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Feature

America's Hard-core Sweetheart

Marilyn Chambers

By Joe Tropea | Posted 12/30/2009

Long before Paris Hilton or Pamela Anderson gave their first video blowjobs, there was Marilyn Chambers. Before trash culture became normalized and piped into homes via cable and wi-fi, she scandalized pre-internet America. We will remember her as porn's first and arguably best-known mainstreamer.

Born Marilyn Ann Briggs in 1952, Chambers aspired to be a model and actress during her Connecticut childhood, a dream her parents neither supported nor encouraged. She scored her first big modeling gig posing as a young mother for the packaging of Ivory Snow detergent. After landing bit parts in the utterly forgettable 1970 Barbra Streisand vehicle The Owl and the Pussycat and the indie nudie Together, her parents still were not impressed. Artie and Jim Mitchell, however, were apparently impressed enough to offer her a non-sexual role in their ambitious 1972 art-porn film Behind the Green Door. As filming progressed, Chambers was enticed to take her clothes off and change her life forever for $25,000 and a promised 1 percent of the film's earnings.

Chambers' appeal wasn't so much that she had the all-American or girl-next-door look; it's more like she was the first in the industry to not look like she belonged in the industry. Today, it's difficult to imagine what it must have been like seeing a face found in every grocery store in the country--wholesome, holding an infant--suddenly appear on adult-theater screens doing full-on, rape-fantasy, interracial porno. But Behind the Green Door was a smash as men (and women) were drawn to check out the new wave of artistic porn. The film eventually earned a reported $50 million, and by 1981 it was playing in VCRs across the land. (Predictably, Chambers saw little or none of her cut.)

Chambers was among the first actresses to attempt--and fail at--the transition out of porn. In 1977, filmmaker David Cronenberg, unable to get his first choice, Sissy Spacek, tapped Chambers for the lead in his second low-budget feature. Her performance in Rabid, a body-transformation/zombie thriller, earned her some good reviews and the respect of her director, but it didn't win her more straight-film parts.

In the early '80s, in between filming hard-core, softcore, and the occasional non-sex role, Chambers was harassed while performing her live nude act at the Mitchells' O'Farrell Theater by then-mayor of San Francisco Diane Feinstein, who was on a mission to rid the city of strippers. Her Feinstein run-in may have inspired her performance in her 1999 comeback, Still Insatiable, in which she plays an anti-porn crusading senator who ends up sucked into the world she's crusading against.

Though angry that her straight career never took off and out of hard-core by 2001, she still attended adult-film awards events. But when asked in 2004 if she would recommend working in porn she said, "Absolutely not! It's heartbreaking . . . it leaves you kind of empty." She died on April 12 of a heart-disease-related aneurysm, 10 days before her 57th birthday.

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