What About It?
Boogie Nights is a specialized cousin of a classic Hollywood success story. It owes as much to Charles Dickens however, as it does to Horatio Alger, covering both the rags to riches story and the orphan finds a family story. Like any Dickens character Eddie/Dirk is unremarkable except that there's something special about him which exactly the right people recognize. In Dirk's case, it happens to be his penis, and related abilities, which makes him the perfect choice to be a porn star. We know that Eddie has ambition and a belief that he'll be a star, but given what we're shown of his intellect, coincidence is as much a factor to his success as his unusually large penis. The moment that Jack Horner discovers him reveals nothing of his physical attributes other than that he has a look which Jack recognizes. Jack seems genuinely surprised to learn of Eddie's $5.00/$10.00 peek a boo shows, and likewise Jack seems surprised to learn who Jack is, although once aware, he recognizes his work. Even so, Eddie is dragged into his success, turning down the chance to have a drink with Jack and offering some reluctance to take a ride in Jack's car (although, impressionable as he is, he doesn't require much convincing)
However, success is not something that Eddie is in any way prepared for. The adjustment from emotional impoverishment to enthusiastic acceptance proves to be too much for him. His attitude shifts from gratitude to entitlement. Even this is tolerated, until his growing drug habit takes its toll physically making him look terrible and even worse robbing him of the ability to use his "special gift." As enthusiastic as Jack was to welcome him into the fold, he is unable to tolerate Dirk when both his ego and his lack of performance become too difficult to handle. Jack's first priority is looking for talent, and making money with it. Dirk is threatened when Jack finds another "new boy on the street." This (along with his drug habit) leads to his outburst with Jack, and their parting of ways. In a sense Dirk is undone by the fact that his special gift is not so special in the porn industry, just the expected equipment. Essentially his success, is only a chance to be common in a different circle. He can't be "special" if he can be replaced. Mark Wahlberg plays Dirk Diggler convincingly and it's easy to believe every extreme of his personality, from good natured and grateful student, to paranoid, drug addled maniac.
Jack Horner has quite a journey here himself. He makes his money on sex, yet views sex as nothing more interesting than acting. He lives with Amber Waves, yet there appears to be no sexual interest whatsoever. Jack thinks of himself as an artist, and film is what he loves. His dream of making a film that keeps people watching after they come reveals a lot about him. He takes his duties as a director very seriously, with an eye always out for talent and much devotion to watching over the talent he has. He's interested in sex, like a painter is interested in paint. The advent of digital tape however puts him in a spot, not too far from Dirk's predicament. Film is what makes Jack special, without it he's nothing, as anyone can shoot on tape and the lower cost makes talent less important. Like Dirk, he achieves his goal, making what he considers "a real film" using Dirk's "Brock Landers" idea, and ultimately achieving his goal proves unfulfilling as he must continue to live after he's done it.
We see that Dirk's original idea to be different than the John Holmes films by being sexy and not slapping women around, is eventually abandoned and the Brock Landers films end up in the same territory as Holmes'. Jack has to relent on his comittment to film and tries to adjust to video, attempting a series with Rollergirl, which we see doesn't go well. Jack is not skilled at handling the spontaneous, and Rollergirl is not equipped to deal with someone who knows where she came from. Jack endures however, because he knows who he is, unlike anyone else around him. He has to know who he is, as he's become a caretaker of people pretending to be different people. Despite his remoteness from the sexual act, Jack has genuine concern for these people. He needs to take care of them as much as they need to be taken care of. Burt Reynolds gives much depth to the part in one of the best roles of his career.
Julianne Moore also gives a tremendous performance as Maggie/ Amber Waves. Jack describes her as "a wonderful mother, a mother to all who need love." And she Moore does a remarkable job getting this across. However, like Dirk and Jack, the means with which she can "mother" are limited. She can care for and encourage her porn family, but isn't able to take care of her actual children a fact she is unable to come to terms with. Like everyone in her sphere, Amber is lacking certain tools. Her unpreparedness at the hearing for custody of her children shows how out of touch she is with the practicalities of being "Maggie." In her "family" with Jack all that's required is for Rollergirl to suggest that she be her mother, and they both agree on it. She is not blind to this fact and points it out herself that Dirk replaced her own kids (since she couldn't see them)
Heather Graham is great as Rollergirl, a character who has no idea what she's doing most of the time, and isn't interested in knowing more. Like all of them, she simply wants to disappear into the role she's created. She isn't as accepting as she tries to appear however, and a reminder of where she came from is enough to unhinge her completely, changing her from utterly docile to murderously violent. Although she tries to maitain the appearance, she is not ok, with who she is. John C. Reilly's Reed Rothchild is different than the rest of them in that we don't see him playing two personas. He has little ambition, other than the habit of lying to inflate his own importance. His affability proves a good fit for Dirk's temperament, in that he is perfectly comfortable playing the sidekick, once he and Dirk are friends. Friendship seems to be Reed's main desire.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman's small part as Scotty J. is similar, except that he can't help but want more than friendship. His social skills are lacking however, and he can't help but make a romantic advance on Dirk, settling for friendship seemingly gratefully, for the chance to remain close, even if the relationship is entirely masochistic. Thomas Jane's, Todd is an element of overlap. He is not quite in their world, but touching it as an adult dancer, until the drugs become their common bond. It's obvious that he's an outsider though, and this leads to his surprise behavior at the drug scam. Luis Guzman's Maurice is always entertaining. Alfred Molina's brief role is hilariously over the top and frightening at the same time. Don Cheadle's Buck Swopes is also great as a kind of misfit in the group, being the only one with aspirations outside of porn. He benefits from another Dickens type twist, having the money fall on the ground in front of him with no witnesses left alive.
William H. Macy is top notch here. His Little Bill serving as a reminder that despite the group's dedication to pretending, all is not ok. He routinely endures his wife's blatant humiliation of him, until it becomes their ritual, she having sex with someone else openly, he becoming outraged before walking away. Even in this environment, sex is more than acting, and can be dangerous in ways that no one can predict. In this situation, with sex treated as a product, performed by sexually damaged people, there are bound to be consequences, Little Bill's murder/suicide being the loudest example. Everyone here is damaged, but they have no other way to be. As much as they try they can't always be the people they've invented because they all came from somewhere, and the problems they had are still inside them. Even when they achieve their goals, they're left unsatisfied.
P.T. Anderson creates a world of specialized celebrity and damaged success. The casting is perfect and the dialogue is masterful. We see a world that shifts from impossibly bright to unbearably dark in an instant, success being as temporary as a sexual act. These are characters who can't look at their own stories and finding "success" suddenly, they end up facing huge problems without the tools to deal with them.
Much of the world in Boogie Nights is cold and hostile, but at it's heart, it's really a movie about finding people who care about you, and defining your own sense of family. Dirk and everyone else Jack has taken under his wing are all limited, but they make sense to each other. Their "family" is based on pornography, but ultimately that's just their common banner. Buck gets out of the business but remains a part of Jack's family. Maurice never really gets into the business except for bit parts, but spends his free time in Jack's kitchen. Dirk is accepted back like a prodigal son. When he says "I'm sorry." Jack says "I'm sorry too." and we truly believe them both.
Despite the perceived shallow nature of their business, they all put themselves into it, forming a shared mythology where no one is ever thrown away. We even see a painting of Little Bill, when Jack walks the house like a tour guide at the end. It's an unexpected moment of grace, that despite all their failings, Dirk and his friends succeed in finding others who genuinely care about them, a sense of family that wasn't offered any other way. It's an ending truly worthy of a Dickens story, tragedies, cruel turns, unlikely coincidence tying everyone together, everyone who works getting rewarded, but mostly Dirk Diggler as our Oliver Twist, (by way of John Holmes) finding people who love him in the end.
Boogie Nights opens on the street outside "Hot Traxx," a busy nightclub in Reseda, CA. We see Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) step out of his car, along with his companion Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) both, oblivious to the long line to get in. Jack is greeted enthusiastically by Maurice TT Rodriguez (Luis Guzman) the club owner, who tells them he's been upset because they haven't been by in a while. They agree never to stay away that long again. He shows them to their own special booth and tells Jack he's ready and willing to be in a movie before walking off to keep an eye on his club. Maurice stops to talk to Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) and Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) two adult film actors who are on the dance floor. Maurice sends Jack some free food, and Jack and Amber are visited by Rollergirl (Heather Graham) who roller skates up to their table. Amber reminds Rollergirl to call someone and noticing her holding herself asks