Friday, 6 March 2009

SPIKING DEEP THROAT: GERARD DAMIANO AND JIM MITCHELL'S GUARDIAN OBITUARIES

I wrote Gerard Damiano's obituary for the Guardian soon after he died on November 1st last year, but it never ran, and now has officially been spiked. Of course Deep Throat didn't have the same impact in the UK as it did in the States; the British Board Of Film Censors saw to that, but even so its importance has only increased over the years, especially in the minds of those for whom it was a seminal experience in the 1970s.

As the obit was reaching its sell-by date, however, the paper missed a golden opportunity: Mark Felt, the man alleged to be Woodward & Bernstein's Deep Throat (I remain convinced that although Felt may have been the guy Woodward met in car-parks, the book's Deep Throat is a composite, whose identity hides other, more important but less dramatic, sources) died December 18th, and the next day Harold Jackson's excellent obit led with the film: 'Mark Felt, who has died at the age of 95, was appalled by the sleazy echoes of the pseudonym jokingly wished on him by Howard Simons, the managing editor of the Washington Post. But long after memories of Linda Lovelace's pornographic film have vanished, Felt will live on in American political history as Deep Throat'. Running the obit of the guy who directed DeepThroat alongside the obit of the man who became Deep Throat was seemingly an opportunity too good to miss, but apparently the idea met with something less than total enthusiasm at the editorial meeting.


So here it is, pretty much as I wrote it—the Guardian's eschewing the word 'actress' created a problem when Damiano attributed his experience as a hairdresser to helping him work with actresses: their preferred term, 'actor', wouldn't make sense, and 'female actors' or 'actors of the female persuasion' would be awkward, so that's been restored-- and I've added a few name checks and a little background on The Devil In Miss Jones. I've also appended another pornobituary spiked by the Guardian, back in 2007, of Jim Mitchell, who along with his brother Artie made the other X-rated mainstream hit movie of 1972, Behind The Green Door. It now appears for the first time.


GERARD DAMIANO
When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used the movie Deep Throat to name the anonymous source behind their Watergate investigations, it reflected the impact which the film had made on America. Not only was hard-core pornography suddenly acceptable for 'respectable' audiences, it was chic enough for the hip young reporters who would bring down a president.

If the eponymous oral skills of its star, Linda Lovelace, were what attracted mainstream moviegoers, the movie's success with those people owed much to the sensibility of its director, Gerard Damiano, who has died aged 80. Damiano's humorous approach, larded with juvenile jokes and bad puns, helped get audiences past the discomfort they expected to feel watching hardcore sex on-screen. It was as if Damiano were making an X-rated Carry-On film. He even took a cameo role, as a gay bystander out of place at an otherwise straight orgy, who looks at a man engaged in coupling with Lovelace's roommate (played by Dolly Sharp), and quips 'what's a nice joint like you doing in a girl like that?'

If Deep Throat ushered in the era of acceptance of sex on screen, Damiano was the first porn director to be suggested, if not celebrated, as an auteur. But he followed an unlikely path to film-making. Born in New York, he was exposed to the city's seamier side at an early age, working in an 'automat' restaurant and as a shoeshine boy in Times Square. He joined the navy at 17, then worked as an X-ray technican at a hospital in Queens before becoming a hairdresser. He eventually owned three salons, and credited the understanding of women he developed in that business to helping him direct the actresses in his films, and getting them to do what he wanted.

He got into directing porn through amateur photography, originally as a tax-dodge. He shot short 'stag' films before his first 'feature' We All Go Down, its title punning on the nursery rhyme, was released in 1969. He had made seven films before meeting Lovelace (pictured left, with Sharp), whose prodigious oral sex technique suggested the ongoing joke which became Damiano's script. Having never had a climax, Lovelace discovers her clitoris is located in her throat, and by learning 'deep throat' manages to finally achieve orgasm. Damiano, credited as 'Jerry Gerard', wrung every ounce of schoolboy humour possible out of this scenario, aided by the goofy comic talents of Harry Reems, as Linda's doctor, and Carol Connors, now better-known as Thora Birch's mother, as his nurse. The film, released in 1972, caught the spirit of change as the Sixties morphed into the 'me decade' of the Seventies; seeing it, and the Mitchell Brothers' Behind The Green Door, released just before it, became almost an act of rebellion against the world of Richard Nixon, hence inspiring the Watergate leaker's name.

But behind the success there were dark sides. Although it cost less than $25,000 to make, the money had come from Butchie Peraino, whose father Anthony and uncle Joey 'the Whale' Peraino were 'made men' in the Columbo crime family. With distribution controlled by the mob, Deep Throat's actual profits will never be known, but have been estimated well in excess of $100 million. Damiano, who had a one-third share of the film, was made an offer he couldn't refuse after the money started to roll in, and sold his rights back for, not coincidentally, that same $25,000.

Lovelace would eventually claim she was forced into making the film, in effect being raped on screen. Her abuse is generally attributed to the violent control of her then-husband, and manager, Chuck Traynor, which Damiano acknowledged in the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat, but at the same time insisting she had been a willing participant on set. Most crucially, the Nixon Justice department brought federal prosecutions against the film; both Damiano and Lovelace testified under immunity in the trial staged in conservative Memphis Tennessee. As a result, one actor, Reems, was convicted, though that conviction would be overturned on appeal by his lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, of later Claus von Bulow and OJ Simpson notoriety. The Perainos would eventually serve small sentences for distributing offensive material.

If Damiano played Hitchcock in his Deep Throat cameo, he became porn's version of Ingmar Bergman with The Devil In Miss Jones (1973), a take off on the title of a famous film. As close to a serious drama as porn had produced, the film's title character is a spinster, played by Georgina Spelvin (a play on a traditional Broadway stage pseudonym), who commits suicide, then discovers a wild sex life, including an appearance by a snake, on her way to hell. Hell, however, finds the now sex-starved Miss Jones doomed for a Sartre-esque eternity with a frightened, and once again seemingly gay, Damiano, unable to get him to participate in sex with her. The sequel, Memories Within Miss Aggie (1974) drew on Hitchock's Psycho, and was shown at Cannes. His last major film, The Story of Joanna (1976), was also the first major porn film to feature a gay male sex scene.

Damiano churned out about fifty films, but as the industry exploded with the video boom, none made the impact of those four significant works. His last attempt at parody was 1989's Splendor In The Ass, with Nina Hartley and Sharon Kane. In the early 1990's he made three films in Italy with Moana Pozzi; his last two films brought the Italian star to America, in Naked Goddess and Naked Goddess 2 (1994). He retired to Florida, where he died after suffering a stroke. Married and divorced three times, he is survived by a son and daughter from his second marriage.

Gerard Rocco Damiano, born New York City 4 August 1928
died Fort Myers, Florida 1 November 2008

JIM MITCHELL
The Mitchell Brothers’ were pornographic pioneers. Hunter Thompson called their O‘Farrell Theatre ‘the Carnegie Hall of sex’, and although Deep Throat is generally considered the film that inaugurated mainstream acceptance of porn, their film Behind The Green Door, released earlier in 1972, generated at least as much publicity at the time. Jim Mitchell, who has died aged 63, was the driving force of the team. Both Mitchell brothers were captivated by sixties’ dreams of ‘sex, drugs, and rock n roll’, but Jim was the one who transformed the sex into profit. Those profits allowed them to live their dreams to excess, until the night in 1991 when Jim shot and killed younger brother Artie (Jim is left, Artie right, in the photo above).

Raised in the mill town of Antioch, outside San Francisco, their parents were ‘Okies‘ who migrated west from the ‘dust bowl’ during the Depression. Their father, Robert, was a gambler and sometimes teacher, a combination of seriousness and bluff which his sons carried over into their careers. They grew up unusually close, with Jim the more serious and Artie the joker.

While studying film part-time at San Francisco State, Jim began working at the Follies, a flea-pit movie house showing ‘nudie’ films to men in dirty raincoats. Intrigued by the possibilities of milking this market, he began selling nude photos of women to girlie magazines. With Artie’s wife, lawyer Meredith Bradford, the brothers bought a building at the corner of O’Farrell and Polk streets in San Francisco’s notorious Tenderloin district, and on the Fourth of July 1969, with appropriate patriotic fanfare, opened their theatre, showing X rated movies on the ground floor and producing their own short stag films in the space above. Eventually, they owned eleven cinemas, and decided to produce a feature film that might appeal to both sexes, which they could showcase in their theatres. Green Door, a sexual variation on a traditional campfire horror story Artie had heard in the army, cost $60,000 to make, far more than Deep Throat. It grossed $25 million, far less, but still mightily impressive.

Its notoriety came from its star, Marilyn Chambers, who was the model pictured holding a baby on the Ivory Snow laundry detergent box (Ivory’s motto, ’99 44/100 % pure’ became Chambers’ marketing gimmick). Where Deep Throat got better distribution, thanks to its funding by organised crime, and offered some redeeming humour to counterpoint its more straightforward, traditionally stag-film sex, Green Door was more self-consciously arty, though Mitchell famously quipped ‘the only ‘art’ in porn is my brother.’

Their follow-ups, The Resurrection Of Eve (1973) again starring Chambers, and Sodom & Gomorrah (1975), met with progressively diminishing results. But Jim was the first to recognise the potential of video cassettes, and the Mitchells made a fortune selling tapes direct. When the mafia again tried to trump them by selling bootlegs of their films, they won a landmark court case which resulted in the FBI piracy warning still seen on tapes and DVDs.

By then, the Mitchells were no strangers to courtrooms. Local authorities kept their lawyer, Michael Kennedy, busy in a running battle which they never lost, despite the O’Farrell offering live sex shows, the forerunner of lap-dancers, and personal rooms. Among its alumnae was Nina Hartley, who acted in the mainstream film Boogie Nights, which bore a strong resemblance to elements of the Mitchells’ story. The O’Farrell offices resembled a non-stop fraternity party. Jim, at heart an old-fashioned street hustler, attracted local politicians, lawyers, and cops; their circle boasted at times Black Panther leader Huey Newton, members of the band Aerosmith, cartoonist Robert Crumb, and journalists Herb Gold and Warren Hinckle. Their particular bete-noire was Mayor (now US Senator) Elaine Feinstein, whose vendetta against them intensified after her unlisted phone number appeared on the O‘Farrell marquee, preceded by the words ‘for a good time call…‘

In 1985, the long-awaited sequel to Green Door was a disaster. More engaged in the process of auditioning potential actresses than actual casting, Artie gave the starring role to his then-girlfriend ‘Missy’, who could neither act nor perform on-camera sex convincingly. Over-budget, and the first porn film to feature only ’safe’ sex, it flopped, though Missy achieved her requisite 15 minutes of fame when she turned out to be Elisa Florez, a former aide to right-wing US Senator Orrin Hatch.

The brothers’ relationship began to deteriorate under the twin pressures of financial strain and erratic live-style. In February 1991, Jim, armed with a rifle and pistol, kicked in the door of his brother’s house and shot him three times. Charged with murder, the prosecution alleged he had become frustrated with Artie’s decline into alcohol and drugs, which was threatening their business. Mitchell claimed he had gone on an ’intervention’ to try to convince his brother to seek treatment. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and served three years of a six-year sentence at San Quentin.

Their story became a cautionary morality tale told in two books, Bottom Feeders (1993) and the more prurient X Rated (1992), and a film, Rated X (2000) where they were consigned to being played by Mitchell-wannabes, the brothers Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez, with Estevez directing. By then, the O’Farrell had become a San Francisco landmark and tourist attraction. When it celebrated its 30th anniversary with shows by 72 year old stripper Tempest Storm, Mayor Willie Brown declared a ‘Tempest Storm Day’. Brown later did the same for Chambers, who only four years earlier had been arrested while having on-stage sex during an O’Farrell show.

After his release from prison, Mitchell lived quietly, raising horses at his ranch near Petaluma. His daughter Meta took over running the O’Farrell, while Artie’s children never reconciled with him, and filed several wrongful death suits which were settled out of court. He is survived by his mother Georgia Mae, his third wife, former O’Farrell dancer Lisa Adams, and four children by his second marriage.

James Lloyd Mitchell, born 30 November 1943 Stockton, California, Died 12 July 2007 Petaluma, California

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