The golden age of porn

Critics sneer at XXX films. But careers like Juliet Anderson's offer as much to admire as those of John Wayne or Audrey Hepburn.

By Charles Taylor
Published April 13, 2002 7:32PM (EDT)

A recent Newsweek "Newsmakers" column carried an item announcing that porn star Jenna Jameson would be introducing a talking action figure of herself. At the end, the unnamed writer quips, "Doesn't everybody really watch her films for the snappy dialogue?" To which the only answer is "No, they watch her movies to see her fuck."

In the tee-hee mind-set that defines the mainstream press's attitude toward porn, the safest route is to make jokes about the cheesy dialogue or music or "production values," or to flaunt your higher cultural values by looking down your nose at those of us who admit to enjoying the stuff.

Here's Benjamin Schwarz, the books and critics editor of the Atlantic, in the New York Times Book Review: "Reviewing these three books ... is like viewing pornography. The exercise is at first vaguely diverting, but one is soon bored by the slipshod methods of the medium that explores it and exasperated by the insubstantial nature of the whole experience." "Vaguely diverting ... one is soon bored ... insubstantial nature of the whole experience." Has anyone ever done more to affect boredom at the prospect of a hard-on?

Kenneth Tynan once identified the subtext of all arguments that strike the pose of distaste and boredom toward the very idea of porn as "Needless to say, I never masturbate." He went on to say that the reason there's so little good intelligent writing about pornography is that writers are "worrying all the time about what their readers will think of them."

So pornography is turned into a joke, or treated as something for the coarser, lower orders. Or else we get the pretense that porn is a shadow industry unknown to the mainstream. Newsweek feels it necessary to I.D. Jenna Jameson as "Top adult-film star ... known to mainstream audiences for her bubbly appearances on 'Howard Stern' and the E! channel ..." That description is, on the face of it, ludicrous. The top star in an industry that outgrosses many professional sports is known to the mainstream for her work in porn more than for her appearances on E!

Porn stars are often dismissed as if they are trying to be actors and failing (just as porn is dismissed as if it is trying to be real movies and failing). But since when have the personalities we enjoy watching on screen all been actors? There are performers we love for their specific talents (like the Nicholas Brothers) or those that project an outsize or alluring personality (like John Wayne or Audrey Hepburn or Brigitte Bardot -- all of whom, at one time or another, proved themselves actors).

Admitting the things you enjoy watching porn stars for is a sticky business because it's tantamount to owning up to your own personal and quirky sexual tastes. Nobody who admits to being transported by the sight of watching the Nicholas Brothers leapfrog down a flight of stairs, or even watching Sophia Loren perform the sexiest striptease ever in "Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow" is likely to wonder what other people will think of them. Admitting you like porn is still enough to get you looked at askance or, if you're in a relationship, to get other people wondering about how your poor partner feels. (The idea that there are couples who enjoy porn is still a fairly radical one for some folks.)

Since I've been chastising people for not being honest about porn, let me practice what I preach and give some examples of who -- and what -- I enjoy in porn. I enjoy the nasty look on Jenna Jameson's face when she's giving head; I love the overabundance of everything -- breasts, buns, lips -- on Sandra Scream and the sheer, lip-licking delight she takes in her own naughtiness; I like the way John Leslie, the greatest of all porn studs, takes charge in his scenes, bringing a tough-guy swagger to sex; I like the drugged-on-sex look that comes over Missy in her scenes; I'm delighted by Alicyn Sterling's puffy nipples and Kylie Ireland's lush behind; I love the combination of high-toned glamour and lust that characterized "Golden Age" star Annette Haven, the most beautiful of all porn performers; and I love everything about Juliet Anderson.

That's Aunt Peg to some of you. Juliet Anderson, aka Aunt Peg, has had arguably the most unusual career of any adult-film star. How many others have entered the business at 39? (Yes, you read that right.) And how many are still working in the sex industry at 63? And looking damn good, too. Juliet is the one female performer in porn who has made gleeful hash of the industry's age barrier. She is proof that not every porn star need be a nubile young thing, just as, in conversation, she is proof that porn stars needn't be brainless bunnies.

The question everyone longs to ask of an adult film star is, How did you get into the business? It's an honest question, but also a loaded one. It smacks faintly of disapproval, as if the questioner were really asking, How did you stray into a life of crime? In Juliet Anderson's case, the answer is complicated, and she's open and chatty when she talks to me on the phone from her home in Berkeley, Calif.

She grew up in Burbank, Calif., "in the days before smog and NBC," she says, the daughter of a jazz musician and an aspiring actress. Her father traveled with a 40-piece orchestra, playing gigs and doing what musicians on the road do -- staying up late, smoking pot, drinking, playing poker. Her mother, she says, was "strong, practical, frugal. She took things in hand but she loved second-hand glamour." She adored being in the spotlight near her husband and being near the famous people who often came to hear his music. It was an upbringing that some might have called bohemian at the time but according to Juliet her family led a conventional, quiet life. "They fit in real well with the neighbors, got along." And the lesson she took away from her upbringing was that "you can be different, artistic, and not be an outcast."

It was also an isolated childhood, due largely to illness. Juliet (when you've watched someone have sex, it seems too formal to refer to her as Ms. Anderson) suffers from Crohn's disease and, like her father did, from a highly allergic condition that can make such common things as ammonia fumes, exhaust, perfumes and smoke dangerous and even lethal. Her life, she says, was "shaped by years of illness. I had one woman friend in all of junior high and high school. I never went to a party or dance or senior prom. My face had swollen because I had massive doses of cortisone. And I limped because of the very bad arthritis that accompanies Crohn's disease." What changed it was discovering holistic medicine in college. "When I found out I wasn't going to die and wasn't going to be crippled, I said I'm going to live, make up for all the years I was an outcast in high school."

What bloomed in her was a sort of wanderlust that began when she met a man who she describes as "one of the great loves of my life, and my first great love that was consummated." He was in the Navy. "We had this amazing relationship. Every weekend he came up from Long Beach to San Diego." In college, she was working 30 hours a week and taking 14 credits. "I hardly ever had time for sleep, but I had time for sex." Their whirlwind romance was cut short when her naval love was sent to Japan. "He suggested I come over and visit him and experience the beauty and friendliness of Japan." Tired of working so hard and wanting to have some fun, she went. He had rented a traditional Japanese house in a small village.

They were married soon after she arrived. He would go on his ship and be back months later. And so, she said, she made a life that was not dependent on him. When he was transferred to Florida, she went with him, and the two found themselves around each other too much. She decided to stay on when he was transferred again. He told Juliet there was no need for her to get a divorce until she felt like it. Staying married allowed her to stay on the military payroll and took care of medical coverage. They were finally divorced, though still in touch, and Juliet began a life lived in Europe, the Bahamas, Mexico, and in Greece where she met the second great love of her life, a respected commander in the Greek navy. She describes the relationship as "not based on sex but a real friendship." Eventually, though, "he had to choose marrying me or living in Greece and serving his country. I would only be allowed to be his kept woman," she says, and that is something she has never done. She had begun teaching English as a second language in Japan and found out she was good at it.

Eventually she made her way to Finland where she found a job as a radio program producer, and continued teaching English to people ranging in age from nursery school students to high school kids to civil servants. Believing that sex was an intrinsic part of staying healthy, she had to confront that Finland wasn't offering her much in the way of partners. She says she had one good lover in the country where the women outnumber the men three to one. "I would have to go and pick up foreign businessmen and take them home and have sex. The Finnish men were very passive and the married women would say [to their husbands] 'Why don't you go to the hotel and find a nice woman and have sex with her?'"

The combination of the cold climate and of not being part of a family caused her to return to the States in 1977. Settling in San Francisco because of the arts community, she found herself needing to make money and finally selling advertising on matchbook covers. Eventually a co-worker showed her an ad placed by the porn filmmaker Alex DeRenzy: "Women over 18 wanted for soft core sex show. Short hours, lots of fun, good pay." Juliet remembers, "I almost slugged the guy who showed it to me." But after thinking it over, she decided it didn't seem so bad. Juliet went to be interviewed by an 18-year-old who couldn't believe she was 39. "You're fabulous," she told her, "but my boss, Mr. DeRenzy, will have to OK it." Which is how she came to make her first porn film, "Pretty Peaches," in a role written as an Asian maid but changed to a Scandinavian. DeRenzy told her to rewrite the role to suit her, took her shopping for lingerie, and had her driven to his and his wife's house where the shoot was to take place.

After introducing her to the star, John Leslie, DeRenzy said, "See that woman in there on the bed? Her name is Flower. As soon as I say action, I want you to walk in from this point. You just get on the bed and start eating her pussy."

"I had never been with a woman before in my life," Juliet says, "but I thought, I'm not going to tell him that. I said, 'OK.' I knew about lesbians, and whatever I was doing I did it right. She was moaning and groaning and having a good time, and I was winking at her. I'm a ham."

Juliet got so into the scene that by the time John Leslie entered to join the women, DeRenzy had to have her pulled off of Flower. Juliet and Leslie clicked. "He was really smart. We had this spontaneous dialogue, a game of who could outdo the other." Nothing shocked Juliet until DeRenzy yelled "Cut!" and explained, "We got enough of the long and medium shots and it's time for you to fake the orgasm." Since she'd already had one or two, she had no idea what DeRenzy was talking about, and she remembers Leslie asking her, "How come your pussy is so wet?"

What she thought was going to be a one-time adventure turned into a new career. You can still see the early Juliet in pictures like the classic "Taboo," sporting a pouffy blond do -- if you can find them. But the look she has kept for years, a short blond cut (now steel gray), parted on the right and swept back, began in the shorts she did for the "Swedish Erotica" series where she introduced the character of Aunt Peg.

It wasn't just her age that differentiated Juliet, it was the way she brought a persona of classic movie-broad to porn. Writing in Film Comment a few months back, Howard Hampton said her tough, no-nonsense older woman routine would be at home in the margins of any Howard Hawks movie. Anderson was something like the Joan Blondell of porn, insatiable and matter-of-fact at the same time. And because men have always preferred tough talking, unsentimental women on the screen to shrinking violets, the then largely male porn audience went wild for her.

The Aunt Peg series, collected in the features "Aunt Peg" and "Aunt Peg's Fulfillment" -- the quintessential Juliet Anderson features -- are basically one long reversal on the porn cliché of the casting couch. Peg, a successful Hollywood producer, uses the process of putting together a movie to fuck anyone she can lay her hands on. The results are often as funny as they are sexy. They are also often wildly un-p.c. In one scene she auditions a black actor for a role at her home. After she's seen him with his shirt off, she tells him she's thinking of him for another role, "the role of Jamahl" and asks would he mind taking off his pants. There follows a close-up of Juliet with a large black cock staring in her face to which she responds, "Oh yes, definitely Jamahl!"

In another scene she drags her young assistant Mike Horner off to a deserted set and proceeds to give him a blow job. There may be no way to do justice to the ribald reading of the line she gives after Horner has come sooner than she expected, or wanted, him to: "Oh, Bill! Is it over so soon?" Of course, it isn't.

Comedy is the key to Juliet's sex appeal. She took what could have potentially been a tired extended gag about the horny older woman and embraced it so fully that it came to life with the force of the most rambunctious and vibrant caricature. The elemental Juliet Anderson moment is when she's astride some porn stud or giving a blow job while, teeth bared, she laughs in delight with the pleasure of a greedy little kid who's been locked in a candy shop. "I do that in real life," she says. "I do it a lot for myself. I'm feeling good and it makes me feel good to have skin contact and be part of a joyous encounter."

The "Aunt Peg" movies make a joke out of the single-mindedness of porn, the way every setup is an excuse for sex, even making use of such farce conventions as shuttling back and forth between two lovers in two different rooms, leaving each in a state of perpetual frustration. Juliet calls Aunt Peg "my alter ego. I have never married, except that brief time to get me to Japan. I've never had children, so I've always taken charge of my life. I had to because of my health; that always motivated me. [Aunt Peg] satisfied this great need to take charge in a humorous way."

But it's Juliet's encounters with the great John Leslie, who did his own variant of a classic movie archetype, the wisecracking tough guy, that are the top of her work. Together, as in their scene in "Talk Dirty to Me," Anthony Spinelli's clever porn variation on "Of Mice and Men," they are the irresistible force and the immovable object, two people who both take charge in their sex scenes challenging each other to a game of "Can You Top This?" "Both of us know what we're doing and enjoying the hell out of the intellectual challenge and really enjoying the sex," Juliet says. "It was a rare combination. It never happened again in the adult industry."

Juliet grew disillusioned with the porn industry after she produced a movie showcasing her discovery Nina Hartley and was screwed out of the profits. Quitting the business, she moved to Northern California and ran a bed and breakfast. But she has lived near San Francisco for some years now, running her own Web site, giving lectures on sexuality at San Francisco State and USC, giving private workshops and workshops for couples that concentrate on what she calls Tender Loving Touch. That is to say, "touch as the play, not as foreplay. It shows ways to arouse, how to deeply relax, and just float in bliss."

A few years ago she also produced "Ageless Desire," a video that shows three real couples, including Juliet and her boyfriend, over 50; she is now working on the sequel. Juliet says she wanted to provide positive erotic images for older couples, to show that desire doesn't die with age. She has also revived Aunt Peg via an offer that asks "Would you like an erotic encounter with Aunt Peg and her niece? Give me a call. For generous gentlemen." Juliet explains, "I have a couple of younger women who will be my niece and we will do erotic encounters."

Despite having been inducted into the Erotic Hall of Fame a few years back, Juliet has no interest in today's porn. "I recently saw [the PBS Frontline documentary] 'American Porn.' It was so totally different than anything I experienced. We were treated nicely." When I ask her what she sees as the difference between the "golden age" of porn (the mid- to late '70s before the advent of video) and today, she answers, "Quality. It's the difference between a good mom-and-pop restaurant that really serves good food, fresh baked food, any kind of business that prides itself on quality and cares about employees, being replaced by fast food, here today gone tomorrow, cheating people. We were making money for producers, but we were having so much fun, we were having a great time, we were a family, we'd spend an entire day together, and hang out ... and the quality of shooting in 35 milimeter. They took pride in the work that they would do."

From the other side of the looking glass -- from the viewer's point of view, that is -- the decline in porn is simply a decline in sexiness. If you accept, as I said, that porn is single-minded, a continuous excuse for sex fantasies, then there is something very sexy about the fact that the "golden age" performers were not all buffed and tweezed and plucked to perfection. There was a sense of seeing real people and that led to a fantasy state of mind where anything seemed possible. Now, almost anything is possible in porn, which has, in many tapes, largely done away with plot (though, ironically, some of the best plotless work is being done by John Leslie, who delivers hardcore raunch with some sense of the old sophisticated gloss), and catering to a variety of fetishes. I won't lie and say that I don't find any of the new porn performers sexy. Porn is sexual fantasy and there's some logic to performers having the perfect, if unreal, look of fantasy objects.

But what they rarely have now is the personality that many of the golden age performers projected, and the sense of fun as opposed solely to commerce. And even then, few performers projected the personality and wit and sense of raunchy good times that Juliet Anderson did as a look of carnivorous bliss creased her face into a wide smile. A spiritual but not a religious person, she calls her life a series of "divinely guided accidents." The "accidents" that have happened to porn via the advent of video are anything but divinely inspired. It's always a sign of creeping old-fartism to start complaining that things were better way back when, but with porn it seems unavoidable. Who ever thought we'd be yearning for the good old days of fuck films?

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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