Cracked Rear Viewer: “Back in the day….”
Dear Readers: (groaning) “There he goes again. Another history lesson!”
CRV: “B-but it’s important to put things in their proper historical context!”
DRs: (sigh) “We guess you’re right. Sorry.”
CRV: (beaming) “No problem! Now, like I was saying…”
Back in the day, every major urban city, and many smaller sized ones, had what was known as a “Red Light District”, where sex workers plied their trade. These streets were loaded with sex shops, peep shows, massage parlors, strip joints, and Triple-X movie palaces, with hookers and drug dealers hawking their wares. New York City had its Times Square/42nd Street area, Boston had The Combat Zone near Chinatown, and Montreal the infamous St. Catherine Street. For Los Angeles, the action was on Sunset Boulevard, and it’s into this seedy milieu that writer/director Paul Schrader plunges George C. Scott in 1979’s HARDCORE, which isn’t about sex so much as it is about relationships, both intrapersonal and with society at large, and a father’s frantic search for his missing daughter.
Dear Readers: (giving the fish-eye) “Boston, huh. That’s your neck of the woods.”
CRV: “Hey, it was a long time ago. I was young, dumb, and full of c…curiosity!”
Scott plays Jake Van Dorn, a repressed, heavily religious businessman from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He and his daughter Kristen lead a safe, secure life revolving around church and family. Kristen and her cousin Marcie are sent on retreat to a Calvinist Convention in California, and soon Jake gets word his pride and joy has gone missing from Knott’s Berry Farm with a strange man. The distraught Jake flies to LA, but when the police prove no help, he hires a somewhat shady PI named Andy Mast to find his daughter.
Mast does, but what he finds shocks Jake to his fundamentalist core… the detective procures an 8mm loop of Kristen having sex with two men. Jake and Mast butt heads, so Jake goes out on his own to roam the grimy side of LA, experiencing culture shock in a world he knows nothing about. The denizens of this grimy arena are an understandably tight-lipped lot, so he takes it upon himself to go undercover as an out-of-town porn investor, sinking ever deeper into the dirty swamp.
Posing as a casting director, Jake meets a lad with the moniker “Jism Jim”, who he recognizes from the loop he saw with Kristen. When Jake starts asking questions about Kristen, now known as “Joanna”, the young would-be stud talks trash about how kinky she was, and an enraged Jake lashes out, beating Jim mercilessly until he gets some info on his daughter’s whereabouts. This leads to Niki, a prostitute and part-time porn actress, who agrees to help Jake… for a price, of course. The unlikely pair, a conservative Midwestern businessman and a freewheeling hooker, travel to San Diego and San Francisco on a grungy trail that takes them to a man named Ratan, a notorious producer of S&M and “snuff” films…
DRs: (scowling) “Sounds pretty gross. Where’s the value in a film like this?”
CRV: “It’s socially significant. And says a lot about the state of America, even today. An apathetic society, turning it’s back on its values…”
DRs: (eyes rolling) “Oh, brother.”
Scott is a sight to behold, going from staid patriarch to obsessed father desperately trying to save his little girl, no matter what the cost. The scene where he sits and watches the stag loop is painful and uncomfortable, as he agonizes over the obscene footage. His veneer of civility, of reliance on God in all things, is shattered when he enters this sleazy world, and Jake in turn becomes as animalistic as the predators that roam those dark streets. Scott was one of his generation’s greatest actors, and he totally immerses himself in the part, adding subtle shadings every time more is revealed about his daughter and himself.
Season Hubley plays the hooker Niki, to whom Jake becomes a father figure. She’s brash, stoned, and street smart, the opposite of Scott’s Van Dorn. He needs her more than she needs him, but the two form a bond, broken only when Jake finds his daughter at last, leaving poor Niki alone to the streets once again. Hubley played a similar role in the 1982 exploitation classic VICE SQUAD, and is an actress who can always be depended upon to deliver the goods. She was the title character in THE LOLLY MADONNA WAR, played Desdemona in a rock version of Othello called CATCH MY SOUL, and appeared with ex-husband Kurt Russell in both the TV Movie ELVIS (as Priscilla Presley) and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.
Peter Boyle’s Andy Mast isn’t exactly Philip Marlowe, but a knight in rusty armor who knows all the players on the mean streets of LA. He’s got a bit of John Wayne in him, referring to Jake as “Pilgrim” throughout the film, and is an important part of the proceedings. Dick Sargent (the second Darin on BEWITCHED) is Jake’s equally repressed brother-in-law, worried Jake has gone too far down in the muck and mire of Hollywood. Marc Alaimo, Bibi Besch, and Tracey Walter have small roles, as does Hal Williams as “Big Dick Blacque”, a porn star auditioning for Jake who calls him a racist when he doesn’t get the (bogus) part.
This was Paul Schrader’s second film as both writer and director, the first being BLUE COLLAR. He made a splash with his screenplay for TAXI DRIVER, another movie exposing the dirty underbelly of American life. Most of Schrader’s films deal with the dark side of human nature, from AMERICAN GIGOLO to AUTO FOCUS, RAGING BULL to AFFLICTION, and contain religious overtones (Schrader also wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST). Schrader uses music to represent the dichotomy of Van Dorn’s life; in the Grand Rapids scenes we hear the gospel strains of “Precious Memories”; when Jake hits LA, the industrial rock noise of composer Jack Nietzsche dominates. He puts Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young’s “Helpless” to good use when Jake enters his first porn shop, and the film ends again with the gospel standard, father and daughter reunited but never to be the same again. HARDCORE may not be an easy film for some to watch, but it’s not supposed to be. In the world of Schrader and HARDCORE, nothing is what it seems, and life is as hard as those grubby streets where anything can be had… for a price.
DRs: “OK, but next time why don’t you review a Disney movie or something. Next thing we know, you’ll be doing porn reviews!”
CRV: (lopsided grin) “Well, you know, some of them do have historic and cultural significance. There’s DEEP THROAT, THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES, BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR…. hey, wait, come back! I was only kidding!!”