Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Behind the Facade

My MSN homepage lists entertainment headlines. This morning, the prime headline real estate, complete with photo and bold print, was devoted to rumors of Scarlett Johansson's crash dieting.

Below that, in small, regular print, a headline announced that an "adult film star" was dead at age 56. No photo. No name.

Marilyn Chambers, circa 1973

Born Marilyn Ann Briggs in the early 1950's, and raised in Westport, Connecticut, where she graduated from the well-regarded Staples High School, Marilyn Chambers initially rose to fame in the early 1970's, when she appeared in the X-rated film Behind the Green Door. Shortly after the release of the film, the media learned she was the young mother featured on the box of Ivory Snow. The same box that bore the slogan, "99 and 44/100% pure."

I have long been fascinated by her. Me, the practicing Catholic, mother of two toddlers, and lawyer. Something about her life. Something about her face. She's the "good girl gone bad."

Now, of course, viewed with a 2009 lens, one can't help but notice how un-pornstarlike she was. Small breasts. Almost boyish figure. Cute smile. Quirky features. At times pretty, at times beautiful, at times almost awkward-looking. The girl next door. Everywoman. Of course, this was one of the primary reasons for her success.

"Success." She had started out primed for a legitimate film career. She appeared in legitimate ads and in the film The Owl and the Pussycat. (Some people--OK, I--would argue that she's the best thing about that film.) Years later, she spoke of her choice to go into pornography. She explained that, in her naivete, she thought the sexual revolution would move in such a way that pornographic films would go so legitimate that the choice would help her career.

Of course, we know now that didn't happen. Like that other famous Marilyn, Chambers is an icon--but an icon of sorts. Not so legendary that her death takes priority over Scarlett Johansson's current diet. One might call Chambers one of the whipping girls of the sexual revolution. The embodiment of all that is good and bad about it.

This, I think, is the key to my fascination with her.

In the 1960's and 1970's, when society was telling us to free ourselves from the shackles of old-school morality, people like Chambers did exactly that. Publicly. On film. For posterity. She was celebrated for this...until. Until people grew uncomfortable watching other people have sex on film, in the company of other people. It was great, it was natural, it was a public manifestation of what everyone was having anyway, and...there was something not quite right about it. So taboo!

So taboo, in fact, that the mainstream media deemed most of these men and women untouchable for legitimate work. The industry that sold us--and sells us--everything BUT sex largely refused to work with people who had sold ACTUAL sex. Scarlett Johansson can talk about sex, show her breasts, even simulate sex all the wants, and still get the headline. The woman who embodies the fruition of those fantasies, though...her death is relegated to a point further down on the page. Her Richard Corliss-penned obituary in Time online represents a new low in journalism from a supposedly "legitimate" source, trumpeting that Chambers is "is 99 and 44/100% dead." Classy writing, that. As if finding her mother's lifeless body on Easter Sunday weren't bad enough for her surviving seventeen-year-old daughter.

Chambers's death reminds me a bit of the death of actress Carrie Snodgress. Longtime readers know that one of my favorite films is Diary of a Mad Housewife, arguably Snodgress's best role and claim to whatever fame she has. After partnering with Neil Young and bearing his child, for which she retreated from her once-promising career, he ditched her and ultimately drastically reduced his support payments. She died a few years ago in her 50's, with her now-grown child by her side. I couldn't help but think, at the time, that if only they had been married, she wouldn't have had the financial struggles she had. She would have had an easier time getting support for herself and her child, after her partner abandoned ship on the life they had planned together. She, too, had freed herself from a shackle of sorts--but one that would have helped her. She did, after all, choose to pursue the life that typically accompanies the "shackle" of marriage. Just not the institution itself.

Chambers's story is a bit less tragic. There was no lengthy illness. There were no apologies for her choices, or her success, or her type of success. For that, I really and truly respect her. She had specific talents and she made the most of them. But she also forces society to take a hard look at what it wants, and whether it can really live with its own goals.


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4:21 PM  

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