This Is Softcore: The Films of Radley Metzger
This Is Softcore: The Art Cinema Erotica of Radley Metzger runs August 7 to 13 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, with Metzger in attendance at multiple shows.
Pornographer, poet of the erotic, softcore tease: will the real Radley Metzger please stand up? The truth is he’s all of the above, a filmmaker attuned to the prevailing winds regarding sexually oriented movies and dedicated to staying on the leading edge of the curve. His reputation has shifted accordingly, and in an era of sexually explicit films like Catherine Breillat’s Romance, Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, and John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus—movies that polarized critics and moviegoers but clearly have little in common with the XXX porno flicks that once kept run-down theaters in dodgy neighborhoods in business—Metzger’s movies are often damned with faint and snarky praise for their pretty, retro naughtiness. But that kind of reaction says less about Carmen, Baby (67), The Lickerish Quartet (70) or Score (72; released 74) than it does about the general contempt in which the history of sexually explicit movies—a field that encompasses everything from hardcore stag loops to features in which sexual relationships are explored in candid detail within a larger narrative context—is held.
Far from being a linear progression from innocent shorts of belly dancers and decorous stripteases to more risqué “bachelor party attractions” and softcore smut, and ending finally with precisely targeted hardcore, it’s a complicated dance in which hardcore, softcore, and fetish films coexisted from the beginning and moved in and out of the shadows in response to the vagaries of time and place. There’s an eternal verity in the wisecrack that the minute photographic technology became commercially available, some guy was taking pictures of his girl- or boyfriend, and movies were not far behind. The cross-section of vintage pornographic shorts collected as the 2002 anthology film The Good Old Naughty Days is easily accessible proof that someone was filming everything back when your granddad was a beardless youth, from lesbian nun orgies to no-detail-spared masturbation, same-sex frolics, and troilism (all of which are packed into a 15-minute version of Madame Butterfly made in 1925).
The dividing line between smut and erotica is generally drawn by the consideration of some combination of intent, artistry, prevailing cultural standards, local laws and personal tolerance for expressions of amorous affection, sensual pleasure, and nudity. Radley Metzger’s body of work touched all the bases. His softcore films range from the charming naughtiness of The Dirty Girls (65) to the boundary-pushing Score, while his hardcore pictures rank with the cream of the porno-chic crop defined by features like The Devil in Miss Jones (Gerard Damiano, 73), Behind the Green Door (Jim and Artie Mitchell, 72) and Deep Throat (Damiano, 72). And Metzger’s oeuvre is an all-in-one chronicle of theatrical erotica from the mid-1960s, when a few shots of bare breasts and backsides were delightfully titillating to the late ’70s, when video drop-kicked feature-length narrative hardcore into the gutter of history.
But his best films fell between the poles, and they’re the opposite of guilty pleasures. You can groove on the retro fashions and sexual intrigue without putting your brain in park, and they chart the gradual progression in theatrical exhibition from ever harder softcore to increasingly sophisticated hardcore while exploring a world of sexual experience: awakening and disillusionment, experimentation and manipulation, love, lust, betrayal, and despair. Those who dismiss Metzger’s films as stylish but low-brow are at best uninformed and at worst snobs. For the bulk of a 25-year career, he staked a claim on a shifting territory and worked it with intelligence and a certain Continental flair that was equal parts inclination and practicality (the dollar went further in Europe than it did at home).
A movie buff from childhood, Metzger was born in 1929, less than a decade after Russ “King Leer” Meyer. Both directors honed their filmmaking skills in the military, Meyer during World War II and Metzger during the Korean War. Meyer’s groundbreaking nudie-cutie The Immoral Mr. Teas, an hour-long shaggy-dog story about a traveling salesman who can see through ladies’ clothing, opened in 1959, just five years before Metzger’s The Dictionary of Sex. But their sensibilities were a world and a generation apart: raised in suburban San Leandro, California, Meyer came of age in a small-town American era of farmer’s-daughter jokes and busty beauties with hourglass figures, a time when sex was dirty if you were doing it right; his films are smutty fantasies about shanty tramps, whores, nymphos, and strippers, bawdy burlesques with an ugly streak of sexual violence peopled by cartoonishly over-endowed living sex dolls who live to rut. Meyer clung to his ’50s-shaped sensibilities as the counterculture swept over America and was celebrated first by blue-collar joes who grew up lusting for Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, and then by hipsters seeing camp genius in the larger-than-life excesses of a filmmaker who sincerely loved supersized boobs and butts and didn’t get the appeal of slim, restless girls burning with personal ambition rather than thinly veiled contempt for the lechers who pursued them.
Native New Yorker Metzger was a cosmopolitan sophisticate who approached the sexual revolution with the imperturbable curiosity of someone who knew the landscape of the flesh was changing and looked forward to seeing—or even anticipating—what lay around history’s corner. Metzger drew inspiration from classic texts (Carmen and La Dame aux Camélias), recent history (Little Mother, 73, took on the rise and fall of Eva Perón) and contemporary theater (Score adapted the Off-Broadway comedy of sexual manners Score or, No One’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf! by future porn director Jerry Douglas), as well as the uninhibited European art films for which he cut trailers at Janus Films. He distributed his own movies through Audubon, the company he formed in 1961 with Ava Leighton, who was working for Janus when it declined to pick up his first feature, Dark Odyssey (58), a scrappy drama about a Greek sailor trying to avenge the sexual assault of his sister. Leighton could book like a demon—she never took no for an answer—and their partnership only ended in 1987, with her death at age 71.
Audubon’s initial business plan was to release stylish European genre movies with more nudity and sex than their American counterparts to a growing niche market of drive-ins, art houses, and college-circuit cinemas. These were venues underserved by major U.S. studios and receptive to offbeat material with a little sex appeal—occasionally spiced up with Metzger’s own original footage. The success of Mademoiselle Strip-Tease (57) retitled The Nude Set and released in 1960, Les Collégiennes (59) aka The Twilight Girls (61), and Détournement de mineures (59) aka The Price of Flesh (62) led logically to the decision to make original films. Metzger was pragmatist enough to have learned the lesson of Dark Odyssey, which secured only a handful of bookings, including a single theater in New York, the Cameo, an ethnic cinema that would only take the English-language film if it were dubbed into Greek. He proposed a feature about prostitutes; the subject matter was inherently racy and Metzger figured he could shoot in Europe, where the combination of contacts he’d cultivated as a distributor and a favorable exchange rate would translate into above-average production value.
The result was The Dirty Girls (65), even now widely referred to as a bachelor-party attraction—how “the more things change” is that?—and it was a world-class balancing act. Squeaking through the pre-MPAA certification process uncut, the film delivers sufficient titillation to justify the come-on, made the word “dirty” part of the Metzger brand without treating sex as particularly dirty, and portrays prostitutes as neither golden-hearted good-time girls nor brutalized victims of male oppression—just women playing the hand life dealt them. And the trailer is a quiet jaw-dropper that offers the promise of La Dolce Vita–style decadent frolics with a surprising focus on female satisfaction, hardly the norm in racy movies whose audience was overwhelmingly male. The Dirty Girls made money, netting more than twice what it cost.
After a second black-and-white feature, The Alley Cats (66), Metzger took a deep breath and upped the stakes with Carmen, Baby (67), which transforms Prosper Mérimée’s gypsy tramp into a ’60s Spanish sexpot who systematically compromises, humiliates, and betrays the square cop who loves her. Metzger coaxes from German actress Uta Levka (who played a stripper in The Alley Cats) a more charismatic performance than her subsequent career would suggest she had in her, but she’s upstaged by Walter Wilz’s creepy “Baby” Lucas, the pop-star lover who swills cocktails from a baby bottle. Carmen, Baby was, by Metzger’s estimation, the most financially successful film of his career and served as the template for his class-and-ass Camille 2000, which reimagines Alexandre Dumas fils’ tubercular courtesan as Marguerite, a youthquaker à la Edie Sedgwick with a better reason for her heedlessly self-destructive embrace of drugs, parties, liquor, casual sex and shallow consumerism. She’s dying in the eye of a psychedelic hurricane of inflatable furniture, shag rugs, happenings, chainmail dresses, go-go boots, freak-outs, and op-art everything, and the relentless disposable chic of it all actually makes her doomed romance with wealthy playboy Armand—depicted in a series of swoony sex scenes that bare copious flesh while remaining well within softcore boundaries—more poignant rather than less. Marguerite (Claude Autant-Lara discovery Danièle Gaubert) may be nothing more than a dirty pretty thing to her jet-setting friends, but viewers know otherwise and I’m willing to bet some surreptitious tears were shed in unlikely theaters. Not to be pedantic, but it’s worth noting that Carmen was published in 1845 and La Dame aux camélias three years later: times change, people don’t.
The Lickerish Quartet
The Lickerish Quartet (70), by contrast, is an art-house giggle. Ignore the opening quote from Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (“All this present reality of yours is fated to seem mere illusion tomorrow”)—this is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema with a va-va-va-voom bombshell replacing Terence Stamp as “The Visitor” (yes, that really is how she’s billed). She’s a carnival stunt performer who may or may not have stepped out of a stag movie to toy with a brittle family of neurotic one-percenters who can’t decide whether or not this brunette daredevil is the wanton blonde they just saw on screen. One by one she seduces them while teasing out their insecurities and stripping away their self-serving delusions; from her entrance, breezing along a carnival “wall of death” on her motorcycle, to a playful romp on a library floor decorated with naughty words, she’s the bad angel on everyone’s shoulder. Her libidinal energy cuts through the effete disengagement of her hosts, who’ve taken so many wrong turns in the labyrinths of their own minds that they actually believe they’d rather be holed up in their palatial centuries-old Italian villa watching movies, doing magic tricks, or wallowing in nostalgic thrills than enjoying the company of a lovely, exotic adventurer who enters trailing a whiff of danger, intuits exactly what they want, and enjoys the hell out of giving it to them.
Score is simultaneously the flipside of Lickerish and the first step in Metzger’s capitulation to the direction in which erotica was headed. The Liaisons Dangereuses-lite plot sics jaded, bisexual swingers Elvira and Jack, their loins girded with toys, costumes, and experience, on fragile innocents-abroad Betsy and Eddie, wide-eyed newlyweds fairly begging to be debauched. Where others might have viewed the original play as a smuttier spin on Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Metzger saw an updated variation on Noel Coward’s comedies of romantic manners for a more sexually frank and fluid era, and cast hardcore actors Gerald Grant and Cal Culver, the “golden boy of gay porn,” as the men (the difference between the uncut and cut versions rests entirely on their scenes). Though Metzger had years of experience shooting women together and none with men, the result is surprisingly persuasive, culminating in crosscutting between the female and male couples that eventually blurs their flesh into a tangle of barely differentiated limbs. And of the two cuts, the hardcore one is the keeper: both Grant and Culver could act and perform at the same time.
Score was relatively well reviewed (though it’s been suggested that some critics praised it for fear of looking like prudes if they didn’t) but tanked financially. Perhaps the mix of gay and straight sex put off rather than attracted the target audience, or perhaps the two-year time lag between when Score was made and when it opened doomed it from the start. With hardcore features like Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones in theatrical release, Score’s trailer made it look talky and smothered in so-last-decade psychedelia. Whatever the reason, its failure persuaded Metzger to stop pussyfooting around and go all in with The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann (74), the first of six hardcore features he made under the “nom de fuck” Henry Paris—his middle name plus the city, because “it was good to” him back in the early, dirty days. Pamela Mann and its progeny, including Naked Came the Stranger (75, adapted from a novel that started life as a prank concocted by a group of Newsday writers and became a best seller), The Opening of Misty Beethoven (76), and Barbara Broadcast (77) are all stylish but ultimately more like other porno-chic pictures than Metzger’s own earlier work. The Image (aka The Punishment of Anne, 75), an examination of sexual domination and submission based on the novel by Catherine Robbe-Grillet writing as Jean de Berg, starred Carl Parker (who plays the small but significant role of a telephone repairman in Score) and was strictly a specialty item.
Metzger’s career came to a close with the tame sex comedy The Princess and the Call Girl (84). Fade out, the end. Except that it wasn’t, because the best of his films endure as more than the sum total of their erotic content. They’re smart, clear-eyed stories in which sex is divorced from guilt but not from consequences, which together show that while times change, people don’t.