Marilyn Chambers, the Ivory Snow Porn Star, Dead at 56


Marilyn Chambers, the Ivory Snow Porn Star, Dead at 56

People in the ’70s knew two things about Marilyn Chambers: that she had appeared as a model on an Ivory Snow box, fondly holding an infant under the corporate slogan “99 and 44/100% Pure”; and that she starred in Behind the Green Door, one of the first, weirdest and most popular hard-core movies in that brief period of the ’70s known as Porno Chic. These two factettes, with their colliding irony, made the blond, willowy Chambers the pin-up princess of XXX cinema, a notoriety she parlayed into a career in soft- and hard-core sex films that lasted from 1972 until… yesterday.

The sad news is that Chambers, to quote the title from a 1974 movie she did not appear in, is 99 and 44/100% dead. The actress was discovered last night in her mobile home in Santa Clarita, near Los Angeles, by her teenage daughter McKenna Taylor, from the last of Chambers’ three marriages. An autopsy will be performed; foul play is not suspected.

Chambers wasn’t the first person to take the route from modeling and acting to hard-core, from commercials to pervertials. Eric Edwards, whose porn career spanned nearly four decades, had appeared in ads for Gillette razors and Close-Up toothpaste. But of all the shadow stars that emerged in the early porn sensation — Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems of Deep Throat, Georgina Spelvin of Devil in Miss Jones — Chambers was unusual in her WASPy good looks, her girl-next-door appeal and her use of her own name at a time when other actors resorted to jokey pseudonyms. If the Ivory Snow Girl could go into porn unashamed, then the genre was maybe not so sooty. She was different, and smart, in another way: when director Jim and Artie Mitchell asked her to star in Green Door, she demanded $25,000 and a percentage of the gross. And she got it.

Turned out the Mitchells, and the customers, got their money’s worth. The special kick of Green Door, for the millions of young marrieds and college kids who make it a smash, was the image of a nice young lady submitting to, or demanding, some extravagant sexual attention. The minimal plot has Chambers inducted into a secret sex society, where she is put in a truss and suffers the pleasures of many gentlemen, including one of the first African-American sex-film stars, Johnnie Keyes. The plot could have been a metaphor for the incursion of a sex-film industry, once the entertainment of bordellos and stag parties, into the middle-class movie consciousness.

Green Door had just a little more going for it than notoriety. The Mitchell brothers shared the artistic ambitions or pretensions of the era’s porn-auteurs. Except for a narrative framing device, the film has almost no dialogue. Chambers’ mass seduction scene is accompanied only by the sounds of heavy breathing, moans and the occasional audible wince. One of the film’s money shots gets an instant replay in slo-mo, then in super slo-mo and finally in psychedelic greens and pinks. The last two minutes are extraordinary for a porn film: one extended closeup of a man’s and a woman’s faces as they kiss . It was as if the Mitchells understood Ingmar Bergman’s dictum that “Film begins with the human face.”

Cue Chambers’ 15 mins. of white-hot celebrity. She did the TV talk shows. Warner Books published her autobiography, Marilyn Chambers: My Story. At the New School for Social Research she was a guest speaker at the first session of its new course, “Pornography Uncovered, Eroticism Exposed.” She had done a tiny role in the 1970 Barbra Streisand comedy The Owl and the Pussycat; now, with her manager-husband, Chuck Trayner , she planned her next big step: breaking into mainstream films.

She landed in a Canadian backwater with the young David Cronenberg, then near the start of an exemplarily transgressive career writing and directing meta-horror movies about the body as the ultimate toxic agent. The project was the 1977 Rabid, in which Chambers plays Rose, a car-crash victim who undergoes surgery that forces her to feed on human blood; soon she has infected most of Toronto. The notion of a blond-angel porn star as the carrier of a fatal disease seemed misanthropic science fiction then. Within a few years, the festering of AIDS would ravage the world and decimate the sex-film community.

Cronenberg hired Chambers on the advice of his producer, Ivan Reitman, who rightly figured her name would help sell the picture in foreign markets. If she wasn’t quite as convincing as Cronenberg’s first choice, Sissy Spacek , she’s a compelling, scary and often sympathetic presence. In the 1992 interview book Cronenberg on Cronenberg, the director described Chambers as “very shrewd and sharp,” and she she “invented her own version of Method acting. When she had to cry it wasn’t a problem, because Chuck would say, ‘Remember when Fluffy died — that was her cat — and then she’d cry. I thought she really had talent, and expected her to go on and do other straight movies. But she went back. I don’t know whether it was Chuck, or that the industry wouldn’t accept her.”

Hollywood didn’t want her, but the San Fernando Valley did. That was the center of the burgeoning video market in the early ’80s, when sex films accounted for an outsize share of sales and rentals. And Chambers was agreeable to lending the video-porn industry her allure. For the next two decades she starred in porn films and Cinemax-style sexploitation efforts. In her 40s and 50s she appeared as the hostess, and smiling dominatrix, of soft-core loops that still play on late-night pay cable. Perhaps her strangest career move came in the 2004 Presidential election, when she ran as Vice President on the Personal Choice party ticket; she received 946 votes.

Marilyn Chambers spanned the entire era of above-ground erotic films, becoming something like the queen mum of porn. Unlike Lovelace and other early sex actresses, she never radiated victimhood. She seemed in charge of her career from the start — when she said, in effect, I’ll make a dirty movie, if you pay me like a movie star — almost till the end. Almost till yesterday.

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