It’s been a bittersweet week for the adult industry. Bitter, because we’ve lost a pair of legendary performers; first, Jack Wrangler, and then, on Sunday, the iconic Marilyn Chambers. Gay industry performer and author Steve Pierce also passed away this week, leaving a legacy of video work that spanned a decade starting in the mid-’90s.
Sweet, because this week’s events brought to mind what made these performers so special, or at least it did for me. And from what I could gather online, on threads attached to news articles of the stars’ untimely deaths, a lot of other people were also reminiscing – commenting on the first time they ever saw Chambers burn up the screen at the Pussycat Theater, or about what an incredible physical presence Wrangler was, on both the gay and straight sides of the industry.
Both were legends, but perhaps even more importantly, Wrangler and Chambers were pioneers that pushed passed the boundaries of traditional sexual roles. In the ’70s, when adult film production was still an illegal activity – when XXX-rated movies were consigned to a secret underground world of loops and stag films – the work of these two performers changed everything about the way the public viewed adult entertainment and challenged the way society viewed sexuality.
Wrangler, though not as well-known to straight audiences as Chambers, starred in one of the first commercially produced feature-length gay adult titles, Eyes of a Stranger, in 1970. At that time, in gay culture, it was arguably impossible to find gay sexuality portrayed on film. So, the performance of Wrangler and his subsequent roles cannot be underestimated for what they contributed to gay men looking for affirmation or reassurance that there were others that shared their desires.
On the occasion of his life being chronicled in the documentary Wrangler: The Anatomy of an Icon, the star was interviewed by GayWired.com.
“At the time we were all trying to find out who the hell we were as individuals, what we wanted specifically on our own terms, who we wanted to be, what our potentials were, what our differences were, what made us unique,” he said. “And I think that’s why the XXX-rated films were important, because it was like, Oh, my God, there are other people who like the same things as me, like leather, or being blown on a pool table. [Laughs] It was a start – literally stripping ourselves naked and trying to begin from there.”
Then, in 1978, Wrangler pushed the limits further by switching to heterosexual adult films and becoming a popular performer on that side of the industry. And unlike many adult performers, Wrangler also was able to crossover to the mainstream stage as an actor/director/producer of live theatre, ballet and musicals.
Though he always identified as gay, Wrangler broke the mold again by marrying cabaret singer Margaret Whiting, who was 22 years his senior. Wed in 1994, after a 20-year relationship, their May-December romance lasted for 33 years until his death last week. Chambers’ adult legacy is iconic and iconoclastic, like Wrangler’s. Over and over, in the online commentary that surrounded the breaking news of her death, fans remembered her as the original girl-next-door. She redefined the female adult performer as a young, liberated woman that enjoyed intense, explicit sexuality for the first time on-screen.
In 1972, she broke ground by performing an interracial scene in the Mitchell Brothers’ classic Behind the Green Door with Johnny Keyes. Chambers also was the first adult actress to negotiate a percentage of the gross from the movie; a business move that few performers would attempt today.
“She was the poster girl for the “porno chic” phenomena of the ’70s; the Ivory Snow model turned erotic actress, who was wholesome and horny at the same time. Her scenes in Behind the Green Door confronted the taboo of sexuality and mixing the races with a direct, decisive portrayal of unabashed interracial sex, which was shocking to many. Chambers was the first to have a pierced genitalia. She conveyed a level of intense enthusiasm while performing in anal, bukkake, DPs and 3P scenes. And though she pursued a career in mainstream, Chambers never rejected or turned her back on the adult industry or her career as a performer. Even as she garnered roles in mainstream productions, she continued to work in adult – arguably because mainstream entertainment was unwilling to accept her status as an adult performer.”
While some would argue that she was the victim of coercion – as legendary performer Linda Lovelace claimed later in life – the one time I met Chambers, I remember there was a mischievous glint in her eye and a broad, photogenic smile. She was intelligent and well-spoken and fully aware of her image in front of the public.
In 2005, when I was coming into the industry as a writer, Chambers was one of my first interviews, conducted while I was covering the FOXE Awards for AINews.com. She was being honored with a roast and a Lifetime Achievement award, and there were many classic stars at the Mayflower Ballroom that night including Ron Jeremy (who had composed a poem for her), Rhonda Jo Petty, Cara Lott, Lynn LeMay and Christy Canyon, among others.
I was able to interview both Chambers and her Green Door costar, Keyes. That night was the first time that they had seen each other in 25 years.
“The scene me and Marilyn had changed the sexual mores of this whole country,” Keyes reminisced.
He also remembered that while filming the scene, after having intense sex for 45 minutes Chambers literally passed out and had to be awakened with smelling salts. “That scene went all the way to Cannes and got an honorable mention for the best sex scene ever shot on the planet Earth, and it still holds that,” he said.
When I asked if she knew her work in adult films would someday earn legendary status, Chambers said, “It was a big deal, but we didn’t know it was going to be.” Commenting on the lasting influence of their work in Green Door, Chambers added, “I think that our paving the road for a lot of people, (has led to) society starting to come around.”
Society certainly has come around, if measured by the widespread popularity of adult entertainment that permeates our culture; even if societal acceptance of adult material is not as widespread. Without iconoclasts and social revolutionaries paving the way forward, we might find ourselves being pushed back, in terms of censorship and repression.
One thing is certain; the industry as we know it might not exist if it wasn’t for people like Chambers, Wrangler or the performers that came after them, like Pierce. The individuals who broke down barriers and sacrificed comfortable obscurity to become famous and infamous; and who believed in extreme self-expression and exercised their right to be free.
They will be missed, and our thoughts go out to their family and friends.
Joanne Cachapero is a freelance writer and the Membership Director of the Free Speech Coalition, a nonprofit legal advocacy and trade association for the adult industry.