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Feast On That: Gender and Identity in ‘Boogie Nights’

Twenty years ago, a frazzle-haired young man by the name of Paul Thomas Anderson released his second motion picture to the world in the form of Boogie Nights, a big-time blockbuster about the supposed “golden age” of pornography: the late 70s. A critical success, PTA earned his first Oscar nomination for writing, and the film earned two more acting nominations for Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore. The film has maintained its longevity and re-watchability by containing one of the most interesting Oedipal love triangles (or squares, I guess) in modern cinema, alongside its symbolism and deconstruction of gender roles, which has had academics foaming at the mouth for two decades.

So what, exactly, does this film have to say about how men and women gain, wield, and lose power in an industry based solely on sex? How does the film humanize (or dehumanize) its characters?

I actually want to start with a character I’ve never seen dissected in any of the papers I’ve read on the film: Don Cheadle’s Buck, a serious actor who just happens to act well in pornographic films. For the first half of the film, Buck is dressed like a cowboy, looking, honestly, like he just got off the set of Blazing Saddles. Throughout the film, people are constantly telling Buck to dress more era-appropriately, or even race-appropriately. The boss of his audio equipment salesman day job explicitly asks “What kind of brother are you, anyway?” after Buck loses a client by playing country music.

Buck is trying to live up to his name with his attempts to buck the typical image of a black man in the 1970s. He clings to a bygone era (namely, the 60s), when cowboys were still very popular, especially in cinema. As an actor, Buck must look up to those powerful, six-shooter-wielding men as role models. Blazing Saddles is accurate, too, with its positive and powerful portrayal of a black man with significant, phallic power. That had come out three years prior to the start of when the film is set (1977), so that could very well factor into Buck’s search for identity.

His identity crisis is only confirmed later in the film when, after leaving the adult film industry, Buck is denied a loan due to his involvement in pornographic film. Buck has been trying to be labeled as an “actor” instead of “porn star” throughout the film. Jack Horner even refers to Buck as “a hell of an actor” when first introduced. People cannot see Buck as anything else, however. Despite his talent and natural ability, people, like the bank loan officer, immediately assume this good natured and well intentioned man is up to something seedy just because he worked in an industry society has deemed as unethical. Outside of the industry, like all the other characters, Buck is reduced to stealing from a donut shop after a robbery gone awry. You can’t exactly fuck your way to being a business owner, unfortunately.

Fucking can be a business, however.

Little Bill (William H. Macy) got in on that early and seems like he’s been working with Jack for a long time as his director of photography. Bill’s wife (former porn star Nina Hartley) constantly has sex with random men and throws it in Bill’s face who, emasculated, does nothing. This streak, which happens three times in the film, establishes Little Bill (which sounds like a euphemism for small penis), as a curator for others to have any and all sexual power. He assists Jack, the master, with lighting, making Jack’s films—controlled by Jack’s camera-phallus—look great. Bill is the stepping stone to power, for his harlot wife and all the gorgeous porn stars. Bill looks on with curiosity and intense interest in Dirk and Amber’s first scene, mirroring how a group gathered around Bill’s wife at a party earlier as she was fucked in public looked. Mouth slightly agape, eyes glossed over. His desires, much like everyone else, is just to be able to wield some semblance of power.

Bill takes back his power and gets his moment in the most brutal way possible. Only wielding a phallus once in the film, Bill really makes use of it. Buck never takes up the six-shooters that his cinematic idols used, but Little Bill sure does. After the third, and final, time of walking in on his wife having sex with another random man, Bill uses a revolver to murder his wife and her lover. After facing the party crowd, smiling and satisfied with his attempt to regain control of his pitiful life, lacking masculinity, he then kills himself. It is the only “money shot” we really get in the film, as we see blood hit the wall behind the poor, sad fool. It’s horrendously sexual, and it quite literally signals the death of an era, as this murder-suicide happens just after the stroke of midnight on January 1, 1980, which was the end of the decadence that highlighted the Swingin’ 70s. Bill killed the porn industry with a penile substitute. If that’s not an award-winning observation, I don’t know what is.

Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), the father figure and captain of this crazy ship, has to weather the storm both before and after the tragedy. He starts off as the strongest character in terms of the power he wields and his sense of place in the world. He’s the director and he’s driven by a true desire to entertain by using films with a real story, instead of making films where “everyone fucks their brains out.” I think Jack sees the industry for what it is: a shallow hallmark of smut, and he knows he’s just a peddler of trash. His desire to turn his films into something more wholesome or genuine is just his fear of being made into an old creep. He wants to establish himself as a true filmmaker, should the industry ever change and threaten his standing as a high-powered go-getter. In most scenes, if he’s not holding a camera, he’s smoking a cigar. There’s always gotta be something to establish him as a real man. Talk about castration anxiety, am I right?

Jack’s fears aren’t unfounded, however. After Little Bill’s suicidal transition into a new decade, the emergence of video tape threatens Jack’s film industry. Porn is now cheap and easy to produce, with smaller, more versatile cameras readily available. Removed from his comfy director’s chair behind a monstrous filming apparatus, Jack is reduced to on-the-street type encounters, not even hidden behind the camera. He has to put himself in front of the phallus and, basically, explain what’s going to happen to the viewer. No story crafting, no characters, nothing. His dream of making story-driven films died when Bill did. Jack’s lack of power erupts in a furious display of masculinity when he beats the living hell out of a man during an ill-fated attempt to film one of the aforementioned on-the-street segments. Jack’s status as a porn director instead of a film director is pretty much solidified here, and remains that way until Dirk and Jack reconcile at the end, combining their phalluses once more into something greater for the both of them.

The main event arrives in the form of Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg). Actually, that’s not true, sorry. I mislead you there a little bit. Note how I did just say their phalluses combine instead of just simply they combine. Throughout the film, the viewer is expected to view Dirk as almost three characters: shy Eddie Adams, confident Dirk Diggler, and, literally, a piece of meat. Specifically, one particular, giant, throbbing piece of meat. Dirk’s dick is the main event, not Dirk himself. The movie builds around the legend that is this magical penis. The viewer, no matter gender or sexual orientation, wants to see the damn thing. It’s got its own arc and plotline. It even had its own hairstylist! PTA expertly takes Laura Mulvey’s concept of “phallocentrism,” which means exactly what you think it means (using the phallus as a symbol of male dominance or power), and applies it quite literally.

Throughout the duration of Boogie Nights, the main concern is if Dirk can perform. This isn’t a problem for the young and bright-eyed Dirk, who still maintains an unabashed love for his new, surrogate family and lifestyle. He’s rock hard and ready to go on cue, like a true champion. His power is so great, his dick so wonderful, that awards start flowing in like…other things that flow. There’s no fear of castration, because Dirk believes that it is he is powerful, using brain number one instead of brain number two. Dirk even states that his phallus is his “one special thing” multiple times in the film, perhaps failing to realize that it has a mind of its own, and his control over his own masculinity is overshadowed by the expectations placed upon his anatomy. He’s become objectified just as much as the women in the film, and in general society, have been.

Cocaine enters the equation soon after the fame and power peak, which Dirk becomes addicted to. Coke doesn’t do erections any favors, and soon Dirk’s only true pull is lost, and Dirk leaves the industry that gave him all the power and confidence in the first place. His attempts to become a musician with Reed Rothchild (John C Reilly), his brother in coke-addicted arms, flounder spectacularly due to a combination of lack of talent and lack of funds. Frankly, it is embarrassing to hear the duo shriek out boring, early-80s rock lyrics. What happened to these titans of sex? How emasculating! The only man who can rock a guitar as a literal phallus is Prince (RIP).

Much like all the other men in this film, Dirk must turn to a combination of crime and violence to retain any sense of manhood. Before Dirk was Dirk, back when he was just lil ol’ Eddie, people would pay five or ten dollars to get a load of the wang. In the 80s, Dirk resorts back to turning tricks, trying to cling to his fame by asking his johns if they know who he is (referring to Dirk Diggler, Porn Titan). Nobody ever seems to, making Dirk feel even more emasculated to the point where, still, he cannot get hard, even for money he desperately needs. Karma is a bitch, too, apparently, because Dirk gets the hell beat from him by a group of cowardly homophobes, which is a statement of masculinity too. This was the 80s, remember, when the AIDS “epidemic” was sweeping the united states, and was mostly blamed on the gay community. Dirk lays bloody and beaten by a group of men looking to stomp out anything non-mainline hetero. I don’t think anybody has power in this part of the film. All the men are floundering, lost, and scared.

Oh, also, Dirk indirectly gets a few people murdered. Oops! In the most bizarre scene in the whole film, which turns Boogie Nights, momentarily, into a gratuitous 80s action flick, Dirk tries to sell Alfred Molina baking soda. Thomas Jane’s Todd, a friend to Dirk and Reed, has even shadier ulterior motives, though, and brings a gun and demands the contents of a safe. This devolves into a blistering, coke-fueled gunfight, which leaves Todd and Alfred’s bodyguard dead. Dirk and Reed are reduced to cowering in fear from the massive phallic displays in this scene. Molina wields a gigantic shotgun, outweighing Todd’s measly pistol. Molina wields such massive control in this scene that he literally scares Dirk and Reed straight. For a moment, its almost as of Dirk is reduced back to Eddie, cowering in fear of someone’s dominance. There’s no control for men in this world.

How about a womanly touch, then? Do the women hold up in this male gaze of a perspective? Nah, but the men aren’t doing so well, either. Both of our leading ladies have serious identity issues, fueled by their involvement in a male-dominated industry which literally thrives on turning women into nothing more than male fantasies.

Rollergirl (Heather Graham) is nothing more than an empty vessel, meant to be used by men for their own gains. She lacks any sense of agency in the film, constantly being directed to do this, do that. Due to her early involvement in the industry, she is chased away from high school after being mocked by classmates. There is no separating the “real” Rollergirl (who is named Brandy, as discovered during that fateful on-the-street scene) and the theatrical Rollergirl. She’s literally identified by what she wears, much like many female celebrities are today on the red carpet. Maybe the skates are symbolic of a fleeting sense of identity, representing a temporary placeholder instead of a personality.

In fact, Rollergirl readily rejects any “real” identity given to her. When her old classmate turns up in that on-the-street scene, the same one who mocked her so badly she left school, and says her real name and attempts to connect with her on a human level, her face turns white and she plays dumb, pretending not to know what he’s talking about. It really says something about her character. It seems like whoever Rollergirl was, back in the 70s, is completely gone and buried. Constantly under the scrutiny of the male gaze and dominated by phalluses, both literally and figuratively, Rollergirl has become nothing. She doesn’t want to be or have a “real” life or identity, it seems. Maybe she’s embarrassed. That’s probably why she kicks her former classmate square in the jaw with her roller blades, firmly establishing, once again, that the skates make the biggest impact as to who she is.

By not having an identity, she doesn’t have to live under typical feminine standards place upon her by the patriarchal society. She doesn’t have to run away any more. She can get comfortable in the industry by lacking shame. When someone establishes an identity for themselves, people usually care about how that identity is perceived to others. As in the case of Buck earlier, he can’t get rid of his former identity. Rollergirl just seems to be avoiding the same problems that plague the other characters in the film.

The character who seems to suffer the most from being unable to escape her identity is Amber (Julianne Moore). She’s the only actual mother in the family, with her son being taken from her by her former husband, back when Amber was known as Maggie. Her real name, said a few times throughout the film, actually baffles partygoers at Jack’s house. Amber hasn’t made that public knowledge, and why should she? She’s developed a new family in Jack, Rollergirl, and later Dirk. Drunkenly, she calls her husband asking to talk to her son. The audience never actually sees the child, and she subsequently loses all custody in a heartbreaking courtroom scene. That aspect of Amber’s life, as desperately as she clings to it, is long gone. Her sublimation of desire for family actually brings Dirk down, as she, in a bad mom move, introduces her new son to cocaine in the first place, just before she welcomes him back into her womb.

Conversely, Amber is the only woman in the film given a chance to wield some actual power. Jack allows her to direct short, biographical films, highlighting the life of Dirk Diggler. She also usurps power from Jack early in the film, during the first actual porn shoot. Jack, as director, wants a money shot. Amber, needing the warmth and compassion, tells Dirk to not finish on her, but in her. It ruins the take, partially. Jack’s phallus was directed one way, but Amber’s feminine wiles shift the focus of the scene from Dirk to Amber. Half the reason people watch films like this is to get the female reaction out of it. The moans and groans, the faces of ecstasy. She realizes that and takes advantage of it, all at the cost of losing her real family. Her power is fleeting and only applies in certain circumstances. Outside of the film shoots, she’s haphazard and forgetful, distant and chaotic. What’s a woman to do? What’s anyone to do?

Accept their fates.

This is exemplified in the final moments of the film. Dirk is about to go on set, back to the old days. He’s poised for a comeback. Well…a certain part of him is. This is the moment the audience has been waiting for, as we finally get a glimpse of the legend. It is…disappointing. Yes, its very large, but Dirk’s phallus hangs limp, looking used. At least he has finally accepted that he is not the star, but his dick is. By pushing aside his masculine desire for ultimate power and national recognition, Dirk is happy just to be recognized for his one special thing. Just as Jack uses his camera to rectify his place in society, Dirk will use his dick to carve out his own niche. its almost like, individually, these broken people have no place in society. By creating their own family and own hierarchy of power, this oddball Oedipal group finally can feel like they belong somewhere, and know their roles in this particular section of society.

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Josh Heath is a staff writer for Cut Print Film. He wants you to know how much he truly enjoys terrible movies.