Porn Again

Once a national sensation, Marilyn Chambers is finally ready to retire from the porn business

Running 15 minutes late, Marilyn Chambers bursts through the door of VIP with a smile that lights the store all the way to the latex section in back. "Good morning, everyone," she says, sounding like Julie the cruise director, only with a raspier voice. "How are you all doing?"

The place is tiny and filled with about a dozen men who scrunch closer together as an equal number rush in right behind Marilyn. Inside and out on the parking lot, they've been waiting to meet a pioneer who helped make porn OK for the masses, a woman who's survived nearly 30 years in the business, much to her own amazement.

She was 19 when she abandoned Marilyn Briggs to make Behind the Green Door, appropriating the name Chambers from a high-school classmate whose looks she admired. The 1972 movie, shot in 16mm, cost $60,000 and grossed $50 million, making it one of the best moneymakers in box-office history, a porn classic on a par with Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas. It didn't matter that Chambers didn't speak a single line. It didn't matter that she was a sexual neophyte, so nervous she smoked a joint before her first scene, a lesbian seven-way. It didn't matter that the projectionist mistakenly ran the third reel before the second at the San Francisco premiere.

Marilyn Chambers: "None of my marriages worked out. I'm very honest, brutally, to a point. Most men can't handle that."
Jennifer Silverberg
Marilyn Chambers: "None of my marriages worked out. I'm very honest, brutally, to a point. Most men can't handle that."
Procter & Gamble inadvertently gave Marilyn a publicity boost in the '70s when she was featured on a box of detergent.
Jennifer Silverberg
Procter & Gamble inadvertently gave Marilyn a publicity boost in the '70s when she was featured on a box of detergent.

It did help a lot that Procter & Gamble at the same time coincidentally started selling laundry soap in a box featuring Marilyn cradling a newborn infant, the symbol of Ivory Snow -- guaranteed pure. The company, which had shot the photo two years earlier, quickly pulled the box from shelves while Johnny Carson cracked jokes. Marilyn Chambers instantly became America's nastiest girl next door. She longed for mainstream stardom but never quite made it, coming closest with a starring role in Rabid, an R-rated 1977 horror flick by legendary cult-film director David Cronenberg, whose first choice for the lead was Sissy Spacek. But Chambers, whose acting is certainly no worse than the performances in a typical TV sitcom, proved a natural-born porn queen. Ten years after Green Door, she hit it big again with Insatiable, a 1980 release that became one of the biggest sellers in the early days of video. The film helped establish anal sex as de rigueur in the modern porn production, and it remains her favorite performance. "I felt, probably, the most beautiful," she says. "I was 28. I was healthy and gorgeous and had the world at my feet, and it showed." She commanded $100,000 per picture, a fortune in an industry known for paying $1,000 per scene to actresses willing to be penetrated in all kinds of ways for all the world to see.

Nowadays, she's 49 and still working. She looks her age -- long gone is the flat-chested Marilyn who seduced a nation with her wicked innocence. She no longer receives death threats and no longer travels with the two bodyguards who accompanied her everywhere back in the '70s. Reviews of her latest two videos, part of a three-picture comeback deal, have been mixed. Some have been vicious. "Marilyn looks old and fat and tries to cover herself using the modified extended cummerbund method in all scenes but is unsuccessful in dispelling the idea that you might need a forklift to turn her over," writes online porn critic Pat Riley in a review of Still Insatiable, released in 1999.

The arrows wound. "It hurts so bad," Chambers confesses. "They're mocking you, telling you go put your clothes back on. I can't allow that to happen. It's stupid. But they're right. Enough is enough. I'm tired. I'm tired of the bullshit. I don't mean to sound so bitter. I'm getting too old. I felt like I should have never done the last movies I've done." And so Edge Play, due for release this summer, will be her last film -- she swears.

The money is still good whether the cameras roll or not. Today, Chambers will make more in appearance fees with her clothes on than most X-rated actresses make for a 12-hour shoot. Old or not, Rubenesque or not, Marilyn still packs them in. Chaos briefly threatens as fans crowd the counter where she stands, attired in baggy ivory pants, white sandals and a loose blue shirt, mostly unbuttoned so as to highlight a baby-blue-and-white bustier that threatens to burst at any second. "We have to take it from one direction," store owner Howard Richman says as he tells the crowd to form a line. "Anyone who would like a Polaroid, they're $20, and Marilyn will autograph them for you. Who was in line first? I want to be fair to everyone."

Something is wrong -- Marilyn calls Richman into a stockroom for a brief whispered conference. She insists on signing anything fans bring to her, whether they bought the item at VIP or not. Richman agrees but says his customers get to go first. And everyone gets a signed publicity photo for free. She comes back and proclaims, "I promise I will not leave until I sign anything."

First in line is Robert A. Cohn, editor and publisher of the St. Louis Jewish Light, who professes that he's never been to this place before. Cohn has been reviewing movies more than 30 years and remembers when Green Door garnered serious attention from critics at the New York Times and Broadway produced a musical called Let My People Come that centered on a young woman who made her porn-star ambitions known in a song titled "Linda, Georgina, Marilyn and Me." Cohn is here because he sees Chambers as part of a progression in cinematic history, along with Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Midler and Sharon Stone. "She's clearly an important figure in the social history of the United States," Cohn says. "Early in the women's movement, the sexual empowerment of women was an important issue -- not just reproductive rights but the whole idea that a woman was entitled to a healthy and exuberant sexuality. She was an important part of the sexual revolution in that she and others empowered women to have an exuberant and spontaneous and fully enjoyable sexuality. What Marilyn Monroe and Marilyn Chambers contributed was, you have these characteristics, you have these longings and these feelings. It's just as much OK for you to act on it as anyone else."

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