I went to see Wrangler: Anatomy Of An Icon (the most literal subtitle ever) by Jeffrey Schwarz at New Fest the other night, and while I was disappointed that Jack himself couldn’t attend due to a respiratory illness, I had a lot of fun. We got there early enough to stake out a good spot in the non-members line, only to watch helplessly as the member line swelled to Jack Wrangler proportions. Luckily, we went with Kenneth of KennethInThe212 and his partner Michael (of MichaelAlsoInThe212,Bitch), and Michael simply entered via the member line to save us three seats...the ‘Fest could use more volunteers, by the way!
The movie is a very straightforward bio of the very gayforward Jack Stillman, a self-conscious towhead from Cali who grew up to be a legendary gay and straight pornstar, not to mention hardcore’s first bona fide brand (who doesn’t remember those Jac Pack ads?).
The film is largely narrated by Jack himself, who at 62 is still handsome if markedly less rugged than his on-screen, Marlboro Man-light image. If anything bothered me about the film, it was just how much of it came out of Jack’s mouth and the linear order in which it came out—it is the kind of film that starts with “I was born...” and ends with “I am now...” But this is a minor quibble.
Despite a flurry of full-nude still photos and some quick seXXX-rated clips, the story of Jack Wrangler is most interesting in that he met and fell in love with my fellow Michigoose Margaret Whiting, a celebrated songbird (and one of the Four Girls Four) old enough to be his mother. The pair have been together for 30+ years despite the fact that Wrangler explicitly admits he is a gay man in the film, detailing their at first “uncomfortable” (but important for her) and later non-existent lovemaking. That’s right, he’s gay—not ex-gay, not bi, but a gay man who has chosen to abstain out of respect for the woman he loves.
Check out this lovely (prophetic?) version of "My Foolish Heart" by Whiting
Because of this unusual relationship, Whiting’s daughter Debbi becomes a key figure in the film—she is the one voicing the feelings of the audience, asking what these two see in each other. Her tart remembrances of battle lines drawn are a riot, and it’s very sweet to see that she has now been somewhat won over. She appeared at the screening and did confess there is still some tension, but it would appear that she has reconciled with the fact that Jack has been good for her mother. She also points out the common denominators between the seemingly disparate spirits, both of whom are children of showbiz. (Whiting's father was the noted composer of songs like "Ain't We Got Fun" and "On The Good Ship Lollipop," Wrangler's dad was a movie producer.) It's kind of great that an old broad would not be fazed by a young hunk taking it up the ass in movies, and would instead be proud to be "his lady." I mean...what would Rose Marie say?
In this clip from the post-screening Q&A session, Margaret Whiting’s daughter describes a double-date she went on with her mom and Jack…to one of his movies:
Funniest part is that when asked if she’ll do a book, she references Joan (meaning Christina) Crawford!
AIDS is touched on, too—considering his sex life in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, he’s very lucky to have dodged HIV, and admits in the film that had he not committed to Whiting, he’d likely be dead. It’s not dwelled upon, but one wonders if this could be one small part of what has bonded him to her loyally for decades?
It is tempting to bash him, and he has already taken his licks over the years for trading gay for straight porn, and trading gay sex for a straight marriage. But Jack’s honesty in speaking of their union definitely helps to distance their situation from, say, the late Martha Raye’s icky, late-life wedding to someone who seemed more like an opportunistic gay fan than a soulmate. (Maybe I’m wrong there—they should make that movie next and I’ll watch it and see.)
Wrangler is such a character—I would really love to see him brought to life in a biopic. Throughout the film, his acting abilities are praised, when in reality he wasn’t the best actor in porn, he was the most actor in porn. Everything that comes out of his mouth, in character on film or just in character as Jack Wrangler, is delivered momentously, self-consciously, very J. Peterman. I kept thinking Steve Carell could do him justice because even when he’s being serious, he is funny in an endearing way. (Less flatteringly, Tom Cruise...) Check out this live appearance from Saugatuck, MI:
The film is spiced up by original interviews with seminal sex stars and directors such as Gino Colbert, Jerry Douglas, Candida Royale, Samantha Fox, Joe Gage, Jamie Gillis, Chi Chi LaRue, Sharon Mitchell and Gloria Leonard, as well as friends like legendary gay editor Michael Denneny (who I used to work with and who hasn’t aged in 15 years—I wish I’d seen him after to say hi), Bruce Vilanch, Christine Ebersole and many more.
I wasn’t in love with the use of campy stock footage to fill in the blanks about Jack’s childhood, but that standard device was canceled out by the creative use of appropriate snips from Jack’s movies that seemed to comment on narration that has just occurred, in a very Rock Hudson’s Home Movies way.
This 82-minute feature was a pleasure to watch—it even has the ultimate money shot: 83-year-old Margaret Whiting herself speaking about the man she married, who’s only gay "around the edges."