When John Holmes left rural Ohio for Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, all he had was a headful of dreams -- and a 13-inch cock. A decade later he was the man most associated with the adult film industry, and his serialized porn character "Inspector Johnny Wadd" had won him a worldwide fan base. Now, some 10 years after Holmes' AIDS-related death, director Cass Paley has unveiled the definitive Holmes biography: WADD: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes.
Since winning the Best Documentary award at the Texas South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in March, WADD has been playing the festival circuit to packed houses, drawing zealous John Holmes fans who are already starting to collect WADD memorabilia.
Imagine a cross between the E! True Hollywood Story and VH1 Behind the Semen, set to a '70s porn movie soundtrack, and you have an inkling of what WADD is about. Using buoyant interview footage taken of John's porn industry colleagues, ex-wives, mistresses, and LAPD cronies, Cass Paley has woven a lurid and compelling epic.
The documentary swerves from a sampling of soundbites about John's big cock ("John was proof that all men are not created equal," one commentator observes), to a biographical tracking of his burgeoning porn career: the toll it took on his marriage to his strait-laced first wife Sharon, his mounting egomania, and his inevitable descent into drugs, violence, and cruelty. At one point, John got his 15-year-old mistress Dawn hooked on freebasing coke, and then pimped her out for drugs when he was short on cash. (Which was all the time, since no one in the industry wanted to work with a guy who'd spend five hours in the bathroom freebasing.)
Other biographical details only hinted at in Boogie Nights -- John's involvement in the bludgeoning deaths of four of his drug buddies -- are dealt with at length, along with John's discovery, in the mid-1980s, that he was HIV-positive. In the end, we are left with the impression that, like his oversized cock, John brought either pleasure or pain to those around him. In WADD, Paley dispels many of the myths surrounding John Holmes, all the while creating a deeper and more durable porn star mythology.
GettingIt got down with WADD director Cass Paley to discuss his documentary, the influence of Boogie Nights, and whether bigger is necessarily better.
GETTINGIT: It must be impossible for people to watch your documentary and not find themselves fact-checking Boogie Nights, the film that fictionally represented John Holmes' career.
CASS PALEY: What's really funny is that a lot of people remember Boogie Nights pretty vividly, so during screenings you'll hear people in the audience yelling "That was in Boogie Nights." I guess that for a lot of people it was a very memorable movie. In fact, the Criterion Deluxe Laser Disc version of Boogie Nights does a comparison of four or five scenes from [the 1981 documentary about John Holmes] Exhausted, and compares them to scenes in Boogie Nights. [Boogie Nights director] P.T. Anderson even admitted in some of the early interviews that he stole dialogue directly from some of Holmes' actual interview footage, because [he] couldn't write better dialogue.
GI: Were you inspired by Boogie Nights to make your documentary, or was this an idea you had even earlier?
CP: I saw Boogie Nights and thought, "Anderson has taken John Holmes' life and fantasized it," and I knew there was more to John's life than the film told -- there were the [drug-related] murders John was involved in, for instance.
GI: Given that, for many people, John Holmes was really just a cock which happened to have a person attached to it. Why weren't there any shots of his fully erect penis in the documentary?
CP: I didn't think it was needed, and I basically cut it with a cable version in mind -- like for HBO or something.
GI: That was my other question -- whether there was any consideration as to how to cut it in order to get an R rating, assuming it goes into theatrical release.
CP: Yeah, in the documentary everyone talks about it, and they describe its size and you see it there [limp], and I figure that if you can't visualize what it's going to look like erect, you shouldn't be watching the movie.
GI: One of the most fascinating aspects of the documentary is the relationship between Holmes and his first wife, Sharon. Was that the ultimate co-dependency or what? I mean, she clearly hated John's lifestyle -- she says at one point "I lived, and he didn't" -- so why didn't she just leave him, since she was so disgusted when he became a porn star?
CP: I talk to her once in a while, but I've never really asked her that. I might one day just ask her why she didn't leave. I think maybe because she really loved him and hoped things would change, and then she finally realized it was never going to happen.
GI: You have such great interview footage -- of Sharon and of [Screw publisher] Al Goldstein. Who was the most outrageous person you interviewed?
CP: Well, Al made for a great interview. He was so dead-pan and funny. That line when he says that John Holmes "should have been a Kennedy," the audience just goes berserk. They just laugh hysterically. He should start doing stand-up.
GI: Were there any interviews that were particularly difficult to get?
CP: Well, [John's former mistress] Dawn was a hard one because I really had to convince her that I wouldn't do a hatchet job, and so was Sharon. I explained to her that I wanted to show all sides of John, and not simply to pass judgment on him -- which I could have easily done. I could have made him out to be the biggest cretin in the world, or a fairly respectable guy, depending on how I cut everything. I decided to leave in a lot of the different angles and sides of John. Ultimately I leave it up to the audience to decide, to form an opinion. Some people still like him, like his movies, and feel that I treated him with as much respect as I could, given that he was a sociopath. But I did try to leave it open.
GI: Was it intentional to use background music that sounds like a '70s porn movie soundtrack? [a kind of disco-meets-muzak sound]
CP: Absolutely. The guy who did the music [Brad Raylius Daniel] did a phenomenal job.
GI: I remember from porn folklore that John Holmes actually didn't have the largest cock of any porn star. Wasn't there a black porn star who was bigger?
CP: There are so many stories about that, but I couldn't verify most of them. There was Long Dong Silver, or one other black guy who had a bigger cock. But supposedly the other guy couldn't get it hard, or keep it hard, and that was pretty much his downfall.
GI: At one point in the movie, [porn starlet] Annette Haven mentions that John's cock, because it was so big, never got fully erect -- if it did it would cut the flow of blood to his head, or something. Since it never got fully hard, she said it was "like dealing with a big, soft kind of loofah."[bath sponge] That strikes me as a kind of metaphor: that John's big cock made him famous, but at the same time it made him unable to fully develop as a person -- to become, in a sense, fully erect as a person.
CP: It's true, but if you go see some of his earlier stuff you can see what that sucker looked like. And it was scary as hell.
Peter Braunstein writes about film and pop culture for the Village Voice, and is currently co-editing an anthology on the 1960s counterculture.