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Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes

The late John Holmes was the only actor who could legitimately claim to be as famous in mainstream society as in the world of porn. Holmes, who rose to prominence in the 1970s as the best-endowed man ever to appear in sex films, died of AIDS in the mid-1980s, but he remains a legend of sorts. Director Cass Paley, in attempting to unravel the (largely self-created) myth of Holmes from the reality, has a fascinating subject. Unfortunately, the film mostly falls flat.

Wadd is almost entirely free of visual style. Paley relies on talking heads and clips from porn videos (nothing hardcore; the film’s MacGuffin is never shown in full turgidity). Everyone from porn historian William Margold, to female co-stars like Gloria Leonard and Cicciolina, to the LAPD detectives to whom Holmes routinely snitched on porn directors and producers, is interviewed. The stories often contradict one another. Holmes’ wife at the time of his death, Laurie, insists he was a loving husband; others who knew the couple, including Holmes’ goddaughter, claim Holmes hated Laurie, and married her primarily to have a steady source of drug money.

One surprising aspect of the film is its access to Holmes’ first wife, to whom he remained wed for fifteen years without telling anyone in the industry. This was at his wife’s insistence; she hated what her husband did for a living and wanted no part of it. She withstood quite a bit before finally being driven away; not only Holmes’ porn career, but even his "adoption" of a teenaged runaway, who he pimped (again, for drug money). The young girl in question is interviewed, too, also with her face hidden.

Wadd contains plenty of lurid tales. Holmes’ involvement in the gruesome Wonderland Avenue drug-murder case is exhaustively discussed, as are his drug intake and his insistence on continuing to work even though he knew he was sick with AIDS. (Finding it impossible to get work in America, he flew to Italy and made a film with Italian porn star Cicciolina; she states in Wadd that she knew he was sick, but thought it was just a flu.) Regrettably, director Paley does little or nothing with this material. A large problem was probably budgetary restraints;once all the videos have been licensed, there’s little money left for Errol Morris-style dramatic reenactments. This could have been a classic American folk-tale. Instead, it’s an episode of the "E! True Hollywood Story" with nudity.

Phil Freeman

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