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Carol J. Clover,
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From the dawn of the sexual revolution comes the outrageous and true story of 1970s gay porn icon Jack Wrangler. Jack rose to become a major brand name in adult entertainment, as well as a hero to the newly liberated gay population, only to cross over to straight movies and fall in love with famous vocalist Margaret Whiting. Written by
Talk about timely ! A mere year before his death, which occurred just days before that of legendary blue movie goddess Marilyn Chambers (cruelly robbing the adult industry of two of its most cherished luminaries), Jack Wrangler at last received his due with this jocularly named documentary from Jeffrey Schwarz, seasoned director of many a "Looking Back" featurette stashed away as a valid - if rarely viewed more than once - extra on DVD "Collector's Edition" re-releases. Son of renowned TV producer Robert Stillman (who sired the small screen Western sagas of BONANZA and RAWHIDE), Jack quickly proves the first to debunk his own supposed "myth" as "a big fish in a very small pond", that pond being porn, more specifically gay porn throughout the 1970s. Herein lies the rub. The cataclysmic Stonewall riots of 1969 marked an end to the repression of gay sexuality in America and the euphemisms employed to disguise it. Free expression was the homosexual's newfound right, naturally extending to the artistic fields of theater, photography and cinema, literally tearing at the notorious posing straps that had thus far obscured the models' most desirable parts in that most enduring euphemism of them all, the "physique pictorial" mastered by Bob Mizer's Athletic Model Guild.
Exposure evolved in explicitness as Broadway choreographer Wakefield Poole rushed his 1971 breakthrough BOYS IN THE SAND into same sex screening rooms weaned on rosy-colored if heartfelt Pat Rocco fare, beating Gerard Damiano's 1972 DEEP THROAT (the straight side's "answer", if you will) to the punch in putting porn on the map. That film's brightly shining star, the late Casey Donovan, may have been the first homo hardcore performer worthy of this increasingly elusive epithet, it would take about half a decade for the newly acceptable form of entertainment to develop its inevitable "icon" in the form of Wrangler. Now, the very nature of an icon is unchanging, regardless of circumstances, and that's exactly what Jack (who took his stage name from the inseparable plaid shirt that was to become his blue collar stud trademark) brought to this decade's dirty movies, a previously unseen type (the rough-hewn man's man who could sexually give or take with equal aplomb) subsequently cultivated into stereotype by the likes of filmmaker Tim Kincaid a/k/a "Joe Gage" and his landmark trucking trilogy, the first episode of which - the 1976 KANSAS CITY TRUCKING CO.
effectively launched Wrangler's carnal career.
Very much unlike an icon however, coming from a background in legit theater and film (having co-starred in Wendell Franklin's notorious 1971 "blaxploitation" offering THE BUS IS COMING), Jack quickly tired from this two-dimensional persona, identical from one fornication flick to another, searching to expand his talents. What better way for an unapologetic gay actor to prove his mettle than by providing the cinematic equivalent to the all too common real life situation where closet homosexuals are able to "pass", by making love to a woman (for the very first time !) and thereby crossing over to the more widely frequented, if in truth only marginally more "respectable", heterosexual corner of the industry. This historical occasion took place on the set of the unjustly overlooked Sam Weston a/k/a "Anthony Spinelli" sleeper CHINA SISTERS with Jack assuming the role of an obnoxious dyed in the wool queer "turned around" by the joint efforts of titular siblings Vicky Lyon and China Leigh. After that, Wrangler's adult career took on astronomical proportions, garnering fame and acclaim for his work on some of the most highly regarded hardcore epics of the genre's "Golden Age", his delectable turn as the devil himself ("Lucy") worthy of Hollywood at its most screwball sophisticated in Ron "Henri Pachard" Sullivan's superlative sequel THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES PART II perhaps the crowning achievement.
Still this was not the end of the line for Jack. Parting from porn prior to pathos kicking in, he made the acquaintance of songbird supreme and Broadway royalty Margaret Whiting, defying both odds and stereotype once again by becoming partner in both love and life to a woman his senior by two decades. Their alliance, however "unlikely", continued harmoniously until his passing. By allowing its animated subject to talk freely, only briefly interrupted by additional talking heads and assorted film clips (a veritable treasure trove for those in the know), this delightful documentary does a great job at drawing a vivid portrait of the "man behind the myth", even for people who may never have heard of him and bridging the gaps for those who have. Resigned in his frustration that he was always being referred to as "former porn star", although artistic and humanitarian endeavors in the three decades since proved plentiful, Jack "Wrangler" Stillman belatedly shapes up as a genuine "Mensch", a proper epitaph for a puny Jewish kid (ironically, his upscale California kinfolk successfully "passed" for Presbyterian in the appearances are everything age that were the 1950s) who bench-pressed his way towards sexual supernova status and in doing so inspired gay men to cast off the shackles of suppression by supplying a positive stereotype to counter-act all the negative ones that preceded it. His importance to both pop culture and general sociology, not just the gay "island" within, should not be slighted. The world's a better place for having known the likes of him.
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