Boogie Nights at 25
Featuring a first-rate cast led by Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, and numerous others, Boogie Nights has endured for a quarter-century; The Ringer’s The Rewatchables podcast commemorated the anniversary with a two-part podcast, going for a total of over four hours.
Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s second film and the one that put him on the map, arrived in theaters on October 10, 1997, 25 years ago this week. A look back at the porn industry’s late 1970s epoch and the ugly fall it took from there, Boogie Nights had a young and untested filmmaker utilizing all sorts of trick shots, dealing with a risky subject, and knocking it out of the park.
The story of Boogie Nights is based loosely on that of John Holmes, the adult film superstar of the late 1970s, who himself had a crime-related fall from grace. The homage was somewhat indirect; the 1981 documentary Exhausted: John C. Holmes, The Real Story inspired Anderson’s short, The Dirk Diggler Story, which in turn was expanded into Boogie Nights.
Like Holmes, Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler was a star adult film performer in the late 1970s. Like Holmes, he was known for being well-endowed. Like Holmes, he did gay sex work after his mainstream career hit lean times. And like Holmes, Dirk Diggler had a run-in with a flamboyant drug dealer. Holmes’ on-screen alter ego was Johnny Wadd; Diggler’s was Brock Landers.
Boogie Nights contains the famous “Long Way Down (One Last Thing)” sequence, in which Dirk, Reed (Reilly), and Todd (Thomas Jane) decide to sell baking soda (disguised as cocaine) to flamboyant, eccentric rich guy Rahad (Alfred Molina). Amid a man lighting fireworks indoors, it ends badly, with a shootout and Dirk running away in fear.
This seems based on the circumstances surrounding the Wonderland murders, one of the most notorious crimes in the history of Los Angeles. Holmes, by this time past his prime in the adult industry, had gotten involved with a gang of drug dealers who partied at a house on Wonderland Avenue in Laurel Canyon.
This led to Holmes reportedly instigating a robbery by the gang of club owner Eddie Nash (the inspiration for the Rahad character.) The Wonderland murders that followed, in which four members of the gang were beaten to death. Holmes later stood trial for his alleged part in the murders, but was acquitted; he would die of AIDS-related complications in 1988, at age 43.
Boogie Nights clearly aped this, although it gave things a happier ending. In the film, we do not see Dirk Diggler die, contract AIDS, get tried for murder, or face any type of legal consequences for his part in the Rahad Jackson robbery. As the film ends, Dirk is preparing to make a comeback.
There was, however, a movie directly about the Wonderland murders, 2003’s Wonderland, which was released just six years after Boogie Nights. Directed by James Cox, the film starred Val Kilmer as Holmes, Eric Bogosian as Nash, and Josh Locus, Tim Blake Nelson, Natasha Gregson Wagner, and Janeane Garofalo as the four murder victims.
Wonderland received mixed-to-bad reviews, failed at the box office, and is not nearly as well-remembered as Boogie Nights.