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Ignore the title’s terrible pun; a wild, disorganized, frequently contradictory oral history can be the only true history of a medium rooted in art, sex, sexism, feminism, free love, drugs, money, and every combination thereof. The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry, by Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne, with Peter Pavia, takes advantage of pornography’s built-in schizophrenia to illuminate the genre’s bizarre birth, frustrated adolescence, and eventual absorption by America’s mainstream media.

McNeil’s exposition-free Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk was another good use of the same form; third-party commentary would have weighed down the exploration of a musical genre predicated on the destruction of the line between audience and performer. For The Other Hollywood, McNeil & Co. make no attempt to force a hackneyed moral, but rather let pornography’s practitioners, Mafia backers, detractors, and defenders speak for themselves. Where other exposés have presented the sex industry as filth (a contrite Linda Lovelace in Ordeal) and its celebrities as sad clowns (Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy) or, more ridiculously, as First Amendment martyrs (the recent documentary Inside Deep Throat), McNeil takes his characters beyond caricature, serving as nimble-fingered editor rather than pontificating writer of pornography’s muddled, seriocomic chronology.

The Other Hollywood traces the beginnings of hardcore porn to tame ’50s T&A flicks that narrated the erotic adventures of nudist camps and sans-culottes volleyball teams. Under the aegis of military-filmmaker-turned-legendary-breast-man Russ Meyer, these evolved into the penetration-free “nudie-cuties,” in which dumbed-down plot lines propelled protagonists full-steam ahead to fondling orgies with simulated sex. As producer Dave Friedman put it, such films “were the answer to the showman’s prayer. Because he never had to worry about live talent, which was always a problem.” By 1970, soft-core had not only rendered the pinup and burlesque obsolete, but had also whetted the masturbating public’s appetite for more down-and-dirty material. As John Waters gleefully points out, by the time the penetration-heavy, supposedly educational Pornography in Denmark was screened in a commericial theater in New York City in 1969, “there was no turning back.” Enter the swingers, suitcase pimps, bikers and biker mamas, would-be Godards, hippies, and goodfellas, who built on Denmark’s precedent to start producing “loops” that showed actual penises entering actual vaginas—or, in the case of the 1972 movie that McNeil uses to jump-start his history, the darkest reaches of the human esophagus.

Deep Throat wasn’t the first hardcore film, and its self-consciously cheesy premise (Linda Lovelace has a clitoris in her throat, yeah, yeah) is spent fuel for the tedious “Is pornography art?” debate. Still, McNeil skillfully throws the movie out there and watches its stars, its producers, the prosecutors who attempted to jail them, the ACLU, Leftywood, and even Richard Nixon debate its meaning and impact on society. See Lovelace as a naive teen, whore, victim of domestic abuse, manipulative starlet, and the most famous person who allegedly had sex with Hugh Hefner, Sammy Davis Jr., and a dog (not simultaneously). See Harry Reems, her co-star, transform from bad actor to champion of freedom of expression and back again. Learn that Gerard Damiano, Deep Throat’s director, has been called the “Mike Nichols and Ingmar Bergman of porno films.” Read about the assorted trials surrounding the film and find it hard to sympathize with either the priggish right-wingers who tried to crush it into oblivion or the slick Mafiosi who controlled its distribution through nationwide criminal conspiracies. McNeil makes a powerful point by starting, then staying out of, this dogfight.

Once its authors set up this MO, The Other Hollywood segues effortlessly through the ’70s, ’80s, and beyond, asking, but not answering, the endless series of questions raised by the complex porn diaspora. McNeil could discuss the position of women in porn through reference to Lovelace’s flip-flop about her role in Deep Throat before the Meese Commission, but he sticks to her terrible admissions: “I suffered a brutal beating in my room for smiling on the set [from then-husband/manager Chuck Traynor]…. Nobody, not one person, came to help me.” He could expound on the frightening psychological cost of the business when explaining how 15 years in porn killed John Holmes, turning him from a handsome, vitamin-popping, well-hung stud into an impotent, HIV-positive cocaine addict connected to brutal drug-related murders. Instead, he has Laurie Holmes, John Holmes’ widow, explaining in Raymond Chandler deadpan her husband’s decision to continue working after his AIDS diagnosis: “The theory was that he had gotten AIDS from inside the business. He just figured, if they don’t get it from me or they don’t already have it, they’re going to end up with it anyway…We needed the money…”

Because any discussion of pornography—where definitions of subject and object are complicated by sexual mores, twisted legal realities, and, as often as not, marathon drug use—is necessarily a discussion of identity politics, McNeil does leave seats in the room for academics and high-art wannabes. He allows noted director Henri Pachard and a slew of porn celebs to expound on the difference between film and video in porn. (One goes so far as to say, “Film had soul; video has nothing.”) And Andrea Dworkin gets to weigh in: “[W]omen are raped and violated and humiliated until we discover that we like it and at that point we ask for more.” Mostly, though, McNeil sticks to what the old nudie-cutie directors called “pickles and beaver”—or the dirty bits left on the editing-room floor: He’s a megaphone for vicious gossip and torrid rumor—the ringmaster who knows that people come to the circus to check out the freaks.

Freaks, of course, are in no short supply, and their stories explode from The Other Hollywood in merry disorder. Undercover FBI agent Pat Livingston begins to believe he is the porn merchant whose identity he has constructed; his deterioration culminates in his arrest for shoplifting. Suicides, such as those of Viagra candidate Cal Jammer and Vince Neil/Slash girl du jour Savannah, sweep the industry, prompting the formation of the sex-worker support organization Protecting Adult Welfare. The AIDS crisis, manifested through the infection of Holmes, the staid-medical-student-turned-empowered-icon Tricia Deveraux, and the shady Marc Wallice, leads to the institution of mandatory testing, who-infected-whom HIV “genealogies,” and a witch hunt where the witches are very deadly and very real. Traci Lords’ films are condemned as child pornography, but not before her name has become an industry unto itself, ensuring a future tell-all autobiography and ironic role in the ever-present Mr. Waters’ Cry-Baby. Annie Sprinkle, perhaps the best example of a bona-fide feminist porn star in the anti-Dworkin, pro-Paglian tradition, transitions into performance art. Even Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson make a cameo.

It would be easy to breeze through some of these improbable episodes with a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction dismissiveness. But an anthropological approach is more useful: We can come to understand our culture’s obsession with an unmanageable phenomenon only by immersing ourselves in it. This is The Other Hollywood’s strength; it provides an immediacy of experience just short of fieldwork. And whatever baser instincts they may appeal to, its descriptions of bestiality and double penetration don’t allow you to decide whether to laugh or cry.

Of course, in writing about a closeted subculture with sub-subgenres ranging from incest to bukkake, no author can hope to be totally inclusive. McNeil and Osborne ably sketch the boundaries of their terrain, and their coverage is detailed in some areas (most notably Deep Throat), but it’s overly spare in others. The breakout XXX Internet universe requires a book in itself; it deserves more attention here. A Who’s-Who of porn would help when a reader must differentiate between Anthony “the Old Man” Peraino and Joseph “Joe the Whale” Peraino, as well as among a plethora of women with only one name. The always illuminating “Where are they now?” conclusion is likewise absent. Even Lovelace’s tragic death in a car accident in 2002 after completing a Penthouse spread and co-star Reems’ conversion to Christianity are omitted.

As a primer, though, The Other Hollywood is excellent. If nothing else, its existence reminds us that most of us share a dirty secret, whether it be a video or DVD at the back of the closet or that thing we like our partner to do with the toilet brush. As one star points out when discussing his decision to have bareback sex with a prostitute in Brazil during a depressive/alcoholic episode, “[p]ushing yourself to experience life to its fullest necessarily involves risk.” Here, though, taking some of the risk out of the equation, McNeil and Osborne let us have our cake and eat it, too.CP