The backroom. A shadowy era from a continually vanishing creature known as the video rental store. Dusty shelves holding boxes and cases, each one promising thrills more lusty and lurid than the next. Covers screaming girl parts, boy parts and everything your little id could desire. However, there are films, yes films, that are more than that. Like the sexy genius of your dreams, there is more than just a body to some of these titles.
Welcome to Notes from the Backroom. Consider this feature to be not just film writing madness, but also a little slice of cultural deprogramming. So many great films get overlooked or snickered at just because of a matter of ingredients. Lenny Bruce once said, “If a titty is pretty, it’s dirty but not if it’s bloody or maimed.” and that was in the early 1960’s. That attitude has not, despite the coming of the Sexual Revolution, changed that much, especially with film and art in general.
If you really think about it, which is more exploitative and offensive; James L. Brooks treacly, weep fest Terms of Endearment (which is emotional pornography if ever there was) or Gerard Damiano’s moody, erotic-art house film, Devil in Miss Jones? Here’s a hint: It’s not the one that is actually really good and stars Georgina Spelvin. Another hint: It’s also not the one that treats the viewer like a thinking, complex adult that would never ever be aired on Lifetime.
So let your loins co-mingle with your intellect, throw on a smoking jacket, pour yourself a stiff drink and excuse the dust on the shelves. Welcome to the back room.
To kick things off properly, we begin with the crème de la crème of erotic cinema, the one and only Radley Metzger aka Henry Paris and his 1977 film Barbara Broadcast. Metzger began his film making career in the 1960’s and was responsible for some of the most striking, visually lush, elegant and layered erotic films. Titles like Camille 2000 (1969) and The Lickerish Quartet (1970) are as jewel-like now as they were over forty years ago.
As the cultural and cinematic tides flowed more and more toward sexually provocative imagery, with the inevitable arrival of unsimulated sex in the 1970’s, Metzger was no exception. Under the moniker Henry Paris, created both to separate his softcore and hardcore work and also to avoid any potential legal prosecution, Metzger crafted some of the most exquisitely produced erotic films of the decade. While 1976’s The Opening of Misty Beethoven is considered to be the big daddy of the Paris filmography, Metzger’s follow-up, Barbara Broadcast is no slouch either.
The film opens with some terrific airy music over great shots of a bustling New York City, automatically setting the tone for a cheeky, well-bred and sophisticated urban ride. Soon we’re at an exquisitely chi-chi restaurant, filmed at the then Royal Manhattan Hotel, now the Milford Plaza, with the Maitre’d (Bobby Astyr) overseeing everything with a quiet sense of efficiency. The waiters are neat and the waitresses pleasant and perfectly manicured, whether it is serving the customers coffee, salad or an assortment of sensual delights.
The first customer we see is a highly distinguished and bearded Zebedy Colt, looking a million miles away from his stellar turn as a cross-dressing, little boy acting psycho-sexual killer in 1976’s Sex Wish. It’s not long before we get to meet the titular Barbara Broadcast (Annette Haven), a famous hooker and bestselling author. Amid continual interruptions ranging from two daffy older ladies wanting their books autographed to a shy, conservative young man who just wants a little head, Barbara is at the hotel to be interviewed by journalist Roberta (C.J. Laing). It’s not long before both the spell of the restaurant and Barbara herself lead the curious Roberta on one very pleasurable path.
Like the fluffiest pastry in a sweetshop, what Barbara Broadcast lacks in substance, it more than makes up for in design and sugar. Metzger’s work is known for its eye candy and this film is no exception, with every frame looking like a perfectly composed piece of art. Anyone who thinks human sexuality is an ugly affair has obviously never seen a Radley Metzger film, with visual depth playing out like an ode to physical sensuality in its most warm, lovely and luscious moments.
The cast is a veritable who’s who in East Coast 1970’s adult films. In addition to the aforementioned Colt, Astyr, Laing and Haven, there are also such notables as Sharon Mitchell, Jamie Gillis, Michael Gaunt, Wade Nichols, Alan Marlowe, Clea Carson, Susan McBain and Constance Money. Annette Haven looks lovely, per usual, but the real star of Barbara Broadcast is, without a doubt, Ms. C.J. Laing. While Haven looks pretty, smiles and does all the right tricks, C.J. is the one that burns it up, with an undeniable warm charisma and an earthiness that Haven lacks. Laing has never looked more luminescent than she does here. It is telling that it is Laing’s face on the gorgeous poster art for Barbara Broadcast and not Haven’s.
The absolute highlight of the film is the infamous scene in the hotel’s kitchen between Laing and the ridiculously handsome Wade Nichols. Barbara leaves Roberta for awhile, promising to come back, but in the meantime, tells her to give her compliments to the Chef. That may sound like a silly lead-in, but what plays out is anything but silly. Instead the scene ends up being a beautifully orchestrated pas-de-deux of eye contact, steam heat and some of the strongest physical chemistry ever committed to celluloid. It’s even doubly impressive knowing that Nichols was a straight-for-pay actor (excluding Boynapped, which also featured Gillis.) Proof that chemistry can transcend orientation? Well it’s either that or the two of them should have received Oscars. The way these two look at each other is a thing of absolute hot wonder. It makes one wish that they had done more scenes together. The cherry on top has to be the way Nichols kisses her head, ending the intense, sweat drenched scene on an incredibly sweet, tender note.
The rest of the scenes are great, too, including one with Barbara meeting a client, a young Michael Gaunt who plays an ambitious businessman taking a little bit of a break before a big meeting. There’s zero dialogue between the two, emphasizing their physical interaction. With actors like Haven and Gaunt, this works quite well, something that he himself notes in one of the many fantastic supplements on the multi-disc Distribpix release of Barbara Broadcast. Getting to see Gaunt reflect on his beginnings and his work on Barbara Broadcast is a total joy. The man is as great a storyteller as he is an actor and anyone who has seen him in such masterpieces as Roger Watkins’ American Babylon knows that is a gravitas-laden statement.
Speaking of American Babylon, Gaunt’s brilliant co-star in that film, Bobby Astyr, is equally great in Barbara Broadcast. Granted, Astyr was one of those actors who was incapable of every truly being bad or even mediocre and he shines as the consistently irritated Maitre’d, whether he is being orally serviced by a clumsy waitress (or customer) or trying to get the ticket from his amorous staff.
One of the most fascinating things about Barbara Broadcast isn’t what it shows, but instead, what it doesn’t. In this age of fast-food porn, it is interesting to see an adult film display some subtle restraint. It’s nothing obvious, after all Metzger was never a director known for the obvious, but instead it is the interesting little touches. Case in point, when Susan McBain “borrows” Barbara’s waiter for some oral stimulation, Roberta asks if she can help out. Now current porn convention would make you think this means instant menage-a-trois action. However, what happens is that Roberta sits behind Susan, both ladies fully clothed, mind you, and puts her hand on her shoulder. No groping or anything, just a simple affectionate touch, which plays out further as she cleans Susan’s face after the waiter finishes. That touch is, in some ways, inherently more fascinating than the old slap and tickle. Another example of Metzger’s directorial finesse comes when McBain, looking up at the waiter afterwards, utters a verse from the Bible, “Thy rod and thy staff comfort me.” Like any great artist, Metzger gives you a lot, but out of a shared respect for the film and the audience, he doesn’t give you everything.
Proving to be the Rolls Royce of adult film distributors, Distribpix has shone through again with this gorgeous release. Barbara Broadcast has never looked or sounded better. It’s obvious that an immense amount of love and care went into this release, from the 28 page booklet to the fantastic extras, including commentary from Metzger himself, who is as sharp and classy as always. On top of that, they have released it uncut, including the often censored scenes with Laing peeing in a large metal bowl and some S&M interplay between Gillis and Constance Money. (The latter was originally filmed for The Opening of Misty Beethoven but Metzger wisely saved it for later since it would not have really fit the earlier film’s vibe.) I wish other distributors would take a cue from Distribpix and put even half as much care into their libraries.
Barbara Broadcast may not be heavy on plot, but is an exquisitely crafted film from one of the best American directors to have emerged in the last forty years. Radley Metzger is truly one of a kind.