Problematic Movies of the ’80s | Porky’s (1981)
Back in the ’90s, in my theater producing/directing days, we created a triptych anthology play composed of three 20-minute plays based on pornographic pulp novels from the 1960s. The challenge for the pieces was how to show graphic sexual content onstage without getting naked and actually showing graphic sexual content. We created an oversexed Rod Serling character to play host and we called it Monte la Grosjambe presents Sex est une Femme.
One of the frequent arguments in those days among the company was poster art. Some saw the art as an extension of the play and should therefore follow the same artistic vision. Others (myself included) argued that the poster art was for one thing and one thing only: Get butts in seats. Given that I was the producer (and was paying for the posters) my vision won the day. “Put sex in the title, put a pair of artistically rendered naked tits on the poster and give a discount for ‘you and a sexual partner’ and the thing will sell,” I declared like a bizarre Off Loop theater version of a Weinstein.
I was right. Despite getting some dismal reviews (Chris Jones, now the Tribune head critic, called it “…sex est une bore…” for NewCity), we sold almost every night out for the six-week run. With no nudity in the show, perhaps this was a bit of bait and switch but it worked nonetheless. And after all of the angst the poster art caused the cast, it was almost immediately forgotten in the wake of full houses laughing and appreciating the work onstage.
As I dive into some of these ’80s staples, I wonder why anyone thought that some of these films would be anything but crap. I mean, Sixteen Candles cost 6.5 million bucks to make. Some assholes spent 8 million dollars to make Revenge of the Nerds. On the lower end, the Porky’s budget was 4 million bones. Why would they risk that much dough to make movies that place rapey-ness, objectification of women, homophobic attitudes and almost entirely white people in the casts as the centerpieces of artistry?
Butts in seats.
Porky’s made 105 million bucks at the box office. The Best Picture winner of 1981, Ordinary People only made $54 million. Raging Bull, while an extraordinary artistic success, made $23 million. Ragtime, one of the very few movies of 1981 that featured black people, made $11 million.
Hollywood isn’t a charity, gang. It’s a business. Why would these comedies get greenlit? Because we bought the tickets to see them so they made some more just like them.
Honestly, in getting ready for this one, I procrastinated for a few days. I didn’t really want to watch Porky’s again. The poster image is of a dude peeping at a woman in a shower for chrissakes! After Bachelor Party, I felt like watching another would feel like punishment but this is the trap I’ve set for myself. So, on a Friday afternoon, I sat down and hit play.
Written and Directed by Bob Clark
Here’s the description of the movie on iTunes:
The boys at Angel Beach High, 1954, have one thing on their minds. And Porky's is the place to get it — if you're old enough to get in. But after the six frustrated teenagers get thrown out of the local honky-tonk by Porky himself (because they're underage), they vow to wreak havoc on the place in revenge. Meanwhile, the dirty half-dozen cavort through adolescence in comic confusion, bound together by dirty jokes, outrageous pranks, dreams of scoring, and the peephole into the girl's shower at school… Rowdy, raucous, raunchy. Come to Porky's for a good time and see the movie that started it all!
Perhaps it was my extremely low expectations or being so shocked at how bad Bachelor Party was but I have to admit, Porky’s was far better than I expected. Like American Graffiti if it had been a bit more honest about how genuinely stupid teenagers were in the ’50s. Bear with me on this one.
The movie opens with Pee Wee (Dan Monahan) asleep. It’s morning, the radio is setting up the time period and the camera reveals that Pee Wee is both asleep and has a boner tent. His mother comes in, he wakes up and hides his morning wood. She leaves, he grabs a ruler and measures his johnson then pulls from under the mattress a growth chart. “Oh, it is. It’s getting shorter! Shit!”
The plot is also pretty simple. It’s high school in 1954. The group of guys who comprise the core group play a non-stop series of dumb practical jokes on one another. Most of the film is made up of one such joke after the other. Some are funny (Pee Wee getting Wendy, played by Kaki Hunter, to announce on the loudspeaker that she’s looking for Mike Hunt), some are dumb (Pee Wee being fooled into smashing an egg on Meat’s face), but the simple constant in Porky’s is these idiots playing gags on one another.
The narrative threads in between punkings is three-fold: The boys take Pee Wee to a honky-tonk bar on the outskirts called Porky’s to pay for hookers so Pee Wee can pop his cherry, get pranked by the owner (Chuck Mitchell), and after one of them (Roger Wilson) keeps going back and getting beaten up, vow to get even. Second is the boy with the terribly racist, brutal father who is himself vocally anti-Semitic and bullies the school’s one Jewish boy. The third involves Tommy (Wyatt Knight) as he needles the girl’s gym coach, Ms. Balbricker (Nancy Parsons) until she pretty much loses it from watching him get away with everything consequence-free.
In the end, the kids destroy Porky’s bar, Tim (the bigot kid) and Schwartz (the Jewish kid) become friends, and Pee Wee finally gets laid.
Problematic Moments & Themes
OK. Some of this is ugly. Within the first five minutes one of the characters uses the word “n*gg*r” and is quickly told that, “They’re called negroes.” It’s jarring in 2018 to even hear the word said out loud.
Once again, there’s only one black actor in the entire movie (I even think he’s uncredited because I couldn’t find him in IMdB anywhere) and he plays the aforementioned “negro” who is cast as a stereotypical angry black man with a machete to scare the shit out of the boys as they try to get with prostitute Cherry Forever (Susan Clark). The fact that he is in on the joke and laughing for most of his scene does not help.
It’s this casual ignoring of black people (and POC in general) in these movies that’s starting to paint a truly nasty trend that I failed to see before. It shouldn’t feel so revolutionary for J.J. Abrams to cast a black actor as a lead in Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015, but it was.
There’s also Tim (Cyril O’Reilly) who plays the bigoted kid as he harasses Schwartz (Scott Colomby):
Tim : Anybody wanna go fly a kite with me tonight? I hear it's great weather for flying KITES! I wonder if there's any KITES around here we can fly!
Brian Schwartz : Hey listen, Cavanaugh. It's not kite, it's KIKE! K-I-K-E, "kike." You know, you're too stupid to even be a good bigot!
While clumsy in its execution, this plot-line makes an attempt at addressing bigotry (surprising in a movie billed as high jinks and tits) by first showing that Tim comes from a poison tree (his abusive father), his friends explain to Schwartz that while Tim is an asshole, he’s still a good guy and by having Tim slowly learn to distance himself from his father’s example and ultimately befriend Schwartz. Like I say, the execution is awkward and Tim’s final words to his father (“Being a man? If being a man means being you, I'd rather be queer.”) smacks of an entirely different strain of bigotry.
And yes, we have the titular peeping tom scene with Pee Wee, Tommy and Billy sneaking in to stare at the naked girls in the shower. This is as problematic as it comes for these sorts of comedies but the actual scenes aren’t as gratuitous as I remembered. The first time the idea is introduced, the skeevy pervs are too late to see anything. The second time, there is exactly eight seconds of actual nudity shown in a scene that lasts almost four minutes. The joke becomes evident once, seconds in, Pee Wee’s peephole is covered by the ass of a heavy girl and from that point on, it is the thwarted attempts to see anything salacious that takes over. In terms of “Let’s show a lot of boobs” scale, Bachelor Party has easily 57 more boobs shown than Porky’s.
Yes, the fat shaming of an overweight girl naked in a shower is pretty fucking awful, too. It also makes me wonder how much she got paid for this lifelong humiliation.
In fact, aside from the fact that the boys are constantly obsessed with having sex, which is unsurprising for a bunch of high school boys, the thing is rather benign if not horribly juvenile. Nothing rapey or terribly aggressive. The girl Wendy who is revealed to be the easy girl with the guys is never presented as slutty or treated as anything more than just one of the gang. The worst treatment any woman gets in this film is Ms. Balbricker who, following the shower scene, grabs hold of Tommy’s cock and then reports it to the principal. Her genuine report of sexual deviance is met with laughter.
Did it Hold Up?
While far better than I had expected, Porky’s is troubling more in the fact that it is funnier than I remembered and actually tries to deal with a few issues I’d forgotten, it still represents a lot of what is wrong with these films of my youth. Due to the time frame (the ’50s) the movie gets away with certain tropes that we find hard to swallow in today’s pop culture which eases the viewing yet still proliferates a certain mentality that I don’t think works anymore.
Scale of 1 to 10
1 = Classic
10 = Burn all VHS copies of it
Porky’s gets a 7
Next Up: Weird Science (1985)