Last week, PJ and I watched two documentaries about 1970s gay porn stars: Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon and That Man: Peter Berlin. Both documentaries trace their subjects from childhood to success as gay icons to their more recent lives. I thought that they were both excellent and informative documentaries.

Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon looks at the life and career of Jack Wrangler, who became famous for embodying the butch, masculine gay role model that dominated the queer subculture of the 1970s. Here’s the trailer:

Born Jack Stillman in 1946, Wrangler became one of the most famous gay port stars of the decade. In the 1980s, he crossed over into straight porn and eventually became involved with Margaret Whiting, a cabaret singer. Despite his marriage to her, Wrangler continues to identify as a gay man, which makes this documentary, which is narrated by Wrangler himself, an interesting study of identity and sexuality during the last four decades.

That Man: Peter Berlin explores similar territory, in a way. Its subject is another icon of butch 1970s gay culture: German born Peter Berlin, who became a celebrity figure in San Francisco. Here’s a clip from it:

Like Wrangler, Berlin embodied a macho image. One major difference between the two, however, was that Berlin was himself an artist. He was a photographer with one primary subject: himself. Berlin has a website where you can see some of his images. Many are simply amazing.

Certainly the issue of Wrangler’s sexuality is fascinating in its challenge to conventional understandings of sexual orientation. But I was also interested by the contrast between his own more stereotypically effeminate mannerisms and his masculine persona on screen.

Wrangler himself talks about this contrast in this documentary, especially in relation to his feelings of awkwardness, unattractiveness, and effeminacy as a kid and young man. Assuming the role of “Jack Wrangler” was very much a performance that Stillman enjoyed playing at least in part because this role was so different from himself.

Here he is in his stereotypically masculine “drag.” He’s obviously got a really hot body, but I also love the boots, the jeans, and the red bandanna tied around his neck. Very butch. All he needs is a piece of straw to chew on and the image would be complete.

Wrangler took this show on the road, making personal appearances at gay bars. While most patrons would (obviously) be expecting a fairly straightforward strip show, Wrangler’s performance was more complex. It was more of a theatrical performance than a striptease.

I haven’t seen one of Wrangler’s performances on screen, but another interesting aspect of his work that was presented in the documentary was his sexual versatility. In other words, he both bottomed and topped in his sex scenes. In what little research I’ve done into 1970s gay iconography, I’ve always been impressed by the period’s emphasis on sexual versatility. Butch didn’t automatically mean being solely a top. This versatility seems in marked contrast to the butch imagery of the 1980s and 1990s: Jeff Stryker, Rex Chandler, and Ryan Idol, all of whom equated butch masculinity with being a top. (Of course, these actors were also “straight” so making this equation helped to maintain their “straightness.”)

The All-American imagery of Wrangler contrasts with the European butchness of Peter Berlin’s persona. As John Waters states in the clip above, Berlin embodied the Germanic/dutchboy look.

This image of Berlin is the most typical one I could find that wasn’t also pornographic — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In addition to being a photographer, Berlin was also a performance artist, though that’s not exactly how he describes himself in this documentary. Like Wrangler, his butch persona was a self-conscious performance, but unlike Wrangler Berlin performed this role on the streets of San Francisco. Several of the film’s interviewees recount seeing him around town and being in awe of the fact that he dressed like this all of the time. (Indeed, Berlin continues to dress rather similarly even today.)

While Wrangler’s persona embraced sexual versatility (eventually to the extent of even having sex with women on screen), Berlin’s was rather restrictive. In the two adult films that he made — and it is important to also note that Berlin was instrumental in the production of these movies; he wasn’t just a hired actor — he apparently doesn’t have sex with anyone else. Rather, if I understand the interviews correctly, he watches other men have sex and sometimes masturbates on screen, but he never engages in sex with them. (“Have sex” may be euphemistic for anal sex; I wasn’t sure about whether he did oral.) On a side note: Berlin talks about how his restrictive sexual behavior probably saved his life once the AIDS crisis hit.

Thus, his butchness was almost solely about image — about being seen and admired as an icon, rather than about participating and being humanized. His work really was art, I think. I haven’t seen either of his films either; I think it would be interesting to do so.

Both of these documentaries are well made and fascinating studies of the history of gay masculinity and sexuality since the 1970s. Someday, I’d really like to teach a course on just 1970s gay culture. I already love teaching Larry Kramer’s Faggots and Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance. I also routinely show the students in my Lesbian & Gay lit class the documentaries Gay Sex in the 70s and The Cockettes, both of which are also great films. A half-dozen other texts — A Very Natural Thing, The Boys in the Band, The Lord Won’t Mind and a few others — and I’d have a great class, I think.

I definitely recommend Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon and That Boy: Peter Berlin.

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