ReelThoughts: May 29, 2009

"The Porn Star Experience"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


The average, mainstream Hollywood actress can create a stir when she takes her clothes off. Sasha Grey has done it by putting them on.

By now, anyone who cares is aware that Grey is director Steven Soderbergh's leading lady for The Girlfriend Experience, his latest low-budget, experimental film for Mark Cuban's production/distribution empire. (Bubble was also part of this umbrella deal.) In making The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh avoided professional actors and recognizable faces. In fact, one of the performers making the strongest impression is former Premiere lead film critic, Glenn Kenny, in his acting debut.

Soderbergh's reasons for choosing Grey are understandable. He wanted someone who would be comfortable in front of the camera in whatever state of dress or undress the role required. At the time he began casting, the filmmaker did not know how explicit The Girlfriend Experience would be, so it made sense to go with an actress whose contract wasn't weighed down by "no nudity" or "limited nudity" clauses. As it turns out, the amount of flesh shown by Grey is limited (a brief full-frontal shot in non-sexual context), so it isn't much of an issue.

Soderbergh has said he was impressed by Grey's poise and camera presence. Having made more than 100 porn features, her ability to perform in front of cameras was not in question. However, being comfortable on film is not necessarily the same thing as being able to create a living, breathing character - something porn stars "crossing over" have infamously been unable to do. Grey has been praised (some might argue overpraised) for her ability to do that. But what does her success mean to her career, and does it boost the aspirations of those in the adult entertainment industry who are similarly inclined? To help answer those questions and to give me a better perspective of porn from the inside out (no pun intended), I interviewed Alex Firestone, the gracious and articulate proprietor of the adult site Firegirls.com.

Sasha Grey is not the first porn star to appear in a mainstream motion picture. But there are several notable differences between her and her predecessors. While porn stars have a long history of appearing in bit roles in commercial productions (often as strippers or to provide gratuitous nudity in R-rated comedies), few have had major and/or lead parts, as Grey does in The Girlfriend Experience. On those rare occasions when adult entertainers have been able to boast considerable screen time in non-porn endeavors, the films have typically been cheesy, B-rated garbage that use the notoriety of the star as a draw. See - although at your own peril - Traci Lords in the remake of Roger Corman's Not of this Earth. Lords, in fact, may be the closest a porn star (to date) has come to achieving the Holy Grail of crossing over, although her mainstream work (primarily on television) was done after she retired from porn and she has since repudiated her sex film past.

Grey has broken new ground. There is no precedent for a porn actress starring in a mainstream film for an Oscar-winning, multiple Oscar-nominee director. What's more, she gives a credible performance. No, it's not award worthy, but neither will it provoke giggles or cringing. Not that Grey is trying to hide her past or present. She's open about her life as a porn star, has no plans to stop filming non-simulated sex scenes, but would like to pursue a career in mainstream movies as well. (Although she isn't terribly interested in major commercial productions; she prefers quirky, independent films like The Girlfriend Experience.)

The concept of crossing over has long been a dream of many a major porn star, but most of those who have tried have failed. The reason is evident upon watching them in a mainstream endeavor: they can't act. "Performing" in a sex film constitutes something very different from "performing" in a conventional movie. The goal of the traditional actor is to create and inhabit a character; to deliver dialogue in a natural, unforced manner; and to help the audience to believe in the director's vision. The goal of the porn actress is to be able to be able to appear naked on camera without a hint of self-consciousness; to convincingly engage in unsimulated sexual behavior; and (most importantly) to arouse the libido of viewers.

There's a divide between "porn movies" and "performance art." Many of us think of any filmed sex act as a "porn film," but some in the industry are more specific. When discussing this issue with Alex Firestone, he had this to say: "Having sex on camera, specifically FOR the camera, is a performance art… In 95% of porn and other forms of adult entertainment, the performer can rightly be called an actress, because she is portraying a different persona, with a different name, a different personality. So even though the body is at work in a performance, the performer is simultaneously projecting a facade to the audience." However, in "reality porn" (sex scenes without a story), "My models (and I) do not act. We are exposing ourselves. Yes, we still perform for the camera, but we're not trying to portray another individual in the process."

It's in the finer points of acting that many porn stars are deficient. They can't deliver convincing dialogue. Their mannerisms are exaggerated or awkward. This is in part because, even within the context of acting in a porn film with a story (often flimsy), those elements are de-emphasized. Firestone again: "In commercial porn (versus amateur), the actresses do have to have a different mindset than mainstream film actresses. Both have pressure to appear as sexy and flawless as possible, but a mainstream actress can't really afford to have her body scrutinized by the camera as long and as often as a porn star. An actress's strength has to be her ability to convey different personalities to the camera, and a porn star's strength has to be her ability to seduce the camera, and to move in concert with the camera during a performance. A commercial porn actress is usually more aware of the camera, and more concerned with the camera, than with the guy she's partnered with. In fact the male actors in commercial straight porn are usually in an assistant director role, helping to facilitate the unlikely body positions and angles needed by the actress and the camera operator(s). The woman's like a circus performer and the guy is almost a stunt man."

Talent and ability are not the only things that inhibit porn actresses from crossing over. In theory, if an adult film star possesses the requisite skills to give a serious performance, that should meet the requirement. But there's a second piece to the puzzle. Rightly or wrongly, a degree of notoriety accompanies appearing in porn. And crossing over requires that a "glass ceiling" of sorts be shattered. The ability of a porn star to be accepted has a lot to do with society's views of porn in general.

Porn itself has come of age and "crossed over" with advent of home video. While filmed porn has existed for as long as there have been cameras, it moved beyond the fringe once it no longer required a trip to a seedy theater to be watched. The Internet further expanded the reach of porn, making it ubiquitous. When I was in my teens, seeing porn required all sorts of machinations (usually involving help from someone over 18). Now, one doesn't have to be particularly Internet savvy to locate an on-line stash. Free porn is everywhere. Today's youth have a much different perception of pornography than their parents and/or grandparents. For many, it's no longer a "dirty little secret." It can be discussed and watched openly.

Firestone puts it this way: "We're in a sexual 'revolution' right now that eclipses the 1960s. The new crop of 'kids' (18 and 19 year old girls) applying to be Fire Girls are the first generation to be literally raised on internet porn. To them applying to do this is like 1 of 5 things they want to 'try' during the summer. And then they're going to go to med school. Today's porn career is the rebellion level of yesterday's sacral tattoo... The more sex is viewed, discussed, contemplated, the less power the myths of glamour have… Porn is a tool. It can be used constructively or destructively… I think it can only be good for Americans if the acceptance of sex, sexuality, sexual diversity, sexual expression increases. That has to come first before we as a culture start to embrace 'normal' bodies and sexuality. Right now, people for the most part still feign disinterest in pornography, masturbation, and various 'perversions,' when they're really part of our DNA."

Does a porn actress face a stigma if she tries to cross over? At one time, that was certainly the case. Today, while I'm sure one exists, it's not as impregnable a barrier as it once was. Ironically, women known more for non-porn "acting" and exhibitionism have been helpful to this cause. Pam Anderson and Paris Hilton were both celebrities before they became porn stars. Their sex tapes, not initially intended to be viewed outside of the privacy of their homes, catapulted them to greater stardom once they became generally available. Now, sex tapes are everywhere. There's a voyeuristic thrill associated with seeing a mainstream celebrity cross over to porn. Firestone is on target when he notes, "I think many mainstream actors and actresses could cross over the other way and still have their mainstream careers thrive. [Pam Anderson's] 'accidentally' leaked video with Tommy Lee didn't destroy her career at all. In the wake of it, she got her own prime time TV series, which was picked up for additional seasons. She made Oprah appearances, charity appearances, and got some 'serious' acting roles on the side. Snoop Dogg had his own porn company, and still made appearances on children's shows. I think were Angelina Jolie to have done a well directed and shot foursome scene, as her character in Mr. & Mrs. Smith indicated helped rack up her 300+ lovers, it wouldn't dim her star at all. If she released it as a $10 pay-per-view, do you think she'd pick up $100 million?"

Still, there's a difference between the novelty of a recognizable mainstream star having sex in a home video and someone with a hardcore resume appearing in serious, non-porn roles. It remains to be seen to what degree any cultural prejudices might hold sway. Are porn actresses "suitable" for comedies like Zack and Miri Make a Porno (which featured two: Lords and Katie Morgan) but not for drama? It all comes down to the performance. If it's convincing enough, if we lose sight of the actor and see only the character, then the porn past is irrelevant. If the performance is bad, then it comes across as a gimmick. And that's probably as it should be.

So what about Sasha Grey and her contemporaries? In Grey's case, her work in The Girlfriend Experience has given her mainstream credibility. What she does with it next will go a long way toward determining whether her work for Soderbergh was a career detour or the start of a new pathway. Firestone offers this statement of caution: "No matter what successes or blunders she makes outside of porn, porn is for certain where her money will be for the next dozen years. Her only real blunder would be walking away from it, unless she needs to for self-preservation."

Other porn actresses looking to cross over may benefit from Grey's experiences. With no need to hide their past, they can be upfront about who they are and, if they have the skills necessary to perform in a mainstream role, it may be that porn name recognition will be enough to get the proverbial "foot in the door." An inept actress, no matter how popular she may be in the adult entertainment arena, will never be taken seriously by Hollywood or in indie circles. But, contrary to common wisdom, there are capable actresses working in porn (Sasha Grey being the obvious example), and the social climate may finally be right for them to show that they can do more than take off their clothes and have sex in front of a camera. The trail has been blazed. Now it's time to see whether it becomes well-established or is lost as a result of disuse.


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