Boogie Nights (1997),Paul Thomas Anderson’s first fully formed film after the frustration and battles of his debut feature Hard Eight (1996), was conceived when he was 17 years old. Ten years later, after Anderson received assurances from executive producers Michael De Luca and Lawrence Gordon that they would not interfere with his script, the film was released to critical acclaim. Boogie Nights, with its flowing camera and ensemble cast, invites comparisons with Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) and The Player (1992), valid comparisons as Anderson acknowledges Altman’s influence along with Martin Scorsese and it is not difficult to see re-workings of the nightclub entrance scene in Goodfellas (1990) along with Robert De Niro’s rehearsal in the mirror in Raging Bull (1980). Yet, these formal borrowings should not detract from Anderson’s film and Boogie Nights provides an ideal template for anyone interested in his subsequent films.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of his acknowledgement to the films of Altman and Scorsese, along with Jonathan Demme, is that these directors have, mostly, worked on the outer fringes of the Hollywood cinema. While they are fully cognizant of the strictures of Hollywood film making, its formal and generic conventions, they rarely feel the need to provide moral clarity and emotional reassurance. Similarly, familiar narrative conventions, stock characters and poetic justice, integral aspects of the commercial cinema, are often rejected or subverted. Anderson is obviously happy in this company.

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Specifically, Anderson is willing to utilize the expression of melodrama, the melodramatic, without abiding by its raison d’être, delineating and endorsing a clear moral position. It is melodrama’s irreducible Manichaeism which Anderson, like Scorsese and Altman, cannot accept. Moral redemption is not possible, or even relevant. This is made clear in a early scene when Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) returns home late at night following his initiation into the “family” headed by pornographer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and his surrogate “wife,” porn star Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). After Adams has sexual intercourse on the family couch with Rollergirl (Heather Graham), watched by her surrogate “father” Jack Horner to the catchy tune of “Brand New Key, he returns home to confront a more conventional view of morality as expressed by his mother.  Eddie not only rejects his mother’s (Joanna Gleason) response, he cannot even understand the terms on which it is based. Neither can Anderson and in a film largely devoid of moral judgment, he surprisingly presents Eddie’s mother as a screaming harridan. Eddie’s father, on the other hand, absents himself from his wife’s hysteria. As a consequence, Eddie returns to the less judgmental environment of his surrogate “parents,” Jack Horner and Amber, the pornographers. While Anderson subsequently admitted the mother’s hysteria in the film was poorly motivated, it is in keeping with the film’s overall discourse.

It is tempting to place the mother’s hysteria within the context of the 1950s cinema of Douglas Sirk although Sirk’s social critique often involved formal distancing devices. This tendency is not evident in Boogie Nights which ends on a (seeming) note of reassurance as Horner walks from room to room admiring his “family.” This sequence concludes with Amber and the possibility of a “Sirkian” moment as the scene ends with the camera showing her sad face in a bedroom mirror. If the film ended here the association with Sirk would be obvious, particularly All That Heaven Allows  (1955) with Jane Wyman imprisoned by the lighting and décor of her middle-class family home. Yet Anderson is not interested in irony, preferring instead to return to his central themes involving self-delusion and the commoditization of porn in the early 1980s. The final image of Eddie, now using the more appropriate name of Dirk Diggler, and his 13-inch (prosthetic) penis, returns the film to Anderson’s lament concerning the fate of the porn industry.

Therise and fall narrative trajectory of Boogie Nights, ending with Diggler’s flaccid penis, suggests that the film is about the porn industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is not just that. He concentrates on a cross section of porn workers, including Rollergirl, who drops out of high school, Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), an out-of-favour porn performer who desires a family and a hi-fi shop, Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) who becomes Diggler’s off-sider in sex-movie spoofs and Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a repressed gay member of Horner’s “family.” However, it is the actions of Little Bill (William H. Macy) that marks the end of the optimistic 1970s and the arrival of mercenary pragmatism of the 1980s when he shoots his wife (real-life porn star Nina Hartley) and then commits suicide in front of guests at Horner’s 1980 New Year’s Eve party.

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Anderson follows these characters and tries to provide some kind of resolution, even if it is death. However, the film’s central relationship involves Eddie and his surrogate father, Jack Horner. The casting of sixty-one year old Burt Reynolds as Horner, who had been in television and movies since 1958 as an actor and director, and a major star in 1970s, gives the film a real edge. His scenes with Wahlberg, the up and coming star meeting the star on his way down, are fascinating. Horner is initially interested in Eddie because of his commercial potential: “a feeling that beneath those jeans is something wonderful just waiting to get out.” Their inevitable break-up becomes the film’s strongest, most revealing, scene as their fictional characterizations mesh with their off-screen status. It is not hard to understand why Anderson wanted Reynolds for this role. His career epitomizes the narrative trajectory of the film as optimism and innocence give way to compromise and violence. This culminates with the Candid Camera spoof with Horner searching the streets of Los Angeles for cheap sex material. Horner’s fall mirrors Reynolds’s career. A more than decade long period at the top was followed by a long period down, beginning in the early 1980s.

Boogie Nights (1997 USA, 155 min) 

Prod Co: New Line Cinema/Lawrence Gordon Productions/Ghoulardi Film Company Prod: Paul Thomas Anderson, Lloyd Levin, John Lyons, JoAnne Sellar Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson Scr: Paul Thomas Anderson Phot: Robert Elswit Ed: Dylan Tichenor Art Dir: Ted Berner

Mus: Michael Penn

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, William H. Macy, Luis Guzman, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Jane, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Ridgely.

About The Author

Geoff Mayer was formerly Head of School and Chair of the Cinema Studies Department at La Trobe University. His most recent book is ‘Encyclopedia of American Film Serials’ (McFarland, 2017).