Guaranteed to provoke Lacanian scholars and porn connoisseurs (not always distinct categories), the documentary Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes is indisputable evidence of the power a really big dick exercises on the fantasies of those who behold it. Not that Holmes’s legendary 13 inches is ever shown here fully erect. To insure an R rating, none of the clips director Cass Paley chose from Holmes’s monumental oeuvre are hardcore.
Wadd reconstructs the life of the only male porn star to become something of a household name by interweaving footage of Holmes and interviews with workers in the porn industry, his manager, his wives, his longtime girlfriend, members of L.A. law enforcement, and most strangely, Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of Boogie Nights, the central character of which was partly inspired by Holmes. But Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler had a vulnerability and rich emotional life compared with the pathologically narcissistic Holmes, seen in celebrity profiles from various stages of his 15-year career. Tom Cruise in Anderson’s Magnolia came closer to the real deal.
Also known as Johnny Wadd—after the private dick he played in the porn series that first brought him recognition—Holmes rose to stardom in the early ’70s, the glory days of the porn industry. Sexually explicit films weren’t shown in theaters in the U.S. until the end of the ’60s. But even when X-rated films gained a foothold in the theatrical market, in many states, including California, it was a felony to engage in their production. Early in his career, Holmes was arrested on a film set for pimping and pandering. Rather than risking conviction, he became a snitch, a preview of his self-serving behavior in the last year of his life, when he went to Italy to work in porn films knowing he had AIDS. “I knew he was sick, but I thought it was the flu,” says Cicciolina, one of Holmes’s costars but more famed in New York circles as the former inamorata of artist Jeff Koons (whose Puppy, in its Rockefeller Center incarnation, was the first great art work of the 21st century and another example of monumentality. If for nothing else, I heartily recommend Wadd as a catalyst for such free associations.)
Cicciolina is not the only interviewee with a capacity for denial. Wadd is filled with people who cut Holmes more slack than he deserved. More men than women seem enthralled by what one of them deems “the ultimate cocksman.” The male fascination with Holmes is the most interesting aspect of Wadd, but Paley doesn’t foreground it sufficiently. He roughly alternates positive and negative comments about Holmes, and provides clips as evidence. But are we supposed to believe that because Holmes could play the gentle seducer (badly, I must say), he had, as his manager opines, “a good heart”? Or, since he brutalizes women onscreen, he’s a real-life sadist? Or is Paley implying that the various assessments of Holmes are colored by his screen persona?
To give Paley his due, he doesn’t shrink from exposing what the press notes call “the dark side of Holmes,” including his various addictions and his alleged involvement in the Wonderland drug killings. (Holmes stood trial for murder and was acquitted.) But I’m not sure, despite protestations to the contrary, that there was any other side. So let’s give the last word to the incorrigibly romantic Anderson: “It’s the young kid with a dream who gets the dream and it spirals out of control—what happened to him was this very clichéd thing. . . . It’s an especially slippery slope if you throw drugs into the mix and you’ve got a 13-inch dick that’s all anyone cares about.” I think I saw that film, but it wasn’t Wadd.
The Personals, by director and former film critic Chen Kuo-fu, is an unusual blend of fiction and ethnography. Du Jia-zhen (Rene Liu) gives up her job as a staff eye doctor in a Taipei hospital to search full-time for a husband. When her personal ad yields responses from about 100 men, she goes about meeting them one by one in a quiet tearoom. The film is both a comedy of manners and a delicate meditation on how men and women look at and listen to each other. Among Jia-zhen’s suitors are a shoe fetishist, a pimp, an autistic writer who shows up with his mother, and a cross-dressing lesbian. The suitors (most played by nonprofessionals) are all surprised to discover that Jia-zhen is beautiful, mannerly, and well-educated; almost all of them nevertheless presume that any woman who would advertise for a husband is desperate enough to accept anything they offer—mostly one-night stands.
Jia-zhen is getting over a long, somewhat transgressive affair that left her feeling guilty, and the meetings are as much about her need to punish herself as they are about a quest for a mate. But by keeping certain details secret until late in the film, Chen never gets the two aspects of the story to jell. The Personals is an intelligent, perceptive film. It’s good enough to make you wish Chen hadn’t sacrificed emotional complexity for a last-minute surprise.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 9, 2001