Robin’s Underrated Gems: Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes (1999)

This week, “Robin’s Underrated Gems” is going to expand its horizons a little bit by tackling a film which should appeal to fans of both The Back Row and The Velvet Rope. Today, I will be examining a terrific documentary about the most iconic and influential porn star of all time, Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes. There are very few adult film stars who are so famous that their name is known even by those who wouldn’t be caught dead watching a porno. Ron Jeremy and Jenna Jameson are two of the only names that come to mind, but you could also make that case for John Holmes, who was the world’s first true porn star and a major household name during the 1970s. And it was all due to a one-of-a-kind reproductive organ that measured 13-15 inches (depending on who you believe). Anyway, in 2003, Val Kilmer played John Holmes in a film called Wonderland, and some people were disappointed when they discovered it did not cover Holmes’ porn career at all and focused entirely on the 1981 Wonderland murders that he was involved with. However, the character of Dirk Diggler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s renowned Boogie Nights was so obviously modeled on Holmes that doing a full biopic about the actual man might have felt redundant. Lion’s Gate addressed this issue when Wonderland was released on DVD, as they decided to include a bonus disc containing the 1999 documentary, Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes. If you watched Wonderland and wanted to learn more about its main protagonist, you could just pop in the DVD for Wadd, which paints a very harrowing, but fascinating portrait of the man.

Wadd starts out as a fairly humorous and light-hearted look at the evolution of the adult entertainment industry and reminisces about a time when filming or possessing hardcore pornography could land you in jail. Adult films finally garnered huge popularity and mainstream acceptance in the 1970s and the very first breakthrough star in that industry was John Holmes, a skinny, average-looking guy who seemed like an unlikely candidate for success. However, once he took off his pants and showed his credentials, a star was born. As one former porn director states in this film: “John Holmes was to the adult film industry what Elvis Presley was to rock-and-roll”. Holmes’ career really skyrocketed when he took on the role of a private detective character named Johnny Wadd, leading to a series of very popular adult films that actually contained a fully rounded plot in addition to hardcore sex scenes. A lot of highly exaggerated stories about Holmes were concocted in order to add to his legend, such as his claim about having had sex with 14,000 women, but most of them were complete bullshit. Wadd features numerous clips of Holmes’ work (though nothing hardcore, so that it could earn an “R” rating from the MPAA) and a lot of prominent figures in the adult entertainment industry are interviewed. Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson also chimes in with his thoughts. and after watching Wadd, you can see just how much John Holmes inspired the character of Dirk Diggler. I’m sure many of you remember this hilarious sequence from Boogie Nights where a documentary about Dirk Diggler is produced.

The entire sequence was obviously modeled on a 1981 documentary about John Holmes called Exhausted. During Wadd, you see that certain sections of the Boogie Nights documentary were taken verbatim from Exhausted, particularly the scene Holmes brags about his director letting him block his own sex scenes. Of course, it’s pretty obvious that John Holmes was a pathological liar who often started to believe some of the lies he created about himself. One of the most amusing moments in Wadd comes after the film details John’s unhappy childhood with his siblings, and they cut to an interview clip of him claiming he has no brothers or sisters. Wadd starts down a path into very dark territory once it covers Holmes’ descent into cocaine addiction and does not shy away from revealing what a truly deplorable person he could be. Before his success in the porn industry, John got married to a young nurse named Sharon, who did not approve of his lifestyle choice. They lived together in a loveless, sex-free marriage when John became romantically involved with a 15-year old girl named Dawn and eventually allowed his mistress to move in with them! Wadd reveals some pretty harrowing details about the twisted relationship between John and Dawn and how badly he could treat the women in his life, and then moves into his legal troubles after being implicated in the brutal drug-related murders of four people on Wonderland Avenue in Los Angeles. While John was acquitted for his role in the crime, his life would still continue on a downward spiral. He would eventually be diagnosed as being HIV positive and died of AIDS-related complications in 1988. Holmes’ death lead to the pioneering of HIV testing in the adult film industry, but because he was so desperate for money at that point, he still chose to go make a porn film in Italy without telling them he was HIV positive! He didn’t seem to have any qualms abou this since he apparently said that everyone in the industry was eventually going to die of AIDS anyway! If you’ll excuse my clichéd analogy, watching a chronicle of John Holmes’ life is almost like viewing a car wreck: you may be horrified by what you see, but you cannot turn away!

While Wadd is an irresistible, first-rate piece of documentary filmmaking, it must be noted that the film also has a bit of a split personality at times. On the basis of what you learn about him, I’m sure most people would classify John Holmes as a truly vile and despicable human being. However, there are surprising number of people interviewed here who say great things about him, particularly near the end of the film. The final line delivered by John’s longtime manager, Bill Amerson is truly bizarre: “John had a heart as big as the world. He would do anything for anybody… except himself”. That’s quite a weird thing for Amerson to say after telling numerous stories which make John sound like one of the most selfish and sociopathic individuals you can imagine. However, I’m sure some of the interview subjects here aren’t exactly honest, morally upstanding citizens themselves, so you often have to take what they say with a grain of salt. That said, I think the main reason Wadd is such a interesting documentary is because John Holmes was such an enigma. This isn’t just a film about a man who revolutionized the porn business, but the incredibly wild story of a self-destructive life which involved drugs, abuse and murder. He may have done a lot of terrible things, but there was just something about him that still made certain people like the guy. It’s doubtful that many viewers will come out of this film liking John Holmes, but you’ll certainly find his story very compelling. It’s not easy to find a copy of Wadd on its own, but the best way to view it is if you check out the DVD for Wonderland, which is a flawed, but generally good film in its own right. Incidentally, that DVD also contains the most disturbing special feature ever: the actual police video of the Wonderland crime scene! To this day, I have NO idea how they ever got permission to put that on a commercial DVD! Wadd is required for all adult film aficionados, but because it tells such a fascinating story, I would still recommend it to those who aren’t followers of the industry… though this film isn’t likely to win the industry any new fans!

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