When Julia St. Vincent was filming Exhausted, her documentary on the life and career of John C. Holmes in 1981, Holmes was famous enough that she was able to walk down the street with a video camera and find a large number of random pedestrians who not only knew who Holmes was and that his dick was huge, but had something significant to say about him. In watching Exhausted, I could not help but wonder if there is a male porn star working today who enjoys a comparable level of fame.
With the obvious exception of Ron Jeremy, the answer seems to be a resounding NO. What average man or woman on the street knows the name Mr. Pete or Mr. Marcus, Lex Steele or Peter North? Even given their impressive discographies and accomplishments, both in front of and behind the camera, none of these men or any of the other big name cock jockeys in the industry today, are able to muster the sort of cultural currency Holmes could bring to the table back in his prime. And Ron Jeremy, the one recognizable name I’ve mentioned, is himself more a holdover from the Holmes era than he is a modern day heir to Holmes’ position as the most famous male porn actor in America.
Why is it that when we watch stroke films today we aren’t interested in knowing who that is up on our televisions stretching out the orifices of yet another nubile, starving college student? Is it because there was something special about Holmes himself, something that no porn star since has been able to, ahem, measure up to? I don’t think that can be the answer; because the only thing Holmes really had going for him was the fact that he was, in his own words, “overtly large.” There is no denying that the man had a huge dick, but it wasn’t the largest I’ve ever seen, and I am far from being a cock connoisseur. Combat Zone’s Shorty Mac definitely has a bigger cock, and the vast majority of Americans have no fucking idea who he is, so the answer can’t be as simple as size equals fame.
The key to this conundrum is that there are a lot of aspects beyond male name recognition that porn had when John Holmes was alive and fucking that it doesn’t have today: mustaches, giant hairy bushes, kickin’ soundtracks, extended tender nipple licking sequences, and plot lines, to name just a few. It was to the tender nipple licking and the plot lines, I think, that Holmes really owed his notoriety.
Let’s look at plot lines first. Yes, Holmes was a terrible actor, and yes, the plots of his films were facile and ridiculous. But at least he and his directors and co-stars tried. When was the last time you saw a gunfight in an adult film? Chances are, if you started watching porn after the eighties, that you’ve never fucking seen one at all. Today’s porn pervs don’t give a fuck what a contemporary male porn star’s name is. A nome de porn is merely used to differentiate performers and these guys aren’t doing anything unique. They’re there because they have dicks and can get them hard on camera; they are essentially operating a piece of equipment, in the same way that the camera man does. Hence the term ‘cock jockey’. Most of the time the camera never even touches these men’s faces. Holmes, on the other hand, did something on camera besides fuck. Johnny Wadd wasn’t a porn name, it was a character’s name — a shallow, badly written and terribly acted character, sure, but a character nonetheless. Mr. Pete isn’t a character; it’s the fake name Richard Decelles fucks and films under.
And what about the tender nipple licking? Well, about halfway through Exhausted, St. Vincent is interviewing a creepy little European guy with a seriously intense comb over, and this weirdo suggests that Holmes is not a man but a machine. “What kind of machine?” St. Vincent asks. “A love machine,” the weirdo replies. St. Vincent then suggests ‘sex machine’ instead, but I think the weirdo got it right the first time. In many of his scenes Holmes does appear to be ‘making love’ to the women he is with. Instead of the now standard whore-rubbing-herself-and-spreading-her-lips intro, there are women stripping, slowly and sexily, women who appear to really want Holmes inside of them. Instead of jackhammer pounding, throat gagging, spitting in the girl’s face and other forms of shock value degradation, there are moments of what look like real tenderness in Holmes’ scenes and sex that would be fun to actually have. Even the Johnny Wadd rape scenes are, on average, more sensual than the filth filmed and marketed as adult entertainment today.
Despite my own musings, it’s safe to say most people will agree John C. Holmes was a sex symbol and a household name back in his heyday. And despite the fact that nearly every piece of ‘information’ presented in Exhausted is bullshit (Holmes’ claims regarding UCLA and the number of women he fucked, the complete lack of reference to his debilitating drug habit or the Wonderland murders, the way he comes across as some weird hyper-sexual combination of Jesus, JFK, and King Kong) the film provides a very interesting and stimulating view into an era when pornography was more than just gonzo extremism. The actual sex scenes included in the film, although mostly fragmentary, are the sort of scenes I would watch with a woman. Holmes may have been just as much of an asshole and a degenerate as anyone else in the business, but I’m not ashamed of myself after jerking off to one of his scenes. I’d even go out on a limb and say Exhausted has inspired me to go out and have better sex in real life. —MP