It happened almost invisibly, without the overheated hype, the aren’t-you shocked/aren’t-you-titillated? tabloid media blitz that would surely have accompanied it today. In 1977, back when David Cronenberg was just an obscure Toronto-based maker of low-budget horror films (though critics were already starting to foam at the mouth at his metaphors), he wrote and directed a nasty little psychosexual shocker called Rabid, in which he cast, in the lead role, the adult-film actress Marilyn Chambers (pictured, left, in one of the film’s frenzied meltdown scenes). It was the first instance of a performer rising out of the seamy swamp of hard-core pornography and crossing over, without irony, into a mainstream movie. It would also be just about the last.
In Rabid, Chambers, who died last week at 56, plays a youngwoman who becomes a mutant predator, with a dagger-like…thingy thatemerges, bloody and vicious, from her armpit, turning everyone it stabsinto a rampaging, teeth-gnashing, id-flaunting zombie demon. In aninterview on the Specal Edition DVD of Rabid, Cronenberg claims that he has never, to this day, seen Behind the Green Door,the 1972 adult-film landmark that made Chambers famous. True or not,Cronenberg knew what he had: He did an extremely shrewd job of playingoff her image as a willowy girl next door with a secret depraved darkside. In Rabid, Chambers, with her wide eyes, come-hithersmile, and cornstalk bearing, makes a disarmingly vivid demon-vixen onthe loose. Despite the faintly tinny coo of her voice, she was, atleast in this role, not a bad actress, perhaps because she identifiedwith the perversity of the movie’s sex-kitten-gone-nutzoid imagery. Aperformer who’d gotten famous for being defiled on screen was nowgetting the chance to defile back.
By starring in Rabid, Chambers effectively blazed a trail,one that, as it turned out, went cold fairly quickly. In our own time,we’ve seen adult-film stars become icons of kitsch — like Ron Jeremy,the burly “Hedgehog” who gets cast in bit parts whenever a directorwants to lend a comedy a bit of cheap “underground” cachet (e.g., Class of Nuke ‘Em High 3),or Traci Lords, who has carved out a TV and movie career lampooning herearlier infamy. And, of course, the adult superstar Jenna Jameson is aone-woman self-promotion machine. Marilyn Chambers, though, enjoyed hershort-lived mainstream breakthrough near the end of the porno-chic era,when it wasn’t just a cool-cred joke or a naked PR stunt. Her role in Rabidseemed to open the door to further possibilities. Seven years later, in1984, director Brian De Palma flirted with casting another ’70sadult-film star — Annette Haven — in the role of triple-X actressHolly Body in Body Double. But the idea fell by the wayside(there were reports that it was nixed by the studio), and the part wentto Melanie Griffith instead. By that point, it was clear that these twoworlds were not destined, at least in America, to do much in the way ofcross-pollinating.
At the time she made Rabid, Chambers claimed that she wasdone with the adult-film industry. But just when she thought she wasout, it pulled her back in. Of course, the scandal that launched — andforever defined — her career was, in its singular and bizarre way, theultimate case of mainstream/adult film crossover. Only this wascrossover in reverse. After she’d finished shooting Behind the Green Door,the film’s creators, the Mitchell brothers, got wind of the fact thatshe had once been “the Ivory Snow girl,” posing in dewy sanitized soapcommercials as “99 and 44/100 percent pure.” The ultimate icon ofAmerican purity starring in the ultimate dirty movie became an instantpublicity sensation. More than that, however, it became an enduringmyth of adult films: that the squeaky-clean soap princess — an imagethat hearkened back to the Mad Men early ’60s — wasn’t what she seemed. And if shewasn’t, what did that say about everyone else? The true legacy ofMarilyn Chambers, who crossed over before it was fashionable, or evenpermitted, may be that the lines you cross will forever be definingeven after you’ve demonstrated that they’re not entirely real.