Once again, you just have to wonder — is sex worth all the trouble? Adrian Lyne’s remake of Lolita can’t find a U.S. distributor; Crash, David Cronenberg’s twisted ode to all manner of rear-end collisions, is on every critic’s fatality list; and even the grosses of The People vs. Larry Flynt, which landed Woody Harrelson an Oscar nomination, underscore the reality that — contrary to Hollywood’s most sacred credo — sex does not always sell.
Nonetheless, this fall, New Line will tempt disaster by shimmying into the fray with a seriocomic homage to the fabulous ’70s that just happens to take place against the backdrop of the hardcore porn world. The $15 million Boogie Nights stars Mark Wahlberg — The Actor Formerly Known as Marky — as an innocent drafted into the netherworld of smut films. With a cast of talents — Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Don Cheadle — rather than superstars, an unknown director, and a running time (over two and a half hours) that would allow Debbie to do all of Dallas with time to kill, Boogie Nights has few selling points to excite a potential audience.
Well, maybe one.
And therein lies the rub. If New Line sells Boogie Nights as a film about sex, its director-producer-writer, 26-year-old Paul Thomas Anderson, could accuse the company of selling out what he modestly calls ”an epic.” So instead, the studio is calling attention to the film’s sexier angle by relentlessly claiming that its porno setting is really beside the point. ”The wrong kind of controversy isn’t good for this movie,” says Mitchell Goldman, New Line’s president of marketing and distribution. ”It isn’t about porn. It’s about dreams and growing up in that time, and how our mores were different.”
That strategy means playing both sides of the fence: stoking a controversy over the poster, for instance (pictured here and deemed unsuitable for public viewing by the MPAA), while insisting that it’s a movie about relationships. Call it Mark Wahlberg: Private Parts — or the latest example of a studio flirting with the cutting edge, a risky maneuver that can land a movie either on the public’s radar or the back shelves of video stores.
When Anderson began writing the script three years ago, ”I was in the middle of having big trouble with Hard Eight,” a small-scale drama that was delayed for months and finally released with little fanfare by Goldwyn in February. ”I was faced with a lot of bulls — and found myself drowning in ridiculous test screenings. Boogie Nights came out of a lot of anger and frustration.”
When Anderson met with New Line’s president of production, Michael De Luca, ”I told him this script is the movie, and it’s going to be long…. I had certain actors in mind, and I went in and said, ‘This is unchangeable.’ That shows my clarity as a moviemaker,” he says. ”The worst thing you can do is be wishy-washy.” Instead of telling the young filmmaker to take a hike, De Luca asked only that Anderson deliver an R-rated film. ”He promised me everything a filmmaker could want,” Anderson says.