September 11, 1997.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Buzz was palpable before anybody saw a single frame. Anderson’s wholly original and lively script had been circulating the desks of Hollywood players for years*, with William H. Macy even calling it the best thing he’d ever read and saying he’d “read the yellow pages if Anderson was directing”. The film was an instant success. Reviewers praised it as one of the most groundbreaking films of the 90’s, something akin to Pulp Fiction or Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Anderson was hailed as a wunderkind; comparisons to names like Altman and Kubrick and Scorsese didn’t seem too far-fetched. The ensemble cast was lauded as well, with particular praise going to Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore (both of whom would go on to receive Oscar nominations for the film).
*For more on the development of the film and a script that almost became an urban legend, check out this exceptional oral history of the film from Grantland (R.I.P.)
Boogie Nights was a smash hit with audiences as well. It grossed $43M (nearly 3x its budget) despite being a 150+ minute film with a hard-R rating that lacked both an established star in the lead and the backing of a major studio. It’s only grown in stature in the two decades since.
It’s easy to see why. For a film with so much thematic weight and so many big ideas, Boogie Nights never sacrifices entertainment value (the same can’t be said for Magnolia, Anderson’s brilliant but challenging follow-up). Much of that is thanks to Anderson’s script being really funny. I often think back on the scene when Dirk (Mark Wahlberg) goes to a party at Jack’s house and first meets Reed (John C. Reilly). Reilly is used perfectly. The character wants to impress everyone, but nothing about him is particularly impressive. He claims to look like Han Solo, but obviously lacks Harrison Ford’s handsomeness. He claims to work out a lot, but doesn’t seem to be in good shape. He attempts a flip off a diving board, but all he does is hurt himself.
As the drugs flow more and more, Reed’s detachment from reality only grows, bringing Dirk along as well. If you’ve ever had any experiences with cocaine or witnessed the experiences of others, you know that when someone is geeking they’re confident to a fault. No scene I’m aware of captures this as brilliantly as the recording studio scene in Boogie Nights. Dirk and Reed, coked-up to the point where their legs are restless and the cigarettes burn at a rapid rate, wholeheartedly believe they’re making the next hit single with “Feel My Heat”. Only, it’s awful. Unbelievably awful. Hilariously awful. The engineer in the studio can hardly keep a straight face. It’s a very funny scene, but also somewhat of a tragic turning point in the film. Dirk and Reed are so far gone off the drugs and their own egos that they can’t see how ridiculous they look/sound.
Scotty (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) sees it though, only he’s too bashful to speak up. He truly loves Dirk, and his overall timidity stems from the fact that he’s a relatively flamboyant gay man living in a time and working in an industry not exactly open to such lifestyles. He’s a great tragic character. The most heartbreaking moment in a film filled with heartbreaking moments comes at the New Year’s party when Scotty arrives and shows Dirk his new car. Dirk couldn’t care less, but he’s too nice to let Scotty know it. Scotty bought the care with the sole purpose of impressing Dirk, even as going as far as saying he’ll return it if Dirk doesn’t think it’s cool. Then he tries to kiss Dirk. Dirk’s very polite about turning down the advance, but it still crushes Scotty. Dirk goes back to the party, while Scotty gets in his car and bawls his eyes out. This was Scotty’s most significant moment in the film but probably something Dirk forgot about the next morning. A minor scene in the larger context of the movie, but a monumental moment for Scotty, and a nice reminder that what’s insignificant for some is often life-or-death for others.
The entire New Year’s party, welcoming the 1980’s, is an important thematic moment in a film that’s very much about the ending of eras. Now, this turn-of-the-decade may not mark the clear cultural shift that the previous one did (which Anderson would go on to explore in Inherent Vice), but it functions that way in the film as from here on out things get really dark. The energy and optimism of the films first half ends abruptly. Every character hits rock bottom, and those moments are cut together perfectly. Kicking it off is Little Bill (William H. Macy), who again witnesses his promiscuous wife (played by none other than porn superstar Nina Hartley) fucking another dude without even making a real effort to conceal it. This is the third time we see this. Bill has reached his breaking point. In what makes for one of the most iconic extended shots in cinematic history, Bill walks in on his wife, then emotionlessly walks through the party out to his car, gets his gun, walks back through the party, murders his wife and her lover, and then kills himself in front of the whole party. Boom. The gunshot brings in the 1980’s, and functions as the moment when Boogie Nights starts to become a tragedy.
Sticking with the “end of an era” theme, Anderson works some meta-commentary on the film industry in. Famed porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) is resistant when his financier insists he begin making the switch from film to video, which is cheaper to shoot on and distribute. Jack considers himself a filmmaker and an artist, and to make this compromise is to surrender his integrity. The same transition was happening with Hollywood at the time of Boogie Nights’ release, and the fight would continue. It’s over now. Almost everything is shot and projected digitally. But Anderson is still a champion of film. It’s funny to see him arguing for the merits of shooting on film stock via a story about the pornography industry in the 70’s. It wasn’t an accident that this bit was included.
I can’t believe I’ve written 1,000 words on Boogie Nights without talking about Dirk Diggler’s penis. From the very first scene we’re told it’s quite the penis, something capable of inspiring awe even in folks who work around big penises everyday. Many of the film’s most memorable images are of other characters seeing Dirk’s package for the first time. Anderson has fun teasing us. Everyone in the movie gets to see it, but the audience doesn’t, at least not until the film’s final scene. It’s remarkable visual storytelling by Anderson. I’m heterosexual (I swear it), yet when watching the film for the first time I was emotionally invested in seeing it. After all, this penis is the catalyst for the whole film. We never get to meet this eccentric cast of characters Dirk’s now legendary prosthetic dick doesn’t entice Jack.
As Boogie Nights tumbles to a close -I say “tumbles” because once 1980 hits it’s really all downhill for these characters- we get to an uncomfortably intense scene that has our characters wondering what went wrong to get to this point. I’m of course talking about when Dirk, Reed, and Todd (Thomas Jane) visit the home of Rahad (Alfred Molina) for a drug deal. Unbeknownst to Dirk and Reed at first, Todd brought along a gun and plans to rip the dealer off. We know something bad is going to happen, so during the deal, when Rahman dances and air-guitars to “Sister Christian”, we should be laughing at how ridiculous Molina makes it look. But we can’t, because of the black cloud hanging over the scene. Exceptional acting from all involved and a testament to Anderson’s ability as an atmospheric director. He’s toying with us. Again. You can’t help but be completely acquiescent to Anderson’s cinematic whims.
A big part of what makes the film so endearing is the lead turn of Wahlberg*, who would go from underwear model to serous movie star overnight. The raw, unhinged sexuality he brings to the role fits perfectly. When he freaks out and his voice gets high, we remember Dirk is really still a kid (he’s 16 at the start of the movie). Wahlberg nails every emotional note the script calls for, which is an awful lot of range for such an inexperienced actor to show off. It remains the best performance of his career.
*Oddly enough, Anderson originally wanted Wahlberg’s ‘The Basketball Diaries’ co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, but Leo chose ‘Titanic’ instead. Then Anderson wanted Joaquin Phoenix, but he had reservations about playing a porn star. Ultimately, after being referred to Anderson by Leo, Wahlberg won the role.
For all the film’s formal merits -groovy costumes and set design, stunning photography courtesy of Bob Elswitt- it’s not the film’s technical achievements that make people come back to Boogie Nights after all these years. It’s the characters. We return to see Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) unofficially adopt Rollergirl (Heather Graham) over a great many lines of coke. We return to see Buck’s (Don Cheadle) dream of premium stereo equipment at discount prices become a reality. We return to see Maurice (Luis Guzmán) endlessly beg Jack to put him in a porno despite his hairy beer belly. Anderson loves all his characters, and he loves all their flaws. He forces us to love them too.