Here are a few things from Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne’s The Other Hollywood that you probably didn’t know about the adult-film industry. Linda Lovelace, before she became the poster girl for porno chic, performed in a Super-8 loop with a canine. Deep Throat made so much money that the mobsters who controlled the 1972 film didn’t count the cash — they weighed it. According to the ’70s porn queen Annette Haven, having sex with John Holmes ”was like doing it with a big, soft, loofah sponge…not exactly a turn-on.”
Eloquent and sleazy, the oral history is a documentary you read instead of watch — a stately orgy of talk that turns gossip into art. So when McNeil, who collaborated (with Gillian McCain) on the 1996 oral history of punk, Please Kill Me, that was arguably the finest example of the form since Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s Edie, said that he would next do an oral history (no jokes, please) of porn, I thought, What an ideal subject for the high-trash treatment.
Yet The Other Hollywood is a disquieting experience. Some of it is naughty fun — like the story of how the Mitchell brothers, creators of Behind the Green Door, concealed for months that Marilyn Chambers was the Ivory Snow girl (all the better to publicize the movie), or the flourishing conspiracy theory that jailbait vixen Traci Lords had her fake passport prepared by federal law enforcers, who (it’s said) were using her to entrap the industry. Overall, though, The Other Hollywood is a far grimmer book than I’d expected — a sordid and diffuse film noir of skin and crime and greed and violence, not necessarily in that order.
McNeil and Osborne chop up anecdotes and crosscut them for a hard-boiled effect that’s at once gripping and mannered. They conducted hundreds of interviews (and also wove in ones from decades past), gliding over the boogie-nights ’70s and the big-hair-and-silicone ’80s to unearth the rotten core of the porn underworld. There are nearly as many pages devoted to the mobsters who ran the industry, and to the feds who tried (fruitlessly) to indict them, as there are to the performers. You learn more than you ever wanted to know about Reuben Sturman, a tough shlub who became the most powerful figure in adult films by inventing peep-show booths. Exhaustive and exhausting, The Other Hollywood nails the dirty business of porn, but with a disarmingly high ratio of business to dirt.
The book’s attitude appears to be that the hardcore demimonde is a scummier, deadlier, more airless place than you, the triple-X dilettante, ever dared to imagine. Several chapters recount the saga of Pat Livingston, an undercover FBI agent who became so possessed by his role as a slimy middleman that he morphed into the Donnie Brasco of porn. Fascinating stuff, as is John Holmes’ ambiguous involvement in the 1981 Wonderland murders — arguably the all-time most sinister slice of Hollywood Babylon. Yet by the end of The Other Hollywood, with its tales of abuse, drugs, AIDS, and suicidal stars, the book has blotted out any attempt to explain the attraction that this world ever held. Please Kill Me revealed the spiky apocalypse of punk, for all its noise and doom, to be a thing of joy. The Other Hollywood portrays everything connected to porn except pleasure.