RIP Marilyn Chambers (and a Brief History of Adult Entertainment)
During the 1960s and 70s, you didn't have to scour through the fine print in the sports section of your daily newspaper to find adult entertainment venues; adult theaters had their locales and screening times listed on the same page as the Bijou and other family-oriented cinemas. One of that era's first "stars," Marilyn Chambers, passed away today at age 56 of unknown causes. As we send our condolences to Ms. Chambers and her family, we also remember her via this quick, mostly-safe-for-work look at the world of erotica.
The Printing Press and Porn
Adult entertainment has been around as long as consenting adults have. Archaeologists have found cave paintings that depict explicit sexual scenarios; of course, since these paintings were found in ancient dig sites rather than on rest room walls, they are categorized as "erotic art," not pornography. The invention of the printing press was a boon to the erotica industry; previously sexual scenes had to be rendered individually, as a painting or carving, and were affordable only by the upper class. By the beginning of the 17th century, not only printing presses but also paper and ink became affordable enough that explicit drawings accompanied by erotic literature could be mass produced and sold to the average wage-earner for a profit.
Flash forward to the late 19th century, when photography has become as mainstream as mass printing. Magazines and postcards featuring nude women in sexual poses first started popping up in France and became huge sellers around the world. Interestingly enough, while many of the drawings from the previous centuries featured explicit depictions of sex acts, when actual photography became the norm, such between-the-sexes interaction was taboo and could only be found in "underground" publications imported from Amsterdam until the early 20th century.
Playboy Hits the Scene
So-called "men's magazines" have been behind the counter at certain newsstands for decades, but it took Hugh Hefner to bring them out onto the legitimate magazine rack. "Hef" had been infatuated with pin-ups since his youth and decided his future career path once the Kinsey Report was published. He combined his love of the nude female physique with the burgeoning sexual revolution and founded Playboy magazine. He'd originally intended to call his publication Stag Party, but he found out that there was already an existing publication called Stag. A friend of his owned a small car dealership called "Playboy," and Hefner thought that, if enough manly-men were pictured sporting tuxedos or smoking jackets while surrounded by scantily-clad females in ads, the name might just catch on.
Sex on the Big Screen
The first mainstream film to feature a non-pornographic (but still quite explicit for its time) sex scene was 1933's Ecstasy. The movie featured full frontal nudity of its star, Hedy Lamarr (although my Dad, who sneaked in to see this then-scandalous film as a teen, complained to me many years later "the camera was so out of focus you couldn't see anything"), as well as close ups of her face contorting during the lovemaking scene. Sure, it's pretty mild by today's standards, but keep in mind that this was six years before David O. Selznik was fined $5,000 for allowing Clark Gable to utter the word "damn" in Gone with the Wind.
The Mainstreaming of Porn
How did porn temporarily become mainstream? It was a combination of marketing and the freewheeling sexual attitude of the early 1970s. At the time, herpes wasn't a concern, and AIDS hadn't been heard of; any disease transmitted in an intimate fashion could be cured with a shot of penicillin. In 1972, producer Gerard Damiano had filmed what would usually be considered a typical porn film in six days for about $25,000 starring an actress known as Linda Lovelace. Despite its X-rating, Damiano campaigned to have his film, Deep Throat, shown in mainstream theaters. The resulting court case garnered major headlines, and soon Hollywood's hipsters were photographed in line at adult theaters waiting to see the controversial film. Enough buzz was created that the film was eventually screened in family-style theaters across the country, albeit in late showings and with an X rating. Thanks to all the press, Deep Throat soon became the movie to be seen, and it eventually grossed a little over $400 million.
How Marilyn Chambers Got Into the Business
Close on the heels of Deep Throat was Behind the Green Door, which starred Marilyn Chambers. During the early days of her acting career Marilyn appeared in a bit part in the Barbra Streisand vehicle The Owl and the Pussycat and was also pictured as a mother holding a baby on a box of Ivory Snow detergent. While in Los Angeles, Chambers answered an ad for a casting call, only to find that it was for a porn film. As she started to leave the "audition," the producers complimented her on her resemblance to Cybill Shepherd and urged her to give the movie a chance. On a whim she said she'd participate for a salary of $25,000 and a percentage of the gross, never thinking they'd agree to her terms. They did, however, and made her a famous name and a wealthy woman as a result.