Livin’ large with the Hung One
Porn has had its share of superstars, but none were bigger – in every sense – than John Holmes. This “little boy with a big dick,” as one of his associates describes him in Cass Paley’s fascinating documentary Wadd, came at just the right time, culturally speaking. He was in Los Angeles in 1969 when the censorship walls finally fell, and he brought an irresistible asset to the burgeoning field of porn – a 14-inch (or 13-1/2, or 13, depending on who’s talking) prick that, unusual considering its size, had no trouble getting hard. Holmes was an ideal fit for both the industry and the audience, an unpretentious, seemingly nice guy who was cooperative on the set in a way crucial to the genre: he could come on cue. And he was a rarity in being equally appealing to men and women, and not only size queens. Even straight men, so often skittish and easily threatened, found his aw-shucks persona and mildly sarcastic, I’m-in-on-the-joke attitude congenial. They may have been drawn to him, too, because his face was homely enough, or forgettable enough, for them to substitute their own as they watched him ramming his way through some of the alleged 14,000 women during his scandalous career.
But Holmes was at once more and less than the porn P.R. image, according to Wadd. Director Paley corralled a who’s-who of west coast sex industry over the past 30 years to discuss this phenomenon, and the picture they paint is complex and often far from flattering.
Born in 1944, Holmes was raised in modest circumstances in rural Ohio, abused by both his natural father, a violent alcoholic who once threw up on his son, and an equally unsympathetic stepfather. After a three-year stint in the military, he headed for Hollywood, where his charms were first noticed in a men’s room. From there it was a quick flight to the top of the porn heap, courtesy of a series of kitschily amusing sex ‘n spy films, where he played “the infamous detective Johnny Wadd.” With titles like Johnny Wadd, Tell Them Johnny Wadd Was Here, Flesh of the Lotus, and The China Cat, these flicks – featuring tinny disco music and that rarity in contemporary porn, skinny, pale, pimply asses – are probably worth a revival as prime artifacts of the period. That would also give us a chance to assess the validity of a dubious comment by director Paul Thomas Anderson, who modeled the character of Dirk Diggler from Boogie Nights on the Hung One, that Holmes was actually a “pretty good actor.”
Holmes’s story is Horatio Alger in reverse. Like Alger’s boy heroes, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps (make that jockstrap) to achieve household-name status, at least in some households. Unlike those boys, he wasn’t satisfied with success and became a heavy drug user and sporadic criminal. Holmes became a cokehead, freebaser, and devotee of downers, sometimes ingesting a gut-wrenching 50 10 milligram Valiums at a time, which might have killed a horse, and certainly should have killed a man, even one hung like a horse. Of course, these habits compromised his hard-ons, making him increasingly less marketable. This in turn pulled him into a netherworld of crime and prostitution (pimping a 15-year-old girlfriend) that reached its apex with a homicide of four friends that he betrayed to some thugs whom they had earlier double-crossed with Holmes’s help. This “charming sociopath,” as one psychologist in the film calls him, was also abusive, sometimes brutally beating his girlfriends, after which came the inevitable hang-dog apology and frenzied attempts to reconnect with his victim.
Much of the hype about the porn industry stresses the “family” aspect, that producers, directors, distributors, and stars all love each other and stick together both during and after production. And Wadd shows some aspects of this in reminiscences by such luminaries as Kitten Natividad, Al Goldstein, Ron Jeremy, Gloria Leonard, and many others. But Holmes was also a major snitch, working undercover with the notorious LAPD to bust the very people he was working with. (One of the film’s most surreally amusing accounts concerns the elaborate strategies the pornsters used to evade the cops, which sound like a silent film comedy.)
Holmes’s schizoid relationship to his own industry typifies much of his attitude in general. Even one of the women he abused, his second wife Laurie Rose (aka Misty Dawn), known as “the buttfucking queen of porn,” insists he had “a heart of gold – he was great to me” even as others in the know recount his many cruelties to her. Much is made of Holmes’s cavalier attitude toward fucking that followed his diagnosis of HIV. According to one of the commentators, Holmes believed that it wasn’t necessary to tell people his status because everybody in porn would die – or deserved to for their unspecified betrayals of him, particularly their supposed refusal to see him when he was sick (he died in 1988). The film makes it clear that it was wife Laurie Rose who turned away all his friends, refusing to let them see him in the hospital or even attend his funeral.
For those who want to know – and who doesn’t? – Wadd doesn’t show hardcore footage, but skirts it frequently in a rich sampling of softcore moments from the big boy’s oeuvre. And there are several views of his schlong in repose. Included also are snippets from his only full-length gay film, The Private Pleasures of John Holmes, with legendary bottom Joey Yale, who dutifully takes all that Holmes desultorily gives. Alongside the negative images from this loopy life and career, there are enough testimonials to Holmes’s gentle, even loving side, particularly to his godson and goddaughter, to suggest a more complex character than the hype indicated. In this ultimately well-rounded, even affecting portrait of an elusive personality whose sole claim to fame was his cock, Holmes, despite everything, was not only fucked, but loved.