When Radley Metzger died in March, the news wasn’t followed by the thoughtful tributes and rapturous retrospectives that usually accompany the passing of a major filmmaker. It wasn’t hard to guess why; Metzger made “dirty movies,” erotic dramas and comedies that fed the prurient interests of their audience while displaying his own formal elegance and narrative ingenuity. He made several of them under his own name from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s; then he made several more explicit films under the assumed name of Henry Paris. Three of the latter are screening at New York’s Quad Cinema, as part of their “Erotic City” series (which begins Friday), and they’re terrific – a glimpse at the kind of artistry that was possible even in pornography, once upon a time.
So why did Metzger flip from soft- to hardcore? Because he was losing his audience, he told me a few years ago. In 1974 he released Score, a sexually charged four-hander based on an off-Broadway play (and a film, by the way, still unique in “straight” cinema for its unapologetic bisexuality). “It was a charming story, I really thought it was,” he recalled. “We really tried everything to make this thing first-class. And I even started to get good reviews. So we released the movie, we opened in two theaters, one on the East Side, one on the West Side. And nobody showed up. Nobody showed up because across the street some guy took a weekend and went out to Jersey, and in the basement they made a film of explicit sex, and everybody was going.”
His distribution company put out a couple more softcore titles, which similarly tanked. “So we sat around, we looked at each other, and said… maybe we should do this. We had access to a house on the Upper East Side, and I said, ‘Let’s… let’s do this, and um, we’ll see.’ We changed our names, because we were afraid we were gonna get arrested, and we shot this thing.”
“This thing” was The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann, featuring the very funny Barbara Bourbon, the prolific Jamie Gillis, and (as if included as insurance) Georgina Spelvin, star of the previous year’s porn mega-hit The Devil in Miss Jones. The plot – and in Metzger’s movies, under either name, there’s always a plot – concerns a bored housewife whose husband hires a private detective to shadow her, filming the affairs he suspects she’s having.
The script is funny, mostly in a Borscht Belt kinda way (full of lines like “I guarantee I’ll get to the bottom of your wife”), but the best running gag has our heroine prodded with wordy, state-of-society questions by a random woman with a clipboard. Late in the film, she finally reveals her identity: “Oh, I’m here to give the film socially redeeming value.” Metzger was perpetually self-aware, both sending up the (often clumsy) messaging of I Am Curious (Yellow), I Am Curious (Blue), and even Vixen, while sliding in a bit of his own in a scene where our heroine gives a politician a blowjob as we hear his off-screen introduction as a moral crusader (she hurries to get him off as the distant, matronly voice runs down the degeneracy and depravity he’s fighting against).
But even in this throwaway quickie, shot in six days for forty grand in and around NYC, Metzger’s artistry shines. He sets a scene overlooking the Queensboro Bridge, six years before Manhattan (it’s even similarly framed; it’s not inconceivable that Gordon Willis and/or Woody Allen “borrowed” the shot); he trots out a meta-movie element, as the private eye (read: director) reviews the footage of her trysts with her husband; he even throws in a clever plot twist at the story’s conclusion.
Metzger’s next film under the Paris nom de plume was 1975’s Naked Came the Stranger, based on the 1969 literary hoax book perpetuated by a group of 24 journalists. It tells the story of a successful career woman who discovers her husband (and talk radio co-host) is cheating on her with one of their employees, and decides to engage in “a little messing around” in retaliation. The story is mostly told for laughs, but Metzger is also slyly interested in the psychological ramifications of infidelity (much like his contemporary, Joe Sarno).
And while he delivers the sex-picture goods – with star Darby Lloyd Rains sampling voyeurism, cross-dressing, spanking, public sex, sex with strangers, and (of course) bisexuality – Naked moves, and is pitched, like a screwball comedy. In sequence after giggly sequence, like one that finds her going down on a male friend on a city bus (“Would you like to get off on Fifth Avenue?” she asks with a wink) as mirthful music plays, Metzger conveys a sense of fun so often absent in the grim slog of porn. He even indulges in a silent movie sequence, including a Valentino-style tango in artsy black and white. It’s fun to imagine the raincoat brigade’s reaction to this – but then, against all odds, he shoots a genuinely hot sex scene in that style, complete with title cards for dirty talk.
But “Paris”’s magnum opus is 1976’s The Opening of Misty Beethoven, regarded by pretty much every authority on the matter as the single finest feature film of the golden age of “porno chic.” Somehow both a hardcore porn movie and an elegant sex comedy, Misty’s witty screenplay riffs Pygmalion in presenting the story of a clumsy sex worker (Constance Mooney) and the inquisitive sexologist (Jamie Gillis, again) who determines her enthusiasm and technique makes her “the absolute nadir of passion,” and takes upon himself the challenge of making her the talk of the sexy jet-setter scene.
Unlike the earlier Paris movies, which confined themselves to the tri-state area, Misty was an international production along the lines of Metzger’s earlier, snazzier Camille 2000 and Carmen, Baby (both of which also repurposed classic narratives). It’s a sexy movie, going all in on the eroticism of “teaching” passion, and a boundary-breaker as well (there’s a female-female-male scene with an extra appendage – yes, they go there – which illustrates the freedom and fluidity of the era).
But best of all, Mooney’s Misty gets something women in porn never get: a character arc. This is a skillful, two-part performance, the bored broad and the sexy dame, both played convincingly – and underlining a through-line in the Paris movies, which frequently focus on women who are unapologetically sexual. If anything, they’re atypically sympathetic; all they want is to have a satisfying orgasm, a goal frequently stymied by the dumb men tasked with the job.
Also notably, Metzger leaned towards casting real actors, so his characters look like real people, rather than cartoon sex dolls of the modern era; thus, the eroticism feels more legit, because we believe the people who are experiencing it. Even though he was making hardcore movies, there’s far more foreplay than intercourse, and a couple of stylish moments aside, these people mostly have credible sex – good, but not spectacularly acrobatic. More importantly, Metzger was a “real” storyteller before he was a pornographer, and you can tell; any audience member paying the slightest attention will feel an honest-to-goodness emotional investment in the make-up sex at the end of Pamela Mann. And in Misty Beethoven, both the director and his actors care enough about the lead characters to give the relationship weight – and thus, when they finally hook up at the end, it’s like a powder keg going off.
The success with which he interpolates Shaw into the latter film really brings home the degree to which Metzger used the simple tools of traditional storytelling to make great porn. When it’s all said and done, he’s using a tried-and-true narrative, supplemented by (character-driven!) sex. He’s experimenting with the kind of filmmaking it seemed, for a brief moment in that decade, could come out of the “porno chic” movement, in which we saw intimacy between characters rather than actors, and where frank sexuality could further a story, rather than interrupt it.
But anyone who’s seen Boogie Nights – in which the Burt Reynolds character is, many say, inspired by Mr. Metzger – knows what happened instead: video technology brought hardcore into the home, where clever filmmakers couldn’t hold viewers hostage for a real story between the sex scenes, because they’d just fast-forward past them. Metzger made his last film as Henry Paris in 1979, and his last film of any kind five years later, yet his contribution to sex and the screen remains. Both under his own name and Paris’s, Metzger floated the bold notion that erotica could be art – a lesson his industry promptly forgot.
These three Metzger/Paris films are all screening as part of Quad Cinema’s “Erotic City” series, with “The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann” running Monday and Tuesday, “Naked Came the Stranger” running Monday and Wednesday, and “The Opening of Misty Beethoven” screening Monday and Thursday.