None of my idols comes with a greater need for defense than Marilyn Chambers. You won’t find many who would speak ill of her because, true to her New England roots, she was a class act. That doesn’t mean I can reference my love for her without subsequently explaining why I’m NOT being ironic.
I never saw her face until I was nineteen. As a younger person, I got her mixed up with horror movie legend Marilyn Burns. I was under the impression that Burns was both part of the publicity campaign for something called “Ivory Snow” and simultaneously an X-rated superstar. I honestly spent years thinking that the blood-caked actress screaming hysterically at the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre went on to simultaneously sell soap and make porn. My naive mind had no idea that people whose faces are painted onto soap boxes can’t make hardcore porn and not pay a price. Marilyn Burns was never punished by Hollywood Puritanism, but Marilyn Chambers was. No one lost out more than film fans.
I was a college freshman when I first saw David Cronenberg’s “Rabid”. I loved it, and found the movie terrifyingly prophetic in that it was made five years before the first reported cases of AIDS. But what amazed me was how hypnotized I was by Marilyn Chambers. I immediately ranked her turn as ‘Rose’ among my favorite performances in American horror, up there with the likes of Heather Langenkamp in “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween”, or Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby”. But “Rabid” is a David Cronenberg movie, not a Marilyn Chambers movie. She acted in service to Cronenberg’s vision, rather than showcasing herself at the expense of the film’s somber tone. I wish Marilyn had been afforded more opportunity to shine in the genre, because here she was dynamite, but not in a “my big break out of porn!” way. Her star wattage, however, could not be dimmed.
The Mitchell Brothers directed Marilyn Chambers in just two porn films, 1972’s “Behind the Green Door” and 1973’s “The Resurrection of Eve”, before she left the industry for several years to write popular adult fiction and perform music and comedy onstage. She even recorded a now classic disco single: “BENIHANA”! She became an internationally regarded performance artist thanks to successful gigs in London, New York, and Las Vegas, and it was also during this time that she filmed her role in Cronenberg’s “Rabid”. Had more non-porn filmmakers shown such an interest in Marilyn’s acting, she probably would never have gone back to X-rated cinema. Despite the unbelievable commercial success of her first two films, Marilyn never got the big breaks in Hollywood that she truly deserved. She was beautiful, talented, and already established as a household name, but the film industry proved far less progressive than Marilyn or her contemporaries in San Francisco. She was an intelligent hippie, and thought art porn would be a launching pad, not a permanent home. America was moving in a liberal direction, and she took a gamble in making “Behind the Green Door”. Sadly, it never fully paid off.
My favorite Marilyn Chambers performance of all was her work as Sandra Chase, the sexually empowered heiress of 1980’s “INSATIABLE”. Even less plot-oriented film than the legendary “Green Door”, “Insatiable” is one of my Top 10 favorite movies of all time. It’s all about one day in the life of a woman in perennial pursuit of every kind of pleasures, from driving a Ferrari to flashing back to early sexual experiences to putting on perfume and a garter belt and caressing herself as she listens to two friends make love. “Insatiable” is a sincerely happy film. It’s hedonistic without being devoid of a spiritual core, an empowering testament to the innately autoerotic quality of living life to the fullest.
I know many people who would fantasize about living out “Insatiable”. It’s easy to see why Marilyn never had a single regret about the film. Although not credited with writing it, I do not doubt that her creative input was as great as Madonna has had over every one of her world tours. She chose the men, she chose the women, she chose the fantasies. It was delivered to the audience wrapped in her ‘Marilyn Chambers’ aesthetic: chic clothes, luxurious locations, and a healthy dose of aerial photography and scenes filmed outside of Buckingham Palace (!) to heighten the pleasure for lovers of 35mm film.
I’m a fantasy-oriented person as it is, and a bit narrow-minded to boot. So it never occurred to me that every porn star wasn’t like Marilyn Chambers and that every straight porn film wasn’t like “Insatiable”. It’s not that there weren’t other films of that era that I love to this day—“Devil In Miss Jones”, “The Opening of Misty Beethoven”, and “Café Flesh” are all brilliant and perhaps superior films. But “Insatiable” is different. It is presumably made for a straight male market, even though it is a straight female fantasy. Yet I simply cannot imagine ANY adult film that would have more appeal to lesbians and gay men. “Insatiable” defies quadrants and audience identification because it is a universally liberating experience. It is the rare work of erotica that sends a positive message to those struggling to understand their sexuality, whatever their gender or orientation. I felt unexplainably proud after viewing it, and as a twenty year old gay male I was hardly the intended audience. My only regret, as after every subsequent viewing, was that I truly, truly wish that I had seen “Insatiable” before ever having had sex.
In early 2009, I was working on a screenplay for a film that I had hoped to see produced with Marilyn Chambers in the lead role. In tailoring the part, I went back to research all of her work that I had yet to see—specifically her “Private Fantasies” video series. Some segments were better than others, but all served as a fascinating precedent to Madonna’s “SEX” book. Whereas Madonna’s work was largely an artistic and political statement, Marilyn seemed to genuinely enjoy being able to live out her fantasies.
On April 13th, 2009, I learned of the death of Marilyn Chambers. She had died at 1 AM East Coast time, but her death was on the West Coast, and so she was pronounced dead on April 12th, exactly ten days before her fifty-seventh birthday. The tragedy was compounded by the fact that she had been found in her home by her only daughter, whose eighteenth birthday later that year would be spent without her mother’s physical presence.
Suddenly the woman whose talents as an actress had yet to be fully discovered would have to settle for never being more than “Queen of Porn”. One would have to be inhuman not to feel sympathy for the loss of a human being: a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend. But few realized how great her loss was to the world of cinema because only a limited audience ever appreciated just how bright a star she was.
Marilyn was devoted to her fans, and instead of treating them like a bunch of sleazoids in raincoats—which many of them may well have been—she brought to her fanbase a level of warmth and interest that was rarely demonstrated by movie stars since the WWII era. A perfect example can be found in this interview from the New York public access show “Midnight Blue”, as excerpted from the Blue Underground DVD “Midnight Blue: Adult Film Stars of the 70s”.
Watching the interview, you can see Marilyn enjoyed flirting with the interviewer. But she wasn’t turning him on to demonstrate her control over him. She was consciously indulging his fantasies, before an audience, which in turn brought her enjoyment. She was happy to make him happy through performance, by playing the part of “Marilyn Chambers”. You could say that that is what drove her: giving people someone to fantasize about without leading them on or cruelly taking advantage of their longing. Marilyn’s rapport with her fans, onscreen and off, was innocent, sexy fun. It’s NICE to make people feel so good! I would love to bring to people as much happiness as she did in her life.
Marilyn Chambers is not entirely disconnected from my “Vogue” video. The same year that that video was shot was when Marilyn became a mother. As she often repeated in interviews, it was a totally life-changing experience. I shall always treasure the significance of it corresponding with a seemingly innocuous moment in my childhood that would go on to change my own life twenty years later.
Of all of my beloved idols, Marilyn is the one I relate to the most. We both dreamt of being stars in the vein of Old Hollywood when we were kids growing up in New England. Our work is defined by a shared civil libertarian philosophy, an adamant passion for defending free speech, and a natural openness to sexuality and alternative lifestyles. But we are both defined by something else: New England politeness. In one of her last interviews, as featured on both the 2007 and 2009 DVD releases of “Insatiable”, she credits her parents for instilling “good manners” which she later applied to her relationship with her fans. Like Bette and Joan before her, Marilyn had a love of her fans that went beyond the usual smile and handshake. She cared about making them happy. She did not condescend to them for fantasizing about her. In fact, she LOVED that! She was grateful for her audience, who were always there waiting for her next film, no many how many years or better roles passed Marilyn by. She was brilliant, and though she later battled and overcame drug abuse during the mid-80s, she was also sober and famously regimented in her lifestyle during the peak years of her career. This lends credibility to her words and mission, for Marilyn’s stardom was not born in an abusive childhood and fueled forward by addiction and self-destruction, like so many others in porn. In spite of her dreams of being a Hollywood actress never coming true, Marilyn kept smiling. Her daughter knows what I mean when I say that she still is.