eyelights: its candid exploration of John Holmes’ persona.
eyesores: its focus on the Wonderland murders moreso than his career.
“John Holmes was to the adult film industry what Elvis Presley was to rock and roll. He simply was the king.”
John Holmes was before my time. Although his name and face were familiar to me because of the scant amount of porn that I’d gotten my sweaty teenaged hands on, he died when I was only 15. He didn’t make much of an impression on me, anyway; he looked a bit off, maybe even creepy, in the few pictures I’d seen.
It’s only much later that I discovered that he was considered a legend.
‘Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes’ is a 1998 documentary that explores the porn career of John Holmes, which began in 1967 and continued until his final days. It demystifies a man who had actively sought to create a mystique around him, inventing all sorts of fictitious exploits to sell his image.
From the onset, through a series of short soundbites, ‘Wadd’ (which takes its name from Holmes’ most popular screen character, Johnny Wadd, P.I.) shows us various sides of Holmes personality, putting in contrast Holmes’ dishonesty and dangerous side with the sweeter, more endearing side some knew.
Constructed from tons of interviews with industry people, as well as people who new Holmes personally and professionally, and bolstered by a bevy of clips from his films (although no hardcore bits – director Cass Paley cut it in such a way that it could be viewed on cable TV as is) it is candid in its portrayal.
John Holmes was from Ohio. His family were very poor and on welfare. He had a fairly unhappy childhood and was beaten by his father, leading him to join the army at age 16. Fresh out of the army, he met and married his first spouse, Sharon. It wasn’t long before he decided to get into porn because of his…
For those not familiar with Holmes, it is claimed that his penis was 13.5 inches long when fully erect. The reason he chose porn is because he felt that the length of his penis was the only thing that made him special. He saw it as an opportunity to be exploited and felt that it was his one chance to become famous.
Sharon wasn’t happy about it at all, but he’d made up his mind. She saw him as a hooker and didn’t want to hear anything about his work – she stayed completely out of that world. And they never had a sexual relationship after that – though they remained best friends and she remained very supportive of him.
In 1976, Holmes met a 15-year-old girl named Dawn, whom he eventually made his lover. She moved in with he and Sharon. Surprisingly, Sharon and Dawn became friends but, as his career careened, he started pimping out Dawn to get money for drugs – which she hooked on as well. He also became very abusive.
Because his dad was an alcoholic, Holmes didn’t touch alcohol until he got into the porn industry. But then he spiraled down, got into pot, then coke, and then freebase – which he never managed to kick, to his dying day. This eventually affected his ability to perform, as he couldn’t get erections as easily.
Naturally, his problems affected his professional relationships; he eventually stopped being able to get work, so he started stealing and also sold his personal belongings. This lead to a life of crime, which got him into serious trouble in 1981 when he was involved with the murder of a group of drug dealers.
Known as the “Wonderland Murders”, named for the location of the murders, the incident sent Holmes running from the law with Dawn in tow, eventually being arrested in Florida after taking a leisurely tour of the States on their way there. He was tried and acquitted during a high profile trial in 1982.
After the trial, Holmes returned to porn. But the heydays of porn were over, and with video meant cheaper costs and lower pay – and yet he continued his expensive drug habit. So he did a little bit of gay porn for the cash. When he contracted HIV, he stopped caring and became very self-destructive.
He told everyone he had colon cancer, and was clearly unwell. Since he could no longer get work in the U.S. anymore, though he knew that he was infected, he went to Italy to do porn there. He felt betrayed and deserted by everyone and figured that they would all get AIDS anyway, given the nature of their work.
He succumbed to his disease at the age of 43.
Despite his notoriety and the fact that he died so long ago, he remains an icon: some of the interviewees compared him to Bettie Page, saying that he took porn out of the wilderness; he was so popular and relatable that he helped make the industry mainstream (There’s no mention of ‘Deep Throat‘ and ‘Behind the Green Door’).
‘Wadd’ also takes a brief look at the beginning of hardcore porn, which followed hot on the heels of the sexual revolution – how the authorities initially tried to catch and charge them for indecency. But producing a porn film was easy: they could shoot a film in one day and have the movie cut and released a week later.
Holmes’ initial films were serials, following the adventures of Johnny Wadd, adding to their popularity. His former manager discusses the public identity that they constructed for Holmes to sell. He claims that Holmes was really just an average dude, but that he subsequently became a compulsive liar, believing his own lies.
The fourteen thousand women he had sex with? BS.
His graduation from UCLA? BS.
He believed his own lies to such a degree that he once tried reminiscing with his manager about something that the manager had once invented for him to recount, thinking that it had actually happened. Holmes didn’t even realize it was made up until the manager pointed it out to him.
Further cementing the notion that Holmes was sociopathic are the interviews: you can actually watch him lie on camera, contradicting things he’d said in previous interviews. And at one point, director Bob Chinn corrects Holmes after he lied about their work relationship with Chinn right next to him.
Even the professionals are convinced of his sociopathic behaviour; there are interviews with the court psychiatrist and his lawyer during the Wonderland trial. And, while there was no evidence against him, the District Attorney was convinced that he had manipulated the jury, acting in court to gain their sympathy.
Whether you like Holmes or not, ‘Wadd’ is a most fascinating character study.
Where it stumbled a little bit is that they discuss him getting busted for pimping early in his career and becoming an informant for the L.A.P.D. to avoid jail. But this is never explored. How long was he an informant? And did industry people ever find out? If so, when did they discover and what was the impact?
The picture is so busy focusing on Holmes’ downfall (beginning at about the halfway mark!) that some of these complicated parts of his life aren’t explored. As significant as the Wonderland Murders were, there was clearly a lot more about Holmes’ life and personality that could have been fleshed out a little bit more.
Still, whether one is interested in John Holmes or even in the porn industry, ‘Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes’ is a fascinating look at celebrity and the power of perception. It puts in perspective the image that we see versus the reality that lies concealed beneath. And that alone makes it well worth watching.
Date of viewing: August 7, 2016