This review is by Appellate Judge Tom Levi-Straus Straight-Fit.
At the dawn of the sexual revolution, we needed a hero. He needed an audience.
In the early 1970s, it wasn't only straight porno that enjoyed a "golden age."
Around the same time Deep Throat created a sensation and made a star out of Linda Lovelace, an all-male film called Boys in the Sand also created something of a sensation and made something of a name for its star, Casey Donovan.
Of course, gay male porn has never achieved the level of recognition or acceptance as straight porn and likely never will. Even P.T. Anderson's Boogie Nights, which attempted to deal so honestly with the porn industry in the '70s, wouldn't allow Mark Wahlberg's over-endowed Dirk Diggler to dabble in gay porn, something his real-life counterpart, John Holmes, did on a number of occasions.
Holmes, of course, wasn't the only "gay for pay" actor out there. In pre-AIDS, bisexual-chic America, a number of actors crossed between gay and straight porn. There was more money in straight porn and for a select few, more recognition in gay porn. Some self-identified straight, some self-identified bisexual.
Jack Wrangler was a gay man who did gay porn and—apparently and happily—had few hang-ups about either orientation or career. Approachably handsome and genuinely masculine, he pulled off the male fantasy stereotype of blue collar sexy without resorting to exaggerations or parody. At a time when the mainstream depiction of gay men was as weak, effeminate beings, Wrangler provided a much needed alternative take. He wasn't the first or only gay performer to trade on a hyper-masculine image, but he endured. That he was aggressively personable, sexually versatile, and engaged in—rather than detached from—what he was doing helped tremendously.
He was also a real actor. "Jack Wrangler" was a creation, a character, and in addition to porn, he played this character in theater and, later, solo shows. Confounding conventional wisdom, he achieved considerable success doing heterosexual porn, becoming the rare "straight for pay" actor.
He was born Jack Stillman, a child of privilege. He was not a hustler or a street kid doing porn to make a quick buck. He got into porn, really, because he enjoyed it. He was fortunate to making porn when he did, when there was a level of ambition to the productions that evaporated as the cheaper—both costing and looking—videotape became the standard in the '80s.
With his films and live appearances, he developed a loyal following among gay and straight people. He became a porn brand, lending his name to sex toys, apparel, and enhancements. He survived a lifestyle that claimed many of his contemporaries, married a famous diva, and found success in legitimate musical theater.
Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon is a highly entertaining look at this unique saga. Producer/Director Jeffrey Schwarz assembles an impressive lineup from Wrangler's many lives to help piece together his story.
Wrangler's tale is in two acts: Before Margaret Whiting and After Margaret Whiting. She is the famous singer, two decades older, whom Wrangler met in the late '70s and married in 1994, and who helped him establish himself in New York theater, post-porn. Whiting's gay cred is through the roof: Not only is she a revered piano bar icon, not only is she married to a former gay porn superstar, but perhaps most important, she provided the singing voice for Susan Hayward's outrageous Helen Lawson character in the camp classic Valley of the Dolls, making for a matchless trifecta.
The Before Whiting chapters of Wrangler's life are candid observations about his work in the adult industry. While it's not quite a sex workers' version of the Algonquin Round Table, there are frank and witty insights from Candida Royalle, Samantha Fox, Jamie Gillis, Gloria Leonard, Joe Gage, Al Goldstein, and other survivors of the porn community from the '70s. It's interesting to hear them talk not only about Wrangler but about the industry, which has changed so drastically over the years.
In addition, we hear from queer culture figures like Bruce Vilanch, Marc Shaiman, Michael Musto, and playwright Robert Patrick, as well as Tony-Award winning actress Christine Ebersole, who worked with Wrangler in a play and had no idea about his "scandalous" past.
The Wrangler-Whiting relationship was much scrutinized in its early years, and Whiting, Wrangler, Whiting's daughter, and friends such as Rod McKuen share stories and perspectives, sometimes with an almost uncomfortable honesty.
Wrangler is still going strong today, in his 60s, and he's lost none of the charisma that made him so phenomenally popular 30 years ago. Schwarz gives us a good mix of recent interviews along with tons of archival footage. While a good portion of this is from old television appearances—including Wrangler and Whiting with Regis Philbin—there are lots of scenes from Wrangler's films. While we never see anything explicit, we do see the man in action with both men and women, and there's a lot of full frontal nudity. If this sort of thing bothers you, be warned.
Frankly, I hope that sort of thing doesn't bother people, because Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon is a really fun and strangely uplifting movie that deserves to find an audience. It's hardly a cautionary tale—Wrangler seems to have lived a fairly charmed life, and the interviewees all seem to be having a blast reminiscing—and it doesn't feel exploitative, either. Porn is part of our culture, and it's refreshing to see it discussed in an open, healthy, matter-of-fact way. There's no moralizing here, no psychodrama, just a cool and off-beat success story about a lucky and likable guy being told by enthusiastic and articulate friends and admirers.
The DVD looks fine, though much of the archival footage is, naturally, of marginal quality—old porn and old talk shows are rarely well-preserved. For extras, we get a photo gallery, some outtakes of Wrangler's interview, and an informative commentary from Schwarz, editor Jaime Meyers Schlenck, and composer Michael "The Millionaire" Cudahy.
Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon is worth a look for the nostalgic or the curious—or really, anyone interested in a fascinating "real-life" story in which the hero gets the girl, and everyone else gets the hero.
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