My next choice of a Fox movie hat was neglected in their 75th Anniversary box set is Porky’s.
Yeah, that’s right: Porky’s. No, it’s not as classy an inclusion as, say, Gentleman’s Agreement, or as socially meritorious as The Diary of Anne Frank. Doesn’t have the literary chops of The Grapes of Wrath, and its Oscar nominations, 0, is nowhere near the haul of All About Eve’s 14.
But Porky’s is still, nonetheless, a classic. It became a phenomenal, surprise hit, raking in over 100 million against a budget of 25, despite near-universal negative reviews. And, probably most importantly, it begat a genre – the teen-sex comedy, a pop-cultural fixture for anyone who came of age during the Reagan era. So, face it Fox – you created this monster; own it, it’s yours, whether you like it or not.
But why was it such a huge hit? It’s funny, sure, but not hilarious. It produces knowing snickers, not guffaws. The acting, meh, the dialogue, pretty raunchy for its time but still nothing to set the world on fire. Why such a blockbuster?
Easy one. The shower scene.
Full-frontal nudity had been allowed in major films a good 12, 13 years prior, the floodgates opening with a 1957 Supreme Court Decision and then later the 1968 dissolution of the Hayes Code. American studio films like Medium Cool, M*A*S*H, Woodstock, A Clockwork Orange, Last Tango In Paris and The Last Picture Show showed female full-frontal nudity, mostly in fleeting shots but there nonetheless. This trend continued into the late 70s/early 80s - films like The Shining and Tarzan, the Ape Man come to mind – but overall the majors were decidedly shy about going all the way.
And then came Porky’s, in March of 1982. I remember it vividly, staying up late one night to watch it on HBO (which is how most preteen boys saw it, no doubt). At about the hour mark, with no buildup, just a simple cut from the black-eyed face of a supporting character (I’ll explain later), we see a medium-long shot of six “teen” girls showering, a POV shot of three male characters looking through a peephole. The one in front is facing us – we see everything – while the others are turned away, but wait! The next shot reveals all six to us - breasts, pubic area, everything. And that’s just what I thought when I saw this for the first time. Shit, they’re showing everything!
Because before this, they really weren’t. Carrie had a girls shower scene, but it was kind of foggy from the steam, and done in artsy slow-motion. Porky’s was crystal clear, and on the screen it must’ve been like the invention of Cinemascope. The only analogous example would be the shower scene from 1978’s Debbie Does Dallas, but that was porn, and because porn was only in theaters only perverts and dirty old men watched it. And even after, the multiple-girl shower scene was kept to a minimum, even in the genre Porky’s spawned. Of this lot, only 1983’s Private School had the guts to try it.
The funny thing is, I’m not even sure writer/director Bob Clark knew that would be his film’s selling point – his goal was to make a 50s coming of age film, replete with sex, sex. sex, and the full nudity was just necessary to make the obsession as accurate as possible. But Fox knew what they had; in fact, the shower peeping was the entire marketing campaign, on the posters and in the TV and movie trailers and everything. It sure as hell worked; Porky’s was the fifth-biggest grossing film of 1982.
And in looking back, shower-scene-cultural-significance aside, it’s not at all a bad film. The critics, though, had a field day with it – their main objection was the way it objectifies women, looking at them the way the adolescent protagonists do, as pieces of meat to be had, objects to leer at and salivate over – and conquer sexually. This all may be true, but quite frankly that’s what the film is about, and no, it’s not pretty. High school boys are flesh-masses of raging hormones, and their antics do happen to be sexist – they have all the social and relationship skills of tree fungus. No one criticized director Bob Clark’s other nostalgic film, A Christmas Story, over Ralphie’s obsession over getting a Red Rydrer rifle; why then did they take up arms over the same type of film with a timeframe only ten years removed?
I suppose a common response might be – the hooting and jeering over women may have more negative consequences, even in the conservative 50s, and that may be a valid point. My favorite male-coming–of-age film of all time, Saturday Night Fever, is a more mature film about sexual frustration, in part because it shows the ramifications of its lead character’s lusty ways – in one now-considered-rape scene in another near-rape scene, both involving women he failed to understand on a personal level. Perhaps Porky’s could do well to explore this more, but who? All its characters are horny and sophomoric, and anyways that isn’t exactly the tone of the film.
But the funny thing is, as randy and ribald as Porky’s sexual humor is, it really isn’t part of the main plot, occurring only as episodic vignettes throughout. In the beginning, we’re introduced to a bunch of middle-class teen boys from Angel Beach, Florida, circa 1954:
· Tim Cavanugh, sort of the ringleader but a hopeless bigot, mainly because of his brutal redneck dad.
· Billy McCarty, the tall, lanky one.
· “Pee Wee,” inexperienced but more than making up for it in eagerness.
· Tommy Turner, whose penal misadventure leads to personal vendetta by the girls’ head coach.
· “Meat,” the big guy, so-named for…. ahem.
· Brian Schwartz, the discriminated-against Jew, who turns out to be the sanest one of the pack.
· Mickey – learns his lesson at Porky’s, the hard way.
First, they get suckered into a prank in which they expect to score with a prostitute, only to have the pranksters scare the bejesus out of them with the woman’s big, black husband, a machete-wielding murderer. Then, one of the boys’ basketball coaches is curious to discover why Miss Honeywell, an insanely attractive girls’ coach, is nicknamed “Lassie”; he finds out when they have sex in the locker room and she howls uncontrollably, and audible to the entire school. Then, of course, the shower scene, with Tommy’s pecker getting pulled by Miss Balbicker like a bird pulls a worm out of the ground. And though it all, Pee Wee tries to get laid by Wendy, a girl he likes, which ostensibly happens during the end credits.
But the main theme here isn’t really about sex – it’s about the class wars between an upper middle-class community and its local, redneck neighbors. The boys of Angel Beach make the mistake of treading beyond their flamingo-strewn front yards, into the no-man’s land of the Everglades, where a club named Porky’s promises strippers and hookers aplenty just for the asking. Not perceiving they’re not wanted there, they pay up, only to get dumped into the swamp. When Mickey vows revenge, he is severely beaten by Porky’s thugs, who also happen to include the local police force. Now its time for the boys to get revenge; led by Schwarz (now redeemed in the eyes of his oppressor), and backed by the local sheriff, they concoct a scheme to drag the entire establishment into the bayou. Returning home, they get a hero’s welcome from the marching band.
And so it is for this reason that Porky’s actually holds up pretty well, even more than most of the entries in the gene it helped to create. But like many of these entries, like Fast Times and The Last American Virgin, it’s also rather grim and despairing. Most of the action here relies on humiliation, either self-imposed or inflicted on others (all of the pranks, Porky’s turf wars), and so it does leave a somewhat bitter taste after watching. (Perhaps that’s why so many critics derided it.) But again, that’s adolescence, and in the 50s, with racism and sexism so rampant, it was even worse.
So definitely a mixed bag here, but certainly more than meets the eye, and an indisputable classic no matter which side of the fence you’re on. But ultimately I give it:
(Oh, and BTW, Clark directed its sequel the next year: Porky’s II; The Next Day. Only 30 milion, a box-office dud. And guess what? No shower scene.)