September 19, 2008

Movie Review: Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon


Porn fans never seem to tire of peeking behind the scenes of the industry. A new documentary about the life and career of ’70s porn superstar Jack Wrangler offers an honest and unblinking look. Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, which has played the gay film festival circuit and in a few major U.S. cities, tells the story of the buff blond who appeared in more than 85 movies—both gay and straight—for almost a decade. In that time, he honed the image of an iconic hypermasculine Marlboro man, but his real life and self-image were very different.

Born to a producer dad and a model mom, Wrangler grew up as Jack Stillman in a strict Presbyterian home in Beverly Hills. He had early aspirations to sing, dance and act, and landed on a religious TV show as a kid. He did guest spots on Medical Center and The Mod Squad and even won on The Dating Game. But when his legit career didn’t take off, Wrangler found himself feeling unattractive, inadequate and fighting his desires to be with men. He went on the road to direct dinner theater with old-time stars such as Betty Hutton and Gale Storm, but it wasn’t until he started working as a stripper that he found his true calling.

Wrangler’s rugged good looks and worked-out body got him lots of attention, and he ended up on the cover of numerous gay magazines of the day. Director Joe Gage took notice and cast him in his seminal film Kansas City Trucking Company. From there, Wrangler went on to appear in numerous movies, including classics such as Wanted (with Al Parker), A Night at the Adonis (the first gay film to use the steadicam, according to Wrangler) and the 3-D epic Heavy Equipment. He also toured extensively with his live show. Along the way, he invented a character that became the idol of gay men. In an effort to expand his audience, Wrangler moved to the straight side and was equally successful in films such as Jack ’n Jill, Roommates and China Sisters.

Wrangler’s career path is narrated in the documentary by a slew of big-name porn talking heads, including directors Gino Colbert, Joe Gage, Chi Chi LaRue and Jerry Douglas, among others. In numerous sound bites, they all praise Wrangler’s professionalism and skills as a screen stud, not to mention his hammy acting style. Director Jeffrey Schwarz includes many campy clips and interesting tidbits (Wrangler got his last name from a denim work shirt, which became an integral part of his onstage persona), and the theme song Wrangler writes and sings for one of his films, titled “Smoggy City,” is a scream! But the experts are quick to point out that he was also a shrewd businessman and was the first porn star to realize the potential of marketing and branding himself.

The movie takes a turn for the personal when Wrangler starts dating song stylist Margaret Whiting (20 years his senior…and a woman!) and eventually marries her. Whiting’s daughter, Debbi, gives some of the most humorous and revealing quotes about her relationship to the gay porn star who moved in on and with her mother. Wrangler is honest about his romantic feelings for Whiting and recounts how she told him, “Jack, you’re only gay around the edges.” In the end, one gets the feeling that sex had little do with his decision to spend the rest of his years with his soul mate, who turned out to be a woman.

Wrangler himself is also interviewed and is eager to share anecdotes from his life; now a distinguished but still handsome senior, he comes across as a good-natured dork who just happens to have done porn in a previous life. He is a likable, funny, nice guy. But the movie is best when it gets serious and places his story in the context of the times. It doesn’t shy away from addressing the larger issues, such as homophobia, how the advent of AIDS changed the industry and how Hollywood’s ideal of masculinity, reflected in stars such as Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter (who were also gay but closeted), helped shape Wrangler and his generation. The film also serves as a concise primer on the history of gay porn. All in all, Wrangler is a flattering portrait of a timeless star who says his main goal was “to be lusted after.” Mission accomplished, Jack. (Automat Pictures)

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