Friday, May 3, 2024

Marilyn Chambers: 99 & 44/100% Pure

In 1997 a Paul Thomas Anderson film called Boogie Nights captured three Oscar nominations and a number of lesser prizes. This colorful look at the rise of a well-endowed young man renewed movie-goers’ fascination with the Golden Age of Porn (basically 1969-1974). The adult film industry had first gained wide popularity with the release of 1972’s Deep Throat, an x-rated flick that lives on as a reference to a certain Watergate-era snitch. Once it became chic for the general public to seek titillation at venues like the Pussycat Theater, Linda Lovelace (displaying her unusual talents in Deep Throat) and Georgina Spelvin (on display in The Devil in Miss Jones) attracted international attention. But the most complex and compelling of adult movie stars seems to have been Marilyn Chambers, an All-American blonde who burst into the public consciousness as the leading lady in the Mitchell Brothers’ Behind the Green Door (1972).   

 Chambers, barely 20, was pretty, athletic, and enthusiastic about sex in all its forms. She had also, as it turns out, just been prominently featured on the box of Procter & Gamble’s new laundry detergent, Ivory Snow, as a loving young mother cuddling a happy baby. The longtime slogan for Ivory products? “It’s "99 & 44/100% pure.” The contrast between Chambers’ innocent looks and her scandalous reputation boosted her notoriety, and gave my colleague Jared Stearns a nifty title for his brand-new Chambers biography, Pure.

 Jared, a fellow member of Biographers International Organization, has been fascinated by the life of Chambers (born Marilyn Briggs, and comfortably raised in tony Westport, Connecticut) for decades. In the course of his research, he’s connected with virtually everyone still living who’s played a part in Chambers’ eventful life, including her siblings, her daughter, and her closest friend. Jared is particularly good at pointing up Chambers’ many self-contradictions. Though she was bold and sassy in public appearances as well as on the talk-show circuit, she was easily dominated by most of the men in her life, including her longtime husband and manager, Chuck Traynor. (He was a shrewd but volatile man, who had previously been married to, and guided the emergence of, Linda Lovelace. Jared hardly minces words in describing him: “an illiterate, abusive, opportunistic misogynist.”)  Chambers also had a surprising domestic streak, but underwent at least one abortion due to Traynor’s insistence. It was not until she moved on to a (somewhat) more stable man that she finally had the child she’d hoped for, and became a loving parent.

 In tracing Chambers’ career, Jared reveals how difficult it was for her to convert her fame into the serious acting opportunities she craved. Spurned over and over by mainstream Hollywood, she starred in a nightclub act and launched a one-woman drama called “Sex Surrogate” that was banned from Las Vegas (!) because it contained full frontal nudity. But though Jared focuses in on Marilyn’s life, he doesn’t ignore what was happening in the world around her. The mid-1980s was the era when the scourge of AIDS was rocking the adult film industry, one more way in which Marilyn’s livelihood was facing jeopardy.

 In a fascinating digression, Jared explains how his subject’s combination of bold sexuality and personal elegance made her a magnet for gay men, to the point where “it’s a wonder why Marilyn Chambers isn’t as prominently revered in the gay community as Madonna, Mae West, or Mamie Van Doren. She has many hallmarks associated with diva worship.”

 By the way, Marilyn Chambers didn’t care for Boogie Nights’ depiction of the world she knew so well.  To her it was simply “inaccurate.” 



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