"Metro signs Nikki Tyler." A classic movie biz headline if ever there was one, harking back to the golden age of Hollywood, when stars were under contract to a studio, their every public appearance (to say nothing of the roles they played) carefully orchestrated to put over a crafted image. Far from being out of a '30s or '40s back issue of Variety, though, the headline is from the May issue of Adult Video News, the Variety of the porn industry. Nikki Tyler is a hot starlet all right, but Metro ain't the home of Leo the Lion any more than the "Irv Thalberg" who appears in the pages of AVN reviewing the likes of "Ass Openers 8" is the guy the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences named the annual humanitarian award after.
But if the real Irving Thalberg were still with us, there's a chance -- though he'd be loath to admit it -- that he'd recognize AVN as a classic movie mag, one that mixes the gossip that used to fill the pages of Photoplay or Movie Screen with the industry scuttlebutt of Variety. Granted, the stars who posed for the chiaroscuro glamour shots of photographers like George Hurrell and Clarence Bull didn't appear looking eager to give a blow job or put a dildo to use, nor were they happily flashing the camera during a night on the town. (Try as you might, you just can't imagine Greer Garson dropping her top at the Brown Derby.) But adult movies may be the truest descendants of the old Hollywood system that are left in show biz. Like the stars of the studio era, porn stars are under contract to one company, and their appeal is counted on to sell the product. The single most influential tool in selling a video is the box shot, the photo of the star that appears on the video's package. Just as people used to talk about the "new Bette Davis" or the "new Errol Flynn" rather than using the picture's proper name, porn fans talk about "the new Jenna Jameson" or "the new Missy." And the stars seem to have mastered the old Hollywood art of selling themselves, their product and their studio. So when Nikki Tyler is asked about her move to Metro, she praises her new home by saying, "They do the hardest, raunchiest stuff in the classiest way. It's art."
On some level, maybe an unconscious one, AVN seems to be aware of its connection to old Hollywood. Despite the fact that the magazine is targeted toward video retailers, industry insiders and then to fans, and despite the close eye it keeps on various First Amendment threats, AVN is a movie magazine through and through. A friend tipped me off to AVN a few months back, and I'm hooked. For my money ($6.95 an issue) it's the most entertaining and friendly movie magazine out there. The only drawback may be locating it. It's too explicit to be sold with other entertainment mags, and since it's not a stroke book, you might not find it with them either. Your best bet may be a video store with an adult section. (I get mine at Tower.)
In the old days, the studios controlled the information put out about their stars. That's still true, but now magazines like Premiere and TV shows like "Entertainment Tonight" sell what amounts to commercials for upcoming films as "industry reporting" (a term that should be reserved for muckraking books like Julie Solomon's "The Devil's Candy" or Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters' "Hit & Run"). And perhaps in reaction to the fact that studios no longer compel their stars to make nice with the gossip columnists, gossip has gotten nastier and more vindictive than ever. Just take a look at the E! network's parade of kvetching heads, "The Gossip Show," where aging ghouls like Cindy Adams and Rex Reed blab along with their hell-spawn progeny like the Village Voice's Michael Musto and Time's Belinda Luscombe. Or pick up an issue of Movieline, which drips with the smarmy superiority of Spy. It's as if none of these people can decide whether they want to be Hedda Hopper or David Letterman.
The porn stars who get tattled on in AVN may be just as annoyed as their mainstream counterparts. But let's face it, it's a hell of a lot harder to embarrass someone who fucks on camera for a living. So what if Jenna Jameson got felt up by Marilyn Manson at the "Private Parts" screening? Or if Dick Nasty is worried that his career is over because Lovette accused him of using her social security and driver's license numbers to illegally lease a Nissan? Fat chance. You can enjoy the gossip in AVN (oodles of it in every issue) without feeling that you've given over to the pettiest side of yourself, or that you're getting your kicks at someone else's expense. Try not to smile reading this: "Based on a recent hot tub encounter ... director Frank Thring seems to be under the distinct impression that he and Lennox have a special thing going. Sources close to the situation, however, say that Lennox isn't exactly running out to pick china patterns." And the damnedest people show up in the pages of "AVN." Here's Richard Dreyfuss happily posing for a shot with Kylie Ireland ("Oh, the pictures of you that I have in my mind!" he's quoted as saying). And there's George Plimpton with Serenity at the AVN Awards Show. (Plimpton was researching an article on the porn industry for Harper's, but maybe this could be a turning point. He's already tried pro football and hockey, as well as working as a trapeze artist and a movie extra. Why not porn? Can't you just hear the expectant hush on the set as the director calls out, "OK, Big George, time for the money shot, babe!")
The bulk of AVN is made up of reviews that are about what you can find in any skin mag. Here's Irv: "The Mila/T.T. Boy scene is certainly worthy of attention, especially as T.T.'s athletic ramrodship drives Mila out of her mind with ecstasy." They beg the question of whether it's possible to review porn. You can gas on about "production values" all you want; the only real criterion for the consumer is if it turns you on.
But if you know what turns you on, the reviews in AVN can be like your very own fetish catalog. (The "names" of the reviewers are often more creative than the reviews: "Rollin Hand," "Anna Lingus," "Harry Manas" -- I think he means "manos" -- and the exquisitely monickered "Raoul O'Toole.") And though you shouldn't have to justify the fun AVN (or porn) delivers, I should say that AVN, a member of the porn industry's Free Speech Coalition, is fighting the good fight against censorship and laws that amount to censorship, like a proposed Houston city ordinance requiring adult clubs and bookstores to relocate to the desert (effectively putting them out of business) or a proposed California "sin tax" on adult videos and magazines.
Of course, AVN is the sort of ally most respectable free-speech advocates don't want to acknowledge. (Does anyone really believe that a mainstream media outlet would portray the adult industry's side of those zoning or tax issues without feeling it their duty to tar porn as unclean?) But let's face it: Porn wouldn't be a $3 billion-a-year industry if the only customers were sad, lonely or depraved old masturbators. Given the propensity of the American public (probably including many closet porn fans) to freak out about pornography, it seems like a minor miracle that the Fox network (owned by that grouchy old prude Rupert Murdoch) allows David Duchovny's Fox Mulder on "The X Files" to be an avowed AVN fan. If he can make that brave admission, so can you. Come on. The cooch is out there.