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Porn stars are the new crossover artists

They're landing legit work in movies such as 'Zack and Miri' and 'The Girlfriend Experience.' Meantime, they're also influencing pop culture.

By Reed Johnson

November 3, 2008

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There's a new breed of performer that's becoming a hot Hollywood commodity, and we're not talking about garrulous Chihuahuas.

Once largely shunned as pariahs by the entertainment industry, porn stars are turning up with increasing regularity on shopping-mall movie screens and in prime-time television shows, underscoring pornography's steady migration over the last three decades from the pop-culture margins to the mainstream.

Probably the most significant evidence of the trend so far is Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh's decision to cast Sasha Grey, a 20-year-old Sacramento native who began making hard-core movies when she was 18, in his upcoming feature film "The Girlfriend Experience." The movie is told from the perspective of a $10,000-a-night call girl. Grey has appeared in other non-pornographic films, including the Canadian low-budget horror flick "Smash Cut."

"She's really good, totally fearless, very smart," says the director of "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich," who finished shooting the film last week. "It certainly didn't seem like there was anything I could suggest that she couldn't handle."

The recent inroads made by porn into Hollywood are only one aspect of porn's broader effect on popular culture imagery, language, style and sensibility. Music videos teem with kama sutra-esque boasting and "is-it-real-or-isn't-it?" displays of bumping and grinding. Video games containing explicit sex scenes have been slapped with lawsuits and other restrictions to prevent them from falling into the hands of joystick-gripping adolescents.

Top adult performers such as Jenna Jameson have become household names, their pulchritudinous likenesses adorning everything from bestselling books to ski boards to bobble head dolls, and a new “rock opera” about the late “Deep Throat” star Linda Lovelace is currently playing at L.A.'s Hayworth Theatre.

Lesson from Paris

When "Deep Throat" was made in the early 1970s, porn was still considered too underground for the actors to use their real names. When the X-rated movie's director, Gerard Rocco Damiano (a.k.a. Jerry Gerard), died last month, Time magazine eulogized him at length, praising his smarts, ambition and personal decency while calling his movie "the 'Citizen Kane' of porn."

Fashion also is taking more aesthetic cues from porn, including the growing popularity of genital piercing and shaving, which was popularized by adult film actors. In May, Fox News' resident "sexpert," Yvonne K. Fulbright, made a reference to adult film while taking up the topic of genital grooming. "It's no longer simply a style concern for porn stars," she counseled, "it seems that everyone now -- guy or gal -- is giving at least some thought to pubic hair care."

Asked why adult stars have become more acceptable in Hollywood, Soderbergh cited the proliferation of Internet porn and the attitudinal sea change signified by the infamous bootleg video showing socialite Paris Hilton having sex with a paramour. In years past, such a tape likely would've destroyed reputations. Instead, it boosted Hilton's paparazzi profile.

"That changed everything," Soderbergh says. "Or it didn't change everything; it confirmed that everything had changed."

Grey isn't the only young adult-film performer gaining wider exposure in Hollywood these days. Katie Morgan, a business-savvy 28-year-old who has made dozens of adult films, is currently appearing in indie director Kevin Smith's R-rated slacker-cool comedy " Zack and Miri Make a Porno," which opened on Halloween to strong reviews. Distributed by Weinstein Co., the film stars Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks as a pair of down-and-out platonic friends in suburban Pittsburgh who decide to make an amateur skin flick to pay off their debts. It appears likely to be Smith's most commercially successful film.

Prior to "Zack and Miri," Morgan made a brief appearance in an episode of the HBO dramatic comedy " Entourage." She is hoping to land more mainstream roles, partly, she says, to offset a recent drop-off in adult feature roles caused by the profusion of plotless, low-budget "gonzo" porn and Internet-based amateur sex sites that have taken a bite out of the adult-film industry.

Morgan sees porn's absorption into middle-class Americana as part of a larger demographic shift, as baby-boomer consumer tastes are usurped by those of a Generation X that grew up with easier access to triple-X product. "It's the old school moving in with the new school," she says. "All the way down to all my cousins, everybody I know of my generation is pretty open sexually. They talk about it, it's much more casual, it's not taboo the way it was."

Although "Zack and Miri" contains plenty of raunchy language, it contains no actual explicit sex scenes (although it does have several pretty convincing simulated ones). In addition to Morgan, the movie's cast includes adult actress Traci Lords, whose character, "Bubbles," enthusiastically lends her peculiar anatomical skills to Zack and Miri's cinematic enterprise.

Lords, one of porn's pioneering crossover performers, began making adult movies in the early 1980s, then graduated to commercial television roles, including episodes of "Married With Children" and "Roseanne." She also has landed numerous movie roles, including one as a seductive succubus in the Wesley Snipes vampire gore-a-thon "Blade."

Writer-director Smith says it was at Rogen's suggestion that he decided to cast adult-film actresses in Lords' and Morgan's roles in "Zack and Miri." "To be honest, those two characters don't have heavy lifting to do dialogue-wise." But there was some heavy lifting to do clothes-shedding wise, and with experienced, uninhibited adult performers on the set, Smith says, "there's no sort of, 'Gee, shucks, can you take your top off?' "

The establishment media's attitudes toward porn, including those of advertisers and journalists, obviously have grown a lot more tolerant or, some would say, prurient since Procter & Gamble dumped Marilyn Chambers as its Ivory Snow poster girl after she appeared en flagrante in "Behind the Green Door" in 1972. Besides Morgan and Lords, the roster of adult-film performers who've cracked the mainstream barrier includes the indefatigable Ron Jeremy, Nina Hartley ("Boogie Nights") and Chambers ("Rabid"), as well as Jameson ("Howard Stern's Private Parts"), author of the 2004 autobiography “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star,” which spent six weeks on the New York Times' bestsellers list.

As pornography has evolved from a shadowy racket to a multibillion-dollar global industry based in San Fernando Valley office blocks, top porn stars become just one more celebrity life form among many: dishing behind-the-scenes gossip on talk radio, dashing off autographs for besotted trade-show fans and generally marketing themselves as aggressively as any NBA MVP or "American Idol" champ. "Adult actors and actresses are a part of pop culture now," says Paul Fishbein, publisher of the industry trade journal Adult Video News. "It's a little bit natural that some of the more talented people like Katie Morgan and Sasha Grey would have an opportunity to flash a bit more of their acting muscle."

At a recent press round table to promote "Zack and Miri," the 26-year-old Rogen, an actor and writer who made his name in racy but sweet-natured Judd Apatow comedies such as "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," cracked that he hadn't made any films without real porn stars in them.

" ' Pineapple Express' is the only movie I've done without porn stars in it," Rogen said. He added, with a touch of the comic hyperbole that is his public default mode: "They're like a director of photography to me, someone you need on set to make the movie."

Not to worry, Meryl

Still, adult stars who make the leap to major-studio roles remain relatively rare. And given the minimal acting chops required for most triple-X portrayals, it's doubtful that Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis will be placing panicky phone calls to their agents or looking over their shoulders any time soon.

And although porn has pushed the envelope of mainstream acceptability, Hollywood so far has resisted incorporating explicit sex scenes into its movies, as is more common in European cinema. "Adult's never going to be mainstream in the true sense of the word," Fishbein says. "I don't think you're going to see hard-core sex scenes in movies that Paramount and 20th Century Fox are releasing."

Rather than providing a new showcase for hard-core sex, per se, Smith thinks that movies by directors like himself and Apatow are recapturing some of the free-for-all comic and satirical attitude that pervaded porn 30 years ago.

"Back in the early days of porn, all the porn had a sense of humor to it, very bawdy, very winky, almost vaudevillian," he says. "It feels to me like the sense of humor has seeped out of porn. Audiences want to go straight to the action."

In these latter days of porn, mainstream filmmakers probably don't have to worry about vice squad raids anymore. But they do have to worry about what still is the dirtiest word in Hollywood: failure. "If it dies at the box office," Smith says of "Zack and Miri," "I don't think we'll see another porn-related comedy for a long time."

Johnson is a Times staff writer.

reed.johnson@latimes.com