Diggler, duels and that very big dong: Boogie Nights at 25

When Michael Stein, an actor, stand-up and friend of filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, visited the set of Anderson’s pornography opus Boogie Nights in 1997, he noticed a cast member was missing. “I said,” recalls Stein, “‘Hey where’s Burt?’” Burt Reynolds was playing Jack Horner, a classy porno director and mentor to Mark Wahlberg’s up-and-coming porn stud, Dirk Diggler. The former Hollywood alpha would ultimately be Oscar-nominated for the role, but on the set, he was peeved. Anderson, chain-smoking American Spirit cigarettes with irritation, turned to Stein: “He’s in the trailer, man… He doesn’t want to hang out with us.’”

Refusing to come out of his trailer was one thing; elsewhere on the shoot, it almost came to blows – Reynolds took a swing at the 26-year-old Anderson. “I wasn’t there for that,” says Stein. “I heard about it though!”

Like the Goodfellas of porn, Boogie Nights is about the rise and fall of the massively endowed Dirk Diggler, a naive – daft, even – youngster in porn’s golden age. In Diggler’s own words – and before the cocaine takes hold – he’s a big bright shining star. The film is also the story of how Paul Thomas Anderson – a strong-willed, creatively assured upstart – emerged as a filmmaker-of-the-moment, on a spectrum that includes Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher and Kevin Smith. All infused Nineties cinema with a cutting edge, indie-minded cool.

Twenty-five years after it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival (on 11 September 1997), Boogie Nights remains sumptuous filmmaking, with stunningly crafted characters. Industry players didn’t understand it, though. Not least of all Reynolds, who reportedly fired his agent after clashing with Anderson on the set. Wahlberg, who became a major Hollywood star in its wake, has also had an erratic relationship with the film – the devout Catholic has since said that he hopes God forgives him for starring in it, though he’s also boasted about still keeping in his possession Dirk’s giant prosthetic penis.

Anderson’s film was born from his real-life fascination with porn, beginning life as a short mockumentary – The Dirk Diggler Story – that he directed in 1988 when he was just 17. Stein, who has a small cameo in Boogie Nights, played the original Dirk. Anderson’s interest in the porn world – an X-rated origin story, if you like – is almost apocryphal. There are various accounts: that he discovered his father’s porn stash aged nine and watched The Opening of Misty Beethoven; that he was obsessed with warehouse-like buildings that had no signage, suggesting something secret and sexy inside; or that he spied a suspected porn shoot across the street from his grandmother’s. In that story, the house had blacked out windows and light stands on the lawn, leading Anderson to watch many, many pornos afterwards trying to find it on-screen. As Anderson grew up in the real Seventies and Eighties porn hub of the San Fernando Valley, all of those stories are probably true. “The Valley was the epicentre,” says Stein. “The Hollywood of the porn industry.”

Stein first met Anderson when they were dating the daughters of studio executive Peter Guber. Anderson called Stein with a proposition: “I’ve got an idea for a short film. It’s about a porno star. I haven’t written it yet, but would you play him?’” Stein had studied acting, but so far nothing had, erm, come up. Soon enough, he was playing Dirk Diggler – filming in a motel on Ventura Boulevard “wearing leopard skin underwear”.

For The Dirk Diggler Story, Anderson credited a number of influences, most obviously the 1981 documentary Exhausted, about legendarily equipped adult icon John Holmes. “The Babe Ruth of that industry,” jokes Stein. Exhausted, directed by porn star Julia St Vincent, is a pompous, laughable profile of a star in decline. Anderson once called it “just the funniest, saddest thing”, and gave everyone a copy on the set of Boogie Nights. It pointed to the fact that Anderson’s porn fascination wasn’t just about sex, but the campy, ramshackle aesthetic and storytelling of the genre.

Like the best mockumentaries, The Dirk Diggler Story is an exercise in blinkered delusion. Characters possess an inflated sense of self, tragically unaware at how they present on camera. It’s full of sly, knowing humour and farcical moments. See Jack Horner, then played by Robert Ridgely, praying to not be struck down by the curse of premature ejaculation. The original Dirk meets a tragic fate – he dies of an overdose. Cue a hilarious, weepy montage of his life and career.

At one time, Anderson envisioned Boogie Nights as a feature-length mockumentary, before realising he was “blatantly ripping off Spinal Tap”, he’d go on to say. His script, then a weighty tome of 180 pages, had already been rejected. A script reader at Fox rated both its concept and storyline as “poor”. Anderson was already on the defensive with studio brass. His debut feature, the gambling thriller Sydney – starring Philip Baker Hall and Gwyneth Paltrow – had been taken off of him in post-production and renamed Hard Eight (though he effectively stole it back). It was Michael De Luca, president of production at New Line Cinema, who championed Boogie Nights. Less convinced was New Line founder Bob Shaye, who was wary of Anderson’s phonebook-sized screenplay. Anderson saw the film as a three-hour, adults-only epic rated NC-17 – a kiss-of-death for any movie, meaning no one under the age of 17 was allowed to see it. De Luca had to cut his ambitions down to size. Anderson agreed to make Boogie Nights under three hours, with a more box office-friendly R rating.

For Anderson, Boogie Nights was about “the surrogate family”, he told interviewer Charlie Rose upon its release. Dirk begins life as a busboy named Eddie Adams, who’s kicked out of home by his miserable, browbeating mother (Joanna Gleason). But his special talents – a 13-inch penis and being really, really good at sex – are discovered by Jack Horner, who welcomes him into a family of porno misfits. Dirk becomes an award-winning sensation and creates his own on-screen porn character – Brock Landers, based on John Holmes’s screen alter-ego Johnny Wadd – before descending into a cocaine-fuelled nightmare.

Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg in ‘Boogie Nights’


Boogie Nights, ultimately, is about love, acceptance, and finding your place in the world. Dirk’s foxy co-star Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) is a mother in need of children – having lost custody of her real child – while young porn stars Dirk and Rollergirl (Heather Graham) are children in need of a mother. Set assistant Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a childlike oaf who craves Dirk’s affection. Fellow porn actor Reed Rothchild (the ever-brilliant John C Reilly) competes with Dirk in hilarious macho posturing (“What do you bench?”), but the friendship is based on a near-homoerotic admiration. Even Don Cheadle’s Buck Swope is just trying to fit in by finding a style that suits him – from cowboy to Egyptian chic. “Wear what you dig,” advises Luis Guzmán’s nightclub manager, who believes his true calling is to star in porn films as the “ultimate Latin lover”.

Cinematographer Robert Elswit, who won an Oscar in 2008 for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, wanted to make Boogie Nights for its deeper themes. “You’re so full of s***,” said his wife. “You just want to see the naked girls.”

The first half of the movie is all fun and games. But the back-half of the movie is a sort of punishment for those fun and games

Paul Thomas Anderson

Anderson initially wanted Leonardo DiCaprio for Dirk. The fresh-faced DiCaprio was interested but opted instead to make Titanic, later confessing that passing the part up was his biggest professional regret. He was courteous about it in 1997, though, recommending Anderson meet with Wahlberg, his co-star in The Basketball Diaries two years earlier. It was a risky proposal. Wahlberg was still best known for his ludicrous rap persona Marky Mark, and his Calvin Klein underwear ads. He only read the first 30 pages of Boogie Nights before meeting Anderson, whom he told: “I know I’m going to love the rest of it, but I just want to make sure before I really fall in love with this and want to do it, that you don’t want me because I’m the guy who will get in his underwear”.

Stein recalls some concerns. He had “heard some things” about Wahlberg. “I was worried that Mark was going to be hip-hop Mark,” he says. “I met him and he was so nice – a great guy.” The brilliance of Wahlberg’s Diggler, says Stein, is the vulnerability. Indeed, Dirk may best be remembered and certainly most quoted for his impotent, cocaine meltdown – “You’re not the king of me, I’m the f****** king of Dirk!” – but the crux of Dirk is that he’s essentially a boy. See him crying as his mother kicks him out (“Please, don’t be mean to me!”), his constant wonderment at the world around him – oblivious to its sleaze – or showing off his bachelor pad, adorned with the naff spoils of newfound fortune. “It has that karate feel,” he says about the bedroom decor.

Actors up for the role of Jack Horner included Albert Brooks, Sydney Pollack and Bill Murray. Anderson also spoke to Warren Beatty. “Eventually what I started to figure out is that Warren really wanted to play Dirk Diggler,” Anderson said. The part of Rollergirl almost went to Drew Barrymore, who attended a screening of Hard Eight with Burt Reynolds that was amusingly ruined by Ron Jeremy, then a top porn star, who fell asleep and snored all the way through it. Jeremy ended up acting as a consultant on the set of the film, introducing Anderson to the inner workings of the porn biz.

Other real-life porn stars appeared in the film, including Veronica Hart and Nina Hartley, who played the adulterous porn star wife of Horner’s assistant director, Little Bill (William H Macy). In the film’s best running gag, Little Bill finds his wife in various trysts with other men. “You’re embarrassing me,” she tells Bill – while she has sex in front of a group of onlookers. It’s a joke that eventually sours. Little Bill’s demise on New Year 1980 is quietly, unexpectedly devastating: a continuous Steadicam take of Little Bill discovering his wife with yet another man, walking to his car to retrieve his gun, and killing his wife, her lover and then himself. It’s the point at which Boogie Nights takes a dark, perilous turn. “The first half of the movie is all fun and games,” Anderson said in 1997. “But the back-half of the movie is a sort of punishment for those fun and games.”

Julianne Moore and Mark Wahlberg in ‘Boogie Nights’


Like the real John Holmes, Dirk develops a dangerous cocaine habit, one that leaves him unable to perform. It results in a poolside shoving match between Dirk and Jack. The scene was filmed a day after a real bust-up between Reynolds and Anderson. Accounts vary on what caused the fracas: either Reynolds hated the film or felt disrespected by his director.

“I don’t want to put myself in the mind of Burt Reynolds but Paul is so strong-minded and Burt is a strong-minded guy,” Stein says. “I know that because I know other friends of his. I could see that happening.” Stein jokes that Reynolds could have been method acting. “Who knows, maybe Burt was doing some Daniel Day [Lewis]?! He needed to take a swing at Dirk in the pool scene.”

The latter half of Boogie Nights is an excruciating descent into desperation and stupidity: gay prostitution, a drug robbery gone wrong and a failed attempt at pop stardom. In a scene carried over from Exhausted, Dirk sings – if you can call it singing – “The Touch”, originally from the animated Transformers movie. “I saw the soundtrack in this 99-cents bin and I thought, ‘I’ve got to have this. This is too good,’” recalled Anderson.

The film’s climactic robbery is pulse-thumping, nerve-jangling lunacy, with a shotgun-wielding Alfred Molina – wearing Speedos, freebasing cocaine, and singing “Jessie’s Girl” – and a mute Chinese boy throwing firecrackers. Molina’s ears were plugged to dampen the sound, while Anderson shot the very real nerves of Wahlberg, Reilly, and actor Thomas Jane – first with firecrackers, then, after they’d got used to the firecrackers, a starting pistol.

Unlike John Holmes, who died of Aids complications in 1988, Dirk gets his redemption. Anderson decided to save his money shot for the final seconds: the reveal of Dirk’s 13-inch penis. For Anderson, it was like seeing the shark for the first time in Jaws. The prosthetic rubber penis was in fact seven inches – the full-length version looked monstrous on Wahlberg’s 5ft 7in frame.

The original poster artwork for ‘Boogie Nights’

(New Line Cinema)

There were months of back-and-forth with the Motion Picture Association of America to get Boogie Nights’ R rating, and battles with New Line’s Bob Shaye over the length of Anderson’s cut. Shaye had ammo: preview screening test scores were woefully low, causing the marketing executives to lose confidence. The filmmakers wondered if the wrong audience was being recruited. Producer JoAnne Sellar overheard viewers being rounded with the question: “Do you want to see Mark Wahlberg’s penis?” Bob Shaye even did his own edit – it scored marginally worse, helped by Anderson telling people at that preview screening, “This movie sucks. You’re gonna hate it.”

Officially released on 10 October 1997, Boogie Nights made $26m – a modest hit, though it was nominated for two Academy Awards. Critics were stunned. The Independent’s Chris Darke called it “a bravura piece of American filmmaking, up there with Goodfellas in scope and scale”. In The New York Times, Janet Maslin described Anderson as having a “display of talent as big and exuberant as skywriting”. Reynolds, reportedly distancing himself from publicity, missed out. “He would’ve won the Oscar had he not dug such a hole for himself,” Wahlberg later told Yahoo. Reynolds was diplomatic about the film in his autobiography but admitted that he’d “never sat down and watched the whole thing”. Reynolds also missed what Boogie Nights was to Nineties cinema: a big, bright shining star.

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