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THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JOHN
After Boogie Nights, the hardcore documentary Exhausted, and countless newspaper and magazine articles, how much more is there to say about porn legend John Holmes? As Cass Paley’s compelling new doc, Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes, proves, a lot. Holmes’ extraordinary endowment and connections to a grisly and unsolved mass murder have made him a mythological figure in the pantheon of the ’70s counterculture. In Wadd, Paley refuses to settle for easy myth-making, constructing instead a surprising and painstakingly researched portrait of one of the most contradictory figures of our time. Tristan Patterson reports.

John Holmes is generally considered porn’s first superstar. During the 1970s "Golden Age" of porn, this lanky Mid- westerner parlayed his laid-back, Everyman persona and 13-1/2" cock into cultural icon status; only Deep Throat’s Linda Lovelace had as much mainstream recognition as Holmes.

Twenty-five years later, the late "Johnny Wadd," continues to fascinate a generation of filmmakers too young to have made it into one of his films. His rise and fall within the porn world is both a classic showbiz tale as well as a virtual history lesson in porn’s shifts from New York to L.A., from grainy Super-8 loops to 35mm theatrical features to video-lensed cheapies for the home market. Holmes was also the first mainstream porn star to have died from AIDS, and his immersion into a quintessentially ’70s L.A. lifestyle of drugs and partying lead to his implication into one of the town’s grisliest crimes, a bloody, unsolved murder mystery worthy of James Ellroy.

It’s no wonder then, that a number of filmmakers and actors – Adam Rifkin, Abel Ferrara, Christopher Walken, and Eric Roberts to name a few – have sought to commit the life of John Holmes to celluloid. It’s a story in which fact and fantasy have blurred to create a myth of epic proportions. But only with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights did the story find its way out of the development stage and into the multiplex. Of course in the process, John Holmes became Dirk Diggler, and the murder and chaos which surrounded Holmes’ own life gave way to an auteur’s thematic concerns of family and reconciliation.

Perhaps, then, the time is now right for former newsman Cass Paley’s stunning new documentary and festival favorite Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes. Eschewing the lurid sensationalism which has marked previous accounts of Holmes, Paley approaches his chosen subject with a journalistic fervor. Through interviews with the people who knew Holmes – professionally and personally, criminally and critically – as well as ample clips from the Holmes’ oeuvre, Paley creates the near impossible: a film that achieves credibility by presenting a life in all of its troubling complexity. While Holmes’ life may have been well beyond the realm of sensationalism, Wadd is anything but.

 

Filmmaker: When did you first become aware of John Holmes?

Cass Paley: Oh, years ago. My cousin had been a production manager for a bunch of his earlier films, the Johnny Wadd series. I met him on the set. He was very kind, very nice, very sweet. And then, you know, over the years you hear stories about the murders, about the trial. And the fascination [for me] was that there were a lot of people telling stories about John, but they seemed like fantasies about who this guy really was. So there was a curiosity factor for me.

Filmmaker: But what specifically was that curiosity about?

Paley: Over the years there’s been all this stuff written about John, all these articles, and it’s all lies. John Holmes even did an interview with himself, and it was just more lies. As a documentary filmmaker, [I had] the opportunity to take on this "process of discovery." There’s been all this stuff said, but I wanted to get beyond that, to see what was underneath it.

Filmmaker: When did you decide to make the film?

Paley: I saw Boogie Nights. I liked it, but Paul Thomas Anderson basically took the genesis of the John Holmes character and turned it into Dirk Diggler. He had a fantasy movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to find out the reality behind all of it. So I started digging, started asking questions, and I found a lot more than I think I was prepared to find.

Filmmaker: After watching the documentary, it is stunning how contradictory people’s perceptions are of Holmes.

Paley: The more stories I found out about John, the more I wasn’t sure how I would deal with him. I was very, very conflicted. One minute he’s a nice guy, the next minute he’s an asshole. And I’m going, "Oh my God, this is going to be a difficult trip." And that’s what happened. It became a difficult trip for me. I didn’t want to pass judgment on John either. I could have made him out to be good, bad, or indifferent, and I decided it was better for me to let the audience decide what John was all about.

Filmmaker: The films of John Holmes also play a major role in the way the story is told. For instance, you include in Wadd the only piece of gay porn that Holmes ever did.

Paley: That was a tough one to find. He hated it. You can see how uncomfortable he really was. It made him absolutely miserable. As everybody said to me, it took him a half a day to get there.

Filmmaker: How did you end up feeling about all the different people that you interviewed? You talked to everyone from law enforcement to porn veterans to some of the figures implicated in the crime

Paley: I had a great time with most of them. Most of them were very, very sweet and very, very pleasant to deal with.

Filmmaker: You must have had a ton of footage.

Paley: Thirty hours.

Filmmaker: What are some specific examples of stuff you really liked that didn’t make it in?

Paley: We interviewed [Sharon Holmes, John’s widow] for about seven-and-a-half hours, and at the very end of the interview she told us that right after John split with Dawn [former porn star Misty Dawn] for Florida, she didn’t hear from them for a year. In their little two-bedroom apartment in Glendale – he had the second bedroom as his office, which she had never entered – John had a footlocker which he had gold-leafed, and he called it his "retirement fund". She finally took it out, cracked the locks, and spent the next eight hours burning everything inside of it. It implicated politicians, movie stars, musicians, all sorts of people that John had things to do with. It probably could have made both of them very wealthy. She just decided to get rid of it all. In the end, in darkness, she looked into the camera and said, "Now everyone out there can rest easy."

Filmmaker: That’s some L.A. stuff…

Paley: She didn’t tell me the names of the people, but she said there were a lot big names – she didn’t even remember them all anyway, it’s been eleven years. But she said the list was endless.

Filmmaker: Was it hard to resist the temptation to put these incredible stories on screen, even though there were somewhat fantastic and impossible to verify?

Paley: Oh God, yeah. There were lots of things people told me, but I just couldn’t find anything to back it up. And John kept a lot of his own life to himself, so people really didn’t know. I could have made him out to be anything I wanted, but there’s nothing in the film that I couldn’t back up.

Filmmaker: What about the murders? It puts a major spin on the documentary.

Paley: A lot of people have come out of screenings going, "I never knew he was involved in murders." It throws them because here’s this crazy guy doing movies, doing drugs, and then all of a sudden, bam! There are four people beaten to death, and he’s on the run. And he’s captured. And he’s tried. [This film] is not your all-American story! We interrupt it for this major curve. And I was really happy it was put together that way.

Filmmaker: It almost seems as if you have more information in your film about Holmes and the murders than in the court transcripts from Holmes’ trial for the Wonderland Avenue murders.

Filmmaker: When I started trying to find articles about the trial and transcripts from the trial, a lot of it, for some reason, had disappeared from the courts, from the newspapers. The L.A. Times file on John, when you punch up John, it says there’s a bunch of stuff, but nobody could find it. It seems there were a lot of people out there who were doing research who never returned it. That was a major problem. But I was very fortunate. I met Julia St. Vincent, the lady who did Exhausted [a 1981 hardcore documentary on Holmes that was referenced by Anderson in Boogie Nights]. She had run a video distribution company and a clipping service. And she had hundreds and hundreds of clippings, from all over the country, about John. I was very grateful because she covered a lot of ground for me.

Filmmaker: Most law enforcement sources maintain the belief that Eddie Nash [the Lebanese nightclub owner and alleged drug dealer] was behind the killings of those four people on Wonderland Avenue.

Paley: It’s interesting because when we started doing the whole thing with Wonderland, I actually drove up to the house. And then I drove to Eddie Nash’s house. And I saw how close they were. It was not a long drive to go in either direction.

Filmmaker: The film paints a pretty clear portrait of what must have gone down on Wonderland…

Paley: Yeah.

Filmmaker: It’s not a different portrait than what the common assumption is.

Paley: Right. It was a strange set of circumstances that surrounded that whole murder, that whole sequence. It took a little sorting out, but it’s pretty much what the common knowledge was. There are a few minor things here and there that I could not verify, and I had to leave them out. There were probably a dozen or so interviews that didn’t make it into the show because I couldn’t verify from even one other person whether the story was real or not.

Filmmaker: Today, the world of porn seems so sanitized, with the Vivid Video billboards on Sunset Strip and the Hustler store. What’s your take on the relationship between the world portrayed in your documentary and porn today?

Paley: Porn was illegal then, so it was easier for me [to make this documentary today]. People were more accessible than they probably would have been back then. In the mid-’70s and early ’80s there was much more of a paranoia because it was still illegal. [Porn] was being made, and was being taken as a serious business, but it was not something that people wanted to talk about. Now people are willing to talk without some fear of being marked, of their career being ruined.

Filmmaker: Did you worry about not being able to convey Holmes’ story with enough detail in two hours? The real story might have taken all 30 hours.

Paley: The rough-cut was five-and-a-half hours, and five-and-a-half would have been fine. I think we covered the bulk of it there. If PBS had wanted to give me a mini-series, I was set!



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