If there was anything most strands of pop culture could agree on in the nineties, it was that the eighties ruined everything. It ruined the music, the art, the fashion.
It was the EIGHTIES that brought down Henry Hill in Goodfellas. Like a kid brother to the Scorsese film, Boogie Nights rushes in to further indict the 1979/1980 dividing line.
In no other film does the onset of the EIGHTIES seem so malicious. In the 1970’s portion of the film there are ill omens. Free spending here, a loose wife there, drugs drugs drugs everywhere. The audience is conditioned to know that none of these things bode well, but in Boogie Nights the culminate into gruesome violence that borders on the old testament-style punishments.
The film begins with Eddie, a well endowed teenager who’s innocently landed a bus boy’s job at a club where Jack Horner’s porn familia just happens to hold court. Eddie’s already making a bit of spare change by exposing himself for paying customers, and knows of Horner. But when Jack offers the boy a job he initially demurs.
It takes a meltdown from his mother, who acts more like a protective, jilted spouse than a maternal presence, to send Eddie to his destiny as Dirk Diggler: the blessed, acclaimed star of adult film.
No one in Horner’s extended family registers as too bright, and director Anderson extracts from all his actors a Bresson-like anti-acting performance. There’s not much bubbling under their surface. The familial impulses that drive each character are on bald display. Jack must be the father, completely detached from sex as anything other than a business. Maggie must obligate her maternal instincts, nurturing her younger charges even as she leads them to hard drug use. Dirk/Eddie must be the golden child, accepted as the one with the god-given talent. When their roles become complicated, these characters completely collapse rather than adapt.
Unlike Platoon, which lost a bit of its magic as its cast matured into top tiered talent, Boogie Nights retains it charm even though the bulk its cast went straight to leading a-list features. Part of the reason is that these roles aren’t attractive to established stars. Mark Whalberg would never play a naif again. Julianne Moore would start picking up the Jodi Foster-type role literally taking over Clarice Starling in 2000’s Hannibal. John C. Riely, Don Cheadle, Philip Seymour Hoffman and William H Macy would continue their careers as character actors who could also slip into lead roles gracefully should the occasion arise.