Sunday, February 21, 2010

So Long, Jamie Gillis

You won't find a New York Times obituary for Jamey Ira Gruman, later Jamie Gillis, but his passing on February 19th from melanoma at the age of 66 strikes hard into our black heart. Jamie was one of the faces in the New York City adult film scene, basically from its birth following the end of the nudie cutie era in the early 70s. Gillis, alongside John Leslie, Eric Edwards and Jack Wrangler represented the most talented male performers in the burgeoning industry, capable of delivering far more than the expected "physical" performances; they were all engaging, natural actors, professionally trained but finding no purchase in an unforgiving theater community. Gillis himself was, in fact, a Columbia graduate; he went into acting after college and decided to supplement his meager income by answering an advert for nude modeling – a well travelled road to the adult industry. Possessing a cultured intelligence that his subsequent career choice unfortunately overshadowed, he would imbue each role with his innate intelligence and elevate every project, whatever shape it took.

During the so-called "porno chic" era of the late 70s and early 80s, it was Gillis who first struck out as a performer with a memorable turn in The Opening of Misty Beethoven, director Radley Metzger's 1976 hardcore take on Pygmalion, with Jamie taking on the Henry Higgins role with a healthy dose of equestrian-class sexual decadence. Gillis' terrific performance served as a stark contrast to the flat, unenthusiastic readings of John Holmes, who helped ghettoize the adult film while Gillis elevated it.

Gillis enjoyed a well deserved reputation as a sexual extremist who not only frequented Plato's Retreat and its gay predecessor, Continental Baths, but was a highly in-demand live sex performer with his off-screen lover, Serena. This notoriety led Gillis to films that few other adult actors would touch, such as The Story of Johanna, where Gillis engaged in gay sex with Zebedy Colt, an act that was strictly verboten for a 'straight' adult film even in the ultra-permissive atmosphere of 1975 (and is even more taboo today). Colt himself was no stranger to the extremes of the industry, as he balanced a successful Broadway career with appearances in some of the more notorious adult films of the era, including The Devil Inside Her and The Farmer's Daughter (both of which he also directed and the latter of which he appeared alongside fellow struggling thespian Spalding Gray) and the disturbing Sex Wish.

But without question, the most controversial picture of Gillis' career is the absolutely mind-bending Water Power, from roughie pioneer Shaun Costello. Based on the truly alarming exploits of the Illinois "enema bandit", Michael Kenyon, Gillis portrayed a Travis Bickle-flavored loner who experiences a revelation while visiting a fetish/S&M club and witnessing a client receiving an enema. He becomes obsessed with the idea of "cleansing" women with the procedure – whether they want to or not. What follows are some of the adult industry's most disturbing sequences, almost all of which would be utterly un-filmable in the modern era. Gillis' anything goes attitude holds court, and damned if he doesn't retain his dignity in the midst of this apocalyptic display of debauchery (the Bernard Hermann music swiped from Sisters doesn't hurt either). Reportedly, the film even offended the organized crime entities responsible for its distribution, and many the more extreme moments were cut. Even today, the only uncut print we've managed to find comes via a scratchy Dutch video print with burned-in subtitles. Locate at your own risk.

In 1989, Jamie adapted to the changing industry with a series called On the Prowl, an inexpensive shot on video series where Gillis and a female companion drove around L.A. in a limo, picking up strangers for…well, you know what for (particularly if you saw Boogie Nights, which effectively riffed on this).

Gillis was at ease with his adult past, and never offered any regrets for his involvement. He was known to be very approachable when spotted strolling his beloved Manhattan, and always happy to share a few moments with fans (something which we can attest to). Although retired from the industry for several years now, it was always good to know that Jamie was still around – a constant reminder of the insane heights that adult films had reached once upon a time (and, conversely, a reminder of how cold and corporate it has become). He was an irrepressible, shameless satyr who allowed us to get in touch – however briefly – with our own dark side in a way that only someone with an artist's soul can do.

We miss ya, kid.