Adult cinema pioneer Radley Metzger is the subject of a new retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center through August 13. This Is Softcore: The Art Cinema Erotica of Radley Metzger explores the New York City sexploitation director’s colorful career as an erotica auteur and his crossover into the hardcore porn industry. We feature more on Metzger, below — along with a few other “conventional” filmmakers who made the jump into adult cinema.
Metzger has always considered himself “a filmmaker, full stop,” but the New York City director’s career trajectory from film editor to distributor and adult cinema pioneer is fascinating.
World cinema distributor Janus Films employed Metzger as an editor, where he refined the dubbing for …And God Created Woman and cut trailers for a variety of renowned foreign art films — including the movies of Ingmar Bergman.
In 1958, Metzger co-directed his debut feature, Dark Odyssey, about a Greek immigrant trying to survive the concrete jungle of New York City. The New York Times called it a “fresh, economical approach to an ancient dramaturgical formula.”
Hoping to cash in on Europe’s sexploitation canon in 1960’s America, Metzger began importing and distributing erotica (The Fast Set, The Twilight Girls, I, a Woman), which led to his sexploitation directorial debut — 1965’s The Dirty Girls. Metzger’s take on the genre was slick, sexy, and glamorous — productions that felt closer to art films or high-fashion photo shoots than smut. The locations were exotic, the women seductive, and Metzger’s compositions striking — but the filmmaker never veered away from controversial subjects.
With the ‘70s came an era of porno chic, and Metzger’s softcore style wasn’t bold enough for moviegoers lining the streets to see Deep Throat in theaters. He entered the hardcore porn industry under the pseudonym “Henry Paris” and directed successful films such as The Opening of Misty Beethoven and The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann with the same glossy style and elevated production. Who else would make a porn flick based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion?
Following her graduation from Hunter College, Doris Wishman tried to break into the acting business, but got married instead. After her husband passed away, she wanted “something to fill [her] hours with.” She had experience as a movie booker, and cinema flowed through her veins. Wishman’s cousin Max Rosenberg was one of the founders of famed British horror studio Amicus Productions (a Hammer Films competitor).
She soon latched onto a lucrative formula. Thinly veiled films about nudist communities in the 1930s were promoted as “documentaries,” skirting obscenity laws. The genre saw a resurgence in the 1950s, and Wishman helped bring it into the ‘60s. She was the only female director making “nudie-cutie” movies at the time, writing, producing, and editing most of her films (Diary of a Nudist, Gentlemen Prefer Nature Girls, Playgirls International, and more). Girls frolicking in the sun eventually gave way to Wishman’s sexploitation period (directed under the pseudonym “Louis Silverman” — one of many aliases). “Those movies featured Wishman’s quirky style that utilized bizarre cutaways to ashtrays, lamps and squirrels and suggestive lesbian subplots.” Several of the sleazy melodramas starred busty starlet Chesty Morgan, famous for her 73-inch bosom.
Continuing to push boundaries, Wishman worked with former porn star and sex worker activist Annie Sprinkle in the hardcore films Satan Was a Lady and Come With Me, My Love. She also created a documentary-drama about the transgender community, 1978’s Let Me Die a Woman.
After an unsuccessful attempt to join the slasher film craze of the 1980s with A Night to Dismember (starring porn actress Samantha Fox), Wishman fell into semi-obscurity — but the home video market introduced new audiences to her work and established Wishman as a cult/exploitation icon.
Prolific filmmaker Gary Graver collaborated as a cinematographer with Orson Welles (F is for Fake, The Orson Welles Show, The Other Side of the Wind), B-movie king Roger Corman, and Ron Howard, but he led a double life as a pornographer. Directing over 100 hardcore films under the pseudonym “Robert McCallum,” (many of them deemed classics) Graver worked with the esteemed Welles on his 1975 hardcore feature 3 A.M. The movie features a lesbian shower scene edited by the Citizen Kane director. AVN’s Mark Kernes stated that Graver’s “legacy in the adult industry is on a par with the bulk of his Hollywood accomplishments.” Graver was inducted into AVN’s Hall of Fame.
John Derek was married to some of the most beautiful women in the world (Bond girl Ursula Andress included), had a successful acting career (he uttered the famous quote “Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse” in 1949’s Knock on Any Door), and made a porn film with his wife, the actress and sex symbol Bo Derek. When money got tough, and Derek’s mainstream directorial efforts weren’t footing the bill, he made a hardcore movie, 1979’s Love You. The film starred legendary adult film actress Annette Haven. Wife Bo reportedly produced the movie and “was constantly on the set with the four porn stars as her husband’s consultant.”
It’s really no surprise that prolific Italian sleazemeister Joe D’Amato directed a number of hardcore pornos, having made a name for himself in the exploitation genre. D’Amato was always fast to turn a buck, capitalizing on cinema’s most popular, giving them a gory and sordid edge. But before he was banking on the success of bigger films, interpreting the softcore classic Emmanuelle and copying his horror brethren, he was working as a cinematographer for various well-respected filmmakers like Massimo Dallamano. Before and during his porn phase, D’Amato directed movies in almost every genre, honing his skills as a producer, watching the cash roll in. His hardcore period mixed social satire (vague at best), horror, and detestable subjects (see: Porno Holocaust), but D’Amato was one of the only porn filmmakers who shot on 35mm well into the 1990s.
Lars von Trier
Dogme 95 filmmaker Lars von Trier hasn’t directed a hardcore feature, but his production studio Zentropa became the first mainstream film company to produce hardcore porn in 1998. Created with a female audience in mind, Zentropa’s Constance, Pink Prison, and About Anna inspired a wave of feminist pornography and helped the push to legalize porn in Norway. The industry has also offered some solace from the media frenzy around his European art house career controversies. “I want to be surrounded by porn people who love me for what I am, who say, ‘Where do you want the erection, where do you want the penetration.’ Where it’s not complicated,” the director stated in 2011, following backlash for his “Hitler” comment. “There wouldn’t be a porn star running out there saying ‘Lars said this or Lars said that.’”
Ray Dennis Steckler
Z-grade schlockster and low-budget indie icon Ray Dennis Steckler wins for the longest list of pseudonyms used by a moviemaker, including his porn moniker “Cindy Lou Sutters.” Ray is famous for trash cult classics like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, which featured camerawork from celebrated cinematographers Joseph V. Mascelli, Vilmos Zsigmond, and László Kovács. Naturally, one of his hardcore features includes a rip-off of the golden age porno classic Debbie Does Dallas, titled Debbie Does Las Vegas.
The Guardian on iconic exploitation filmmaker Abel Ferrara’s real first feature film:
In Britain, he is regarded as a sensationalist lowlife whose films rely on gratuitous nudity, drug use and violence. His official debut, The Driller Killer, was actually his second movie. The first, Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy, was straightforward porn, starring his girlfriend, her friends and a hired cast of studs, one of whom had difficulty rising to the occasion. “It’s bad enough paying a guy $200 to fuck your girlfriend, then he can’t get it up,” Ferrara says. The crew drew lots, and he lost, thus making his first appearance in front of the camera.