Ties that forever bind

Special to The Times

The scene playing out before cameras at the front picket gate of a Craftsman-style house in the Altadena foothills sounds like a familiar one: A put-upon wife says adios to her no-good husband, she thinks -- she hopes -- for the last time. But there are also some unorthodox elements -- the husband's teenage girlfriend waiting mere feet away in a black Chevy Malibu; that the steely-eyed wife is bankrolling the pair's flight from town; that her protective sense is directed more at the wayward youth in the car than at her husband; and last but not least, hubby's connection to a quadruple murder that would become one of Los Angeles' most notorious unsolved crimes. Which makes the man in this triangle pornography's most famous and infamous name, John Holmes.

The movie being filmed is "Wonderland," a crime docudrama named after the Laurel Canyon street on which in 1981 police discovered five steel-pipe-bludgeoned bodies -- four dead, one barely alive -- in a residence that was a thriving narcotics enclave. The established wisdom is that the bloodbath was a score-settling between drug gangs that Holmes was playing against each other, but a large chunk of the speculation, greatly increased since Holmes died of AIDS complications in 1988, focuses on the exact role the X-rated star played in the murders. Did he just lead the killers there? Did he take a few swings? Was he coerced?

The flashback-heavy L.A. noir on display in the "Wonderland" script makes for a "Rashomon"-style gonzo tour through the tangled versions of events that have tripped up investigators ever since, but what is constant is that the John C. Holmes depicted here is a far cry from Johnny Wadd, as his prodigiously endowed on-screen persona was known. As a shaggy-haired Val Kilmer manifests him today, slobbed out in faded jeans, tattered green jacket and sunglasses, Holmes is not adult film's acknowledged Porn King. He's a pathetic hustler-addict in the law's spotlight, desperate to keep the last two people on Earth who care about him -- the wife who'd been his platonic confidante for more than a decade, and the naive, doe-eyed mistress too caught up to ignore his flaws -- from abandoning him. Because "Wonderland" -- projected for a summer 2003 release -- is also, oddly enough, a kind of fractured love story.

"I'll get you the money back," Kilmer-as-Holmes mutters to his wife, stuffing an envelope of cash into his pocket. "Stop lying to me, John," says a dark-haired, severe-looking Lisa Kudrow as Sharon Holmes, the words crisply harsh, like a parent's to a hopelessly immature child. "It's a payoff. You understand that term, right? I'm paying you off to stay out of my life."

'He was a real romantic'

The 23-day shooting schedule on this under-$10-million Lions Gate production means that even emotionally tense scenes such as this must be bagged and tagged quickly to stay apace. Director James Cox, a focused, tousle-haired 27-year-old with the air of a hippie scientist, admits he's saving himself for the crescendo being filmed that night: Holmes' surprise appearance at his wife's house after the murders, bloodied and distraught.

"It's a real meat grinder of a story," says Cox. "You get exhausted."

Later, after the sun has disappeared, an antsy but good-natured Kilmer can be found in his fake-blood-dappled trailer down the street, biding time until he's called to shoot his big confessional scene. Of its gruesome intensity he jokes, "It's the worst." But even though he's in a movie full of dope peddlers, users, murderers and thieves, he finds that Holmes' relationships with Sharon and girlfriend Dawn Schiller -- played by Kate Bosworth -- make "Wonderland" legitimately emotional.

"He was a real romantic," Kilmer says of Holmes. "He really loved his girlfriend, and he was still friends with his wife, who wouldn't let him in her bed anymore after she found out he was doing pornography. He definitely was a tortured soul who did a lot of awful things to everybody, betrayed everyone in his business, every dealer he met, but he remained absolutely loyal to Sharon and Dawn."

The love affair between Kilmer and "Wonderland," however, took a while to develop. For as long as Cox, co-screenwriter Captain Mauzner and producer Holly Wiersma were shopping their screenplay -- a heavily researched reconfiguration of an earlier John Holmes script by two different writers -- Kilmer was their ideal Holmes. Wiersma cites the actor's seductive way with less-than-reputable characters like Jim Morrison ("The Doors") and Doc Holliday ("Tombstone") as a big part of their narrowing in on Kilmer. Holmes "in the script is not very likable, so there has to be something about him that's charming, and Val, every time he smiles, you see that," says Wiersma. "Without his charm, it wouldn't have worked."

The actor persistently refused to read it, however. No matter that other talent was lining up to take parts (Kudrow, Bosworth, plus Dylan McDermott, Josh Lucas, Janeane Garofalo, Tim Blake Nelson and Carrie Fisher) or that indie stalwart Lions Gate was passionate about it, or even that Kilmer's own people wanted to see it happen.

The sordidness of Holmes' world was enough to keep Kilmer away, as well as more than 20 other actors who flirted with the role, including Matt Dillon, Christian Bale, Jason Patric and Gary Oldman. Frustration settling in, Wiersma and Kilmer's agent Cassian Elwes collaborated on a bait-and-switch to nab Elwes' client. They offered him the small but flashy role of Palestinian-born racketeer Eddie Nash, tried twice in court as the guy who greenlighted the killings. Kilmer bit.

"So he reads it and goes, 'Don't you think I should play John Holmes?' " recalls Wiersma, laughing. "Then he's like, 'But we have to go into pre-production today because I have another movie.' So in September it just happened." (Eric Bogosian took the part of Nash.)

Meanwhile, during the 10 months Kilmer was being pursued, Cox was doing his best to bolster his movie's cachet by getting the two key women in Holmes' life involved. A trip to Dawn Schiller's home in Northern California went so well that she helped get Sharon Holmes -- the porn star's first wife, whom she'd stayed in touch with -- to become a de facto advisor too.

Recalls Cox, "By the time I did sit with Val, I was ready to put John Holmes' wedding ring in his hand and say, 'This is how deep the rabbit hole goes, all the way down.' " Sharon's and Dawn's commitment, Cox knew, would convince Kilmer that "Wonderland" wasn't a rehash of a porn star's wretched doings. Cox told the actor, "There's a confession going on in this film."

Watching their younger selves

In the backyard of the house, where video replay monitors and an assortment of directors' chairs are arranged in a semicircle, Dawn Schiller and Sharon Holmes sit and watch their past lives unfold. "Cathartic doesn't cover it, you know?" says Schiller, 15 when she met Holmes and now a fortysomething mom working on her real estate license, but dressed nostalgically today like an ageless love child in a psychedelic-print top and jeans.

"This was some traumatic stuff for me at an early age, and I've had to process some big things, but this is part of the stuff that molds me today," Schiller says. "This is about facing who I am."

Throughout the shoot, Bosworth has frequently and happily consulted with Schiller about you-were-there details. Says the actress, "She wasn't just this cracked-out girl dating John Holmes. She was an innocent in a not so innocent world." Bosworth says the best insight Schiller has given her is into "how much she loved him, in spite of everything. She's an inspiration to me, because she proves that strength and goodness can conquer anything."

The movie will end with Holmes spiriting Schiller out of California, but the rosiness of the real love story ended abruptly after, with Schiller a battered and paranoid emotional hostage in Miami who eventually turned Holmes in to the authorities. Sharon Holmes, seeing a victim of her husband's poisoned charm when she saw one, made sure she and Schiller nurtured each other back to normalcy. "I consider her my daughter, my one and only child," says Sharon, whose short-cropped white hair and near-toothlessness give her the mien of a hard-lived grandmother.

"The best thing I could say that happened out of my relationship with John is Dawn. But I was mature. I can understand her falling in love with him. I never saw the vicious side of him, but she did. She got the good and the bad. I had the good and I chose not to have the bad."

After the morning's shoot, Kudrow exchanges a few words with her real-life counterpart, who tells the "Friends" star she has the "iron maiden" part of her down. "I was nervous until she said that," says Kudrow, who detects a fierce sense of obligation in Sharon's decision to stay married to a man whose profession repulsed her. "She said that armor was the only way to get through it. You just have to be stoic."

As for how Kilmer approximates the man they last saw roughly 20 years ago, Schiller and Sharon Holmes agree on his authenticity. "Initially I was amazed," says Schiller. "Then I was creeped out."

"It freaked me out," adds Sharon. "It really did spook me."

Jokes about Holmes' ghost became something of a game during shooting. When Schiller's cell phone rings nearby as Bosworth is answering a reporter's questions about her, the "Blue Crush" star quips, "See, John Holmes is sending down messages."

The following week, during filming in the historic Herald Examiner building downtown, the rafters above the set caught fire. "Since it was David Lind's interrogation, which is the counterpoint to John Holmes' version of events," says Cox, referring to the biker who initially cooperated with police, "the joke was that Johnny wouldn't let that side of the story come out."

As far as anyone knows, John Holmes never filed a review from the beyond about "Boogie Nights," Paul Thomas Anderson's 1997 razzle-dazzle porn epic that borrowed bits of the adult film star's life for its fictional tale. But that movie was about how surrogate families develop, even among sleaze purveyors. " 'Boogie Nights' is wonderful, but it's a nice iced tea," says Kilmer. "We're shooting heroin."

When "Wonderland" starts, Holmes' sex film heyday is a thing of the past; coked out and unreliable, he has seen his reputation in the industry that made him shattered. That's why Kilmer feels safe calling "Wonderland" an unusual romance and a morality play. "It's quite a vivid dramatization of what happens when you try to get satisfaction exclusively from the senses," he says. "It just doesn't work."

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Revisiting the Wonderland murders

The crime: On July 1, 1981, the bodies of Ronald Launius, William DeVerell, Barbara Richardson and Jo Audrey Miller were found beaten to death with a steel pipe in the 8700 block of Wonderland Avenue. Launius' wife, Susan, survived with severe head injuries and could never identify the attackers. It was the first time the LAPD used videotape to record a crime scene.

The investigation: John Holmes' role as a go-between for the Wonderland drug gang and nightclub owner/racketeer Adel Nasrallah, a.k.a. Eddie Nash, led to his arrest in Florida six months after the murders. He was interrogated twice, and reportedly told police he was ordered by Nasrallah to lead the killers to the house as part of a revenge scenario. In 1988, after Holmes' death, his first wife, Sharon, told The Times that shortly after the murders Holmes confessed the details of his involvement, which included being forced to watch the killings.

The trials: Holmes was tried in 1982 for the murders and acquitted. Nasrallah was charged in 1988 for the slayings, tried in 1990, but freed due to a hung jury. In 2001, at age 72, he pleaded guilty to some counts and no contest to a rash of anti-racketeering charges, including conspiracy to commit the Wonderland murders, and spent eight months in a federal detention center, according to the Justice Department.

-- Robert Abele

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