Saturday, April 18, 2009

Marilyn Chambers, 1952–2009

Via LA Times and AVN comes sad news of the death of Marilyn Chambers, only 56 and gone way before her time. Susie Bright, Four on the Floor, and, interestingly, Jezebel post fitting eulogies.

Unlike the above eulogists, Marilyn Chambers was not actually much part of my porn coming of age, being a little before my time, though her name and face were iconic for as long as I can remember being interested in such things. I have some memory of Insatiable, her "comeback" movie from the early '80s and mostly remember how enthusiastic her performance was. It was the very opposite of the (unfortunately often true) stereotype of the detached porn star just going through the motions. My later memories of her are mainly local headlines about Chambers being arrested during a performance at San Francisco's Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater, a target of then-mayor Diane Feinstein's many misguided law'n'order campaigns during her time in office. (The more libertine Willie Brown would proclaim a "Marilyn Chambers Day" upon her return to MBOT in 1999.)

Chambers was also one of the first porn-to-cinema crossovers, landing a starring role in David Cronenberg's Rabid. According to one story I heard, beating out Sissy Spacek for the role. (And as much of a Cronenberg fan as I am, I'm embarrassed to say I haven't seen this one, something I intend to remedy soon.) Unfortunately, this role didn't translate into crossover success in the long term, and latter roles she picked up were largely straight-to-video horror flicks, much along the lines of Traci Lords.

An earlier thread on Jezebel announcing her death unfortunately derailed into the inevitable porn wars on the part of the commentariat (Jezebel has a couple of inveterate radfem commentators who inevitably steer any thread on the subject around to the party line on porn and prostitution), with the debate (as usual) actually having very little to do with the particulars of Chambers life and career in porn.

Nevertheless, a few sharper critics were quick to point out that dropping dead in a trailer before the age of 60 is an awfully ignoble end for somebody who is generally regarded as a big-name and historically-important porn star, and somebody who presumably made a lot of money for "porn lords" like the late Jim and Artie Mitchell. And as much as I'm accused of being a "pro-porn fanatic" and an apologist for the porn industry, its a critique I more or less agree with. I've seen too many stories of former porn stars ending up destitute or otherwise in a bad way later on, such as the story of Asia Careera's bankruptcy a few years back (albeit, her online gambling addiction was a contributing factor there), of Annabel Chong's never actually seeing the proceeds of her infamous gang-bang video, or of Nikki Charm ending up in prison for her role in a car theft ring.

Admittedly, porn is only a short-term career for most female performers (Nina Hartley being a notable exception) and is not something that can be counted on to grant life-long wealth to the mostly young women who take part in it. Nevertheless, a few years where one is flush with cash should not be a gateway to later-life poverty, and all too often, that is the case with former porn stars. One factor is simple bigotry and, yes, sex-negativity in the larger society – a work history in porn is not something you can put on your resume in most industries, and groups like the Screen Actors Guild apparently have rules shutting porn workers out. In the worst case, uncovering of a background in porn can actually lead to firing, as happened to Linda Lovelace in her later life. However, there are also problems with the industry. Lack of residuals are a big part of the problem (albeit, the marketability life of most porn titles is relatively short) and also, the fact that long-term financial planning is not part of the mindset of many performers. There was a porn columnist (who's name and link have escaped me) who wrote a few years ago in light of the Asia Carrera situation that financial management awareness need to be as much part of the industry as STD protection, and I think he had a point.

Hopefully, Marilyn Chambers ultimately be remembered not as another porn tragedy or cautionary tale, but for what she achieved and what she left behind, which was quite a bit, really.


  1. Thank you for this.

    Honestly, part of me hopes a few on the fence folks who are used to reading others' assessments of you as The Evil Gibbering Porn Lord Satan will stumble across it. No one who's actually listened to what you have to say can possibly think you don't care about the problems in the industry. As I've told you many times before, I'm consistently flabbergasted by people who paint you that way.

    I defy anyone to read this post and see someone who DOESN'T CARE.

  2. Thanks for that. I actually do care about problems with the industry, since one of the reason's I'm "pro-porn" is that I am a fan and think highly of the performers who do porn. Naturally, I don't want to see them get a raw deal.

    My rather extreme differences with the antis is that their focus is either 1) on the "effects" of porn on the viewer, and even getting past the dubiousness of those studies, as one of the porn viewers in question, I resent the paternalism of that approach, or 2) "concern" about the performers, but largely made-up stuff that's coming from people who haven't been anywhere near a porn set – Gail Dines smack about "damaging sex" is a prime example.

    But stuff that actually happens to performers, issues they and the people close to them bring up definitely concern me, and I'll continue to make that part of my writing here.

  3. Full disclosure first.

    Marilyn was more than a casual friend, though that's how we behaved for most of the 25 years we knew each other. She was the first performer I worked with and I can't view her as a "case" of this or that "type." She was Marilyn and anyone who thinks she didn't make her own calls in this world never knew her. She was almost invariably cordial and patient, both with industry people and fans, but she would have despised the idea of being regarded as a victim of anything, particularly the porn industry, where she had a pretty good run and left with few bitter feelings.

    Re her financial situation, she was really quite shrewd, having been the first performer ever to negotiate a substantial back-end deal on Green Door, and the Mitchell brothers paid it faithfully for years, until they met their own dire fates. She lived on that money, and what she made doing R-rated stuff, which she liked to remind people was a much larger body of work than her handful of hardcore pictures.

    But she was, like so many entertainers, overtaken by time. Residuals drag down and if you don't make new stuff, eventually they go dry. It doesn't help if you have the struggles with drugs and alcohol that are common to entertainers as a breed.

    I thought it was unfortunate when Marilyn tried to make a comeback in X-rated, especially before the big MILF craze hit and middle-aged performers found themselves in demand again. I know it was motivated by economic necessity, and I agree that this is a sad thing, but not limited to porn. Ed McMahon just got booted out of his mansion after making millions over the years because the milliions stopped coming in and the overhead didn't go down.

    Marilyn's prospects were actually looking up at the end. She'd inked a deal with a producer in NYC for a stage producton and was evidently quite excited about it.

    There's still no definitive word from the coroner's office, but so far, there's no suggestion of suicide, and while some kind of drug-related catastrophe can't be ruled out until the toxicology reports come back, the official unofficial story is that she died of a massive heart attack, which is the sort of thing that can happen to anyone. She and I were barely a month apart in age, and don't think things like this fail to keep me up at night.

    I said something about this in an email to Trinity, but having spent a quarter century or so in L.A., I'd say performers of every type have a pretty high rate of early mortality. When a mainstream actor dies of an O.D., well that's just his individual tragedy. When a gifted comic kills himself, well he was just a bi-polar guy with issues. But when a porn star dies, well, of course, it was porn that killed her. Needless to say, that's only true if she was also female.

    Last year, Buck Adams, Amber Lynn's brother, died of a heart attack at 53. I don't recall much boo-hooing about him as a victim of evil porn, but he did run himself into the ground like so many entertainers do, especially as the years go by and the things the ent biz worships - youth, beauty, novelty - fade out, the entertainers themselves tend to fade out as well.

    None of which invalidates your concerns about porn performers and the reckless way they go about their early careers, often oblivious to the brevity of their best earning years and with little thought given to the future that comes too soon.

    For what it's worth, which is pretty much fuck-all when talking to most twentysomethings, the Porn 101 tape we show to all first-timers before their initial blood test at AIM includes a plea from Nina to "save your money and pay your taxes." Asia Carrera, as you point out, is a super-bright, gifted (you should hear her play the piano) Type A personality who made tons of money over a fairly long run, but had that gambling jones to battle, so she wasn't able to avail herself of the first part of the advice. And Janine Lindamulder, who is also very smart and made lots of money, is in jail for failing to heed the second part.

    Are these problems with "The Industry?" Yes, if you include the whole entertainment industry. Notsomuch if you limit it to porn. This town is full of ex rockers tending bar and B-movie actresses waiting tables. Flame-outs, crash-and-burn disasters, melancholy fades to black are what await most of those who come out here to chase the dream, regardless of which path they head up.

    Is it harder for sex players to cross over into anything else? Well, duh. It's not exactly an ideal resume item. As a guy I know who had a regular gig on a soap and took a couple of porn jobs during the writers' strike of 1986 found out, "It doesn't help if the casting director you're auditioning for on a straight call saw you fucking somebody on his TV the night before." But that is more about the stigma attaching to porn among the surprisingly conservative decision-making class in mainstream than it is about porn itself.

    In the ideal world I picture, and I might add that Marilyn herself thought this world was destined to come about in the heady days of 1977 when shot-on-film porn movies played in regular theaters and got reviewed in The New Yorker, porn would be viewed as just another genre and those who had the talent to do other kinds of work could go back and forth freely.

    To some extent, she made that dream come true more than anyone else, landing ongoing roles in late-night cable series and small parts in minor straight-to-home-video features for almost twenty years, but what undoubtedly limited her chances more than anything else, given her substantial talents (which had gotten her a speaking part in The Owl and the Pussycat prior to Green Door) was the prejudice that dogs all sex workers, including porn performers.

    Yes, we need to do a better job of educating young people suddenly thrust into the spolight and heaped with money and drugs about the necessity of planning for a future after porn. And I do believe absolutely that porn performers should have full SAG benefits, but when Nina and a small group of others tried to crack SAG in the mid-Eighties, they were shown the door in a heartbeat, so that really says more about mainstream's attitudes than it does about porn.

    And as to residuals, of course they should be paid to performers, although despite all the noise about rich porn barons, the truth is, as you say, most porn titles have short shelf lives and the residuals off a five year career, even a very busy one, are unlikely to amount to much, which is no excuse for not paying them.

    The best thing that can be done for performers is to try, as we old timers do, to explain to them that the bar to entry is low and getting anywhere else from here is difficult, so have a plan and stick to it, because the run is always limited. The success stories here - Jenna, Bella, Nina - brought practical smarts to what is basically an impractical trade. I'm not sure that can be taught, but I think we need to do a better job of trying.

    Meantime, I think it would be a better thing to remember Marilyn as a human being, rather than a symbol of this or that (not accusing anyone here of doing otherwise). Her circumstances were specific to her, though not uncommon in any branch of show business, and she was a unique and rather wonderful person who will be missed sorely by those of us who had the good fortune to enjoy the pleasure of her company, however briefly.

    And as to the rad-fem vultures circling her yet-unfilled grave, shame upon shame for exploiting in death a person who was remarkably good at protecting herself from being exploited in life.

    Marilyn was a pioneer, not only in demanding a piece of her own sales, but also in insisting on STD testing for her partners before that was industry policy (and thereby helped make it industry policy) and did interracial starting with her first movie. She was very particular about how and by whom she was shot and worked only with performers of her own choosing. Victim? Not hardly. She never hesitated, right down to her final interview, to criticize what she didn't like about porn, but to defend its right to exist and to celebrate the good times she had making it.

    Yeah, she was married to Chuck Traynor for a time, but she dumped him and went on to marry the father of the teenage daughter who was the greatest source of joy in her life. I think she would have preferred to own her ups and downs rather than blaming them on others. That was more her style. On a good day, she'd have laughed at the nonsense being spewed about her. On a bad day - well, let's say she had a temper like every other artist I've ever known.

    Marilyn was not an example of anything. She was a complex human being with a life - and a death - all her own.

  4. Excellent obits, Ernest and IACB.

    I mostly remember Marilyn as much from her softcore cable-PPV specials that she did in the mid- to late-90's as I do her performances in Insatiable and her comeback sequel, Still Insatiable. where she managed to mine the same issue of sexual hypocrisy as the later political classic Bullworth would attempt earlier. (Indeed, Marilyn's character in Still Insatiable was named Charlotte Bulworth, FWIW.)

    She was really the first porn performer I saw that relied on sheer love of sex that practically threw herself at you through the if she could take on a battalion.

    When I get back home from my fam gettogether, I will post a full obituary and memoriam.

    For now, though....presente, Marilyn. And, thank you.


  5. Oh devil!
    Not the death of Ivory Snow!

    As a callgirl I must say this a sad day for fellow cunts everywhere.
    Marilyn was the stuff of legend. Sooo This has made me terribly cross.
    Also lovie!
    How do I suscribe to your blog?
    It's got me mixed up a bit

    Contact me here

  6. Oh devil!
    Not the death of Ivory Snow!

    As a callgirl I must say this a sad day for fellow cunts everywhere.
    Marilyn was the stuff of legend. Sooo This has made me terribly cross.
    Also lovie!
    How do I suscribe to your blog?
    It's got me mixed up a bit

  7. Unfortunately, I couldn't attend, but if you're interested in the details of Marilyn's memorial today at Zuma Beach, here's a rather lovely account by way of AVN:

    From the sound of it, I think Marilyn would have been pleased to be so remembered.

  8. Today I discovered a simply fascinating article released to the CounterPunch website remembering some of the hazards that Marilyn faced as a featured dancer at the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater in San Francisco during the 80's...including some inside details behind a historic bust by the SF authorities (then led by then SF Mayor/now US Senator Diane Feinstein) after a notorious performance there.

    The article is actually excerpted from a soon-to-be-released book by then San Francisco Chronicle columnist Warren Hinckle, who during that time wrote columns blasting the Feinstein administration for their neo-puritan attitudes regarding erotic entertainment.

    DiFi vs. Marilyn Chambers: Ivory Snow Girl R.I.P) (CounterPunch)Anthony

  9. now!

  10. This just in:

    "Behind the Green Door" star Marilyn Chambers died of a cerebral hemorrhage and aneurysm resulting from heart disease, the L.A. County Coroner's Office reported yesterday.

    Though two prescription medications were found in her system at the April 14 autopsy, the drug levels were within normal limits.

    Chambers was found dead on April 12 in her Canyon Country trailer. She had been working on a book and was discussing an off-Broadway show in the months preceding her death. She was 56."

    Natural causes. Too early for sure, but could happen to anyone. You don't have to be a porn star to die prematurely.

    I hope this puts some ugly rumors to rest, and that Marilyn can rest in peace