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.