Boogie Nights Turns 20 | How PT Anderson Brought us the First Family of Porn

Mark Wahlberg used to be good. Whatever he’s done after 2000 is what it is, but Wahlberg’s work in the 1990s is untouchable. Three Kings is a fantastic war satire, Good Vibrations is an unassailable totem of 90s pop-rap and then there is Boogie Nights, which remains one of the best films ever made. The fact that it’s a movie about porn in the 70s and 80s is even more surprising.

Eddy Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is a nightclub dishwasher in 1977. Rumours abound about Eddy’s endless stamina, incredible sexual prowess and enormous penis. Porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) wants to find out for himself and with nothing better to do Eddy agrees to work with Jack and his dysfunctional family of porn-stars and sleazy crew members. Taking on the name Dirk Diggler the young high school dropout finds himself in a world of sex, parties, drugs, and crime.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are known for their zany, troubled and sympathetic characters. Boogie Nights is no different. There’s Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) a narcissistic porn actor with dreams of being a magician. Idealist Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) dreams of opening his own themed stereo store. Amber Rose (Julianne Moore) is a divorced cocaine addict with strong maternal instincts for Dirk and her ditsy protégé Rollergirl (Heather Graham). There are small roles for some of the greatest names in all of acting: Phillip Seymour Hoffman and William H. Macy. Hoffman plays Scotty a closeted gay man whose pathos bleeds onto the film reel. Macy’s “Little” Bill meanwhile is the fulcrum upon which the film balances on.

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Boogie Nights is a film of two halves, literally. It can easily be divided by tone and mood. The first half is a mostly happy-go-lucky look at the world of pornography between 1977 and 1980. Dirk Diggler makes friends, films, and love during these years. Anderson shoots most of this half in daylight or in brightly lit rooms. Darkness in this half is often more erotic than dangerous. Then New Year’s Eve 1979 rolls around and Dirk tries cocaine for the first time, Scotty’s homosexual desire for Dirk boils over and “Little” Bill murders his cheating porn-star wife and her lover before committing suicide. Then the depraved and neon-lit 1980s come swinging in.

Reed and Dirk fall victim to cocaine addiction and a bad friend in the form of party boy Todd Parker (Thomas Jane). Dirk falls out of favour with Jack and quickly finds himself penniless, homeless, and vulnerable. The film loses focus on Dirk here and that’s a good thing because we all know the tale of the Prodigal Son. Instead we find ourselves following Buck’s hopelessly idealistic quest to start a family and open a store as well as Amber’s custody battle and Jack’s disillusionment with the industry he once loved now that his surrogate family is drifting apart.

Boogie Nights is a film about family. A family that happen to shoot pornos together but a family nonetheless. Pseudo-incestuous themes aside it is a sweet, heart-warming story. Take Dirk for instance. At the beginning he disavows his biological family in favour of a foster home in a porn director’s mansion. Amber ultimately fails at receiving custody of her son from a previous marriage. “Little” Bill’s family is screwed up from the start as he often catches his wife in bed with younger, more attractive men. Buck endeavours to find a place for himself outside of porn with various affectations from cowboys to Rick James impersonation to hip-hop. But it’s his wife and son that set him firmly on the path. As we grow older we get to choose our family no matter how fucked-up they might be.

Julianne Moore and Mark Wahlberg in PT Anderson's Boogie Nights. -
Julianne Moore and Mark Wahlberg in PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Source

Speaking of Buck, the soundtrack for Boogie Nights is banging. From the likes of Rick Springfield’s Jessie’s Girl sound tracking a crack den shootout to Dirk’s attempt at recording Stan Bush’s anthemic The Touch. Director Paul Thomas Anderson also executive produced the score and proved himself a master at contrasting heavy scenes with lighter music. American Psycho did it with Huey Lewis and the News’ Hip to be Square and an axe-murder while Okja did it with a slow-motion chase sequence and John Denver’s Annie’s Song but Boogie Nights created a sense of wholeness with a slow tracking shot and God Only Knows by the Beach Boys. Even the incidental music such as the church bells and synth drones in intercut scenes of horrible assaults is evidence of how Anderson works as much with sounds as he does with visuals.

Pornography is a dodgy medium at best. The industry is rife with abuse, exploitation, and crime. Success stories are few and burn outs number far too many. Various films have sought to humanise the subjects of this weird but exceedingly popular medium from the unconvincing Lovelace to the empty and judgemental Hot Girls Wanted and nearly all have failed. Where Boogie Nights succeeds is in its humanising of its subjects. The character Dirk Diggler is based on real life porn actor John C. Holmes. Holmes lead a tragic life mirrored in the second half of Boogie Nights. Addicted to heroin, accused of murder, and involved in prostitution Holmes eventually died of complications due to AIDs in 1988. Holmes was complex just like Dirk Diggler and his many friends. Holmes was fascinated with carpentry and clay modelling meaning like Dirk, Buck and Reed he wasn’t just a penis attached to a man. Boogie Nights is humane and fair in its treatment of porn and those who participate in it.

Twenty years on and Boogie Nights remains a fantastic piece of cinema. It is the multi-faceted centrepiece of Paul Thomas Anderson’s incredible work as a director. Unlike most films that use porn or sex as a plot device Anderson never divides his actors into body parts instead making them whole human beings. Anderson shows that anyone can be a star. A big, bright, shining star.

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