remember about Marilyn Chambers is that, while making pornography profitable and culturally relevant, she also gave it a game, girl next door façade. She just didn’t look like the standard adult star. Chambers had scrubbed suburban beauty, a Cover Girl quality that transcended the trashy vibe coming off of most smoker reels. She wasn’t some barmaid looking to make a buck or a hippy runaway trading her hygiene for a quick fix and an even quick pile of cash. In fact, it’s safe to say that without Chambers, format jumping actresses like Jenna Jameson, Katie Morgan, and Traci Lords wouldn’t have been able to enter the straight scene. While she hadn’t been in a regular motion picture since the ‘80s, her attempted high wire walk between legitimacy and lewdness marked the future of home video oriented adult entertainment.
So the next time you turn on your favorite pay channel and see one of Fred Olen Ray’s resplendent porn start spoofs (films with titles like Ghost in the Teeny Bikini, Super Ninja Bikini Babes, and Bikini Royale), or read a story about how A-list Hollywood filmmakers are hiring adult actors for their high profile projects (Kevin Smith, Stephen Soderbergh), you can thank the often maligned Marilyn Chambers. She probably deserved better than her lasting myth, and it’s hard for anyone to fully champion all her choices. Yet when one reviews the evidence and examines the impact she had, this is one hardcore performer whose place in motion picture history is more or less secured. Marilyn Chambers may not have been the most fiery or fancy of the XXX stars, but she’s probably one of the most important - and that’s a legacy that anyone can live with.