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“It’s a Real Film, Jack”: Boogie Nights Grooves on, 25 Years Later

Images courtesy of New Line Cinema.

You know, this is the film I want them to remember me by.

Twenty-five years ago, then 26-year-old Paul Thomas Anderson directed and wrote one of the boldest and wildest movies Hollywood has ever seen. Excessive, explicit, and entertaining, no film like it existed. It features a sprawling narrative with multiple characters and storylines. The loaded cast is a mix of now-household names and old movie stars. Production of the film was far from an easy task: studio involvement, cranky actors, unproven entities, the list goes on. To put a cherry on top, the movie’s central premise is set during the Golden Age of Pornography in the 1970s. This is a movie that shouldn’t work and, yet, somehow does—it works damn well. And that’s because this isn’t any ordinary movie. This isn’t some cash grab or unoriginal schlock that gets made all the time. 

This is a generational movie. This is Boogie Nights.

A bright, neon pink marquee of the Boogie Nights nightclub, serving as the opening title card of the eponymous film.
Marquee of the Boogie Nights club.

Set in Anderson’s hometown of the San Fernando Valley, Boogie Nights follows the rise and fall of Eddie Adams a.k.a Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) as he makes his way from unknown dishwasher to A-list adult film star. He’s discovered by renowned adult filmmaker Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and soon becomes entrenched in Jack’s world of pornography. The acclaim and luxury catch up to Dirk and Jack as the ‘80s roll around and the Golden Age of Porn begins its decline. 

As is the case with most great movies (and some abominations like Don’t Worry Darling), Boogie Nights fought against all odds to get made. Anderson’s debut film, 1996’s Hard Eight, was a complete production nightmare. The studio made cuts without telling Anderson leading to the director banning producers from his set. Eventually, he was fired and couldn’t be involved in the editing process. After this experience, Anderson made it clear he would not compromise on his sophomore feature.

He planned to adapt The Dirk Diggler Story, a short mockumentary he made in high school, into a full-length film. Convincing a studio to make a movie about the adult film industry was hard enough, but Anderson took it one step further by letting New Line Cinema know the movie was going to be NC-17 and three hours long. Producer Michael De Luca—worried about the film’s commercial and financial viability—told Anderson he could only pick one between the rating and length. Anderson somewhat ended up bending the knee since Boogie Nights was rated R and 30 minutes shy of being 3 hours. 

In addition, Anderson’s first choice for Dirk Diggler was Leonardo DiCaprio who refused due to his commitment to Titanic (though some producers think it was because of the film’s racy nature). He took a chance on rapper and model Mark Wahlberg to be the face of his film. Anderson’s final risk was hiring Burt Reynolds (who was going through a career slump) and dealing with his quirks while filming the movie. 

But, in the end, the movie rose above this drama by becoming a critical and commercial success. This begs the question: how does a movie about the adult film industry have such broad appeal? Moreover. how does it still stay resonant to this day? Perhaps the answer to this is that movie is an allegory for cinema. That at every turn, there will be people who will doubt “old-fashioned” techniques and old-school filmmaking. And, while these doubters will enjoy success, cinema will always get the last laugh. CGI and lazy filmmaking will always exist, but movies made by people who truly love movies will always be remembered. This is a film made by someone who loves and is obsessed with cinema. And, it’s all on display with Anderson’s direction, screenplay, and opening scene.

Welcome to Boogie Nights.

Dirk (Wahlberg) and Reed (Reilly, dressed in colorful '70s t shirts, clasp hands at Jack's pool party.
Dirk (Wahlberg) and Reed (Reilly) become friends at Jack’s pool party.

The biggest hurdle Anderson had was making this niche world accessible to the movie-going audience. So what does he do? He creates an opening shot for the ages. A somber, drab trumpet tune plays in the background as the various studios’ logos appear. As soon as they leave, we get a hard cut to the neon pink sign of the “Boogie Nights” nightclub—serving as the title card and the audience’s first glimpse into the world of porn. This transition is graced by The Emotion’s “Best of My Love,” an upbeat and fantastic song. But this is no ordinary opening shot; this is a dizzying and glamorous tracking shot with multiple POVs. If this sounds familiar, it should. Anderson is essentially riffing from the iconic “Copacabana” tracking shot from GoodFellas. In most cases, any director trying to do a Martin Scorsese homage would fail—let alone a 26-year-old shooting his second movie. However, Anderson’s masterful direction allows him to get away with it. The “Copacabana” shot remains the golden standard for tracking shots, but the opening sequence to Boogie Nights is a close second.

With a screenplay with dozens of characters—who are all affected by the industry in a multitude of ways—this is the most effective way to introduce all of them to the audience. Anderson doesn’t want to show these people filming an adult film or having sex on screen right away. He wants to convey these people are just like any professionals (regardless of their “outlandish” day jobs) having a fun night out. We meet all the main players: Jack Horner, leading lady Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), nightclub owner Maurice Rodriguez (Luis Guzmán), leading man Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), aspiring stereo salesman and former adult film actor Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), starlet Rollergirl (Heather Graham), and, finally, our main character, budding superstar, and current dishwasher Eddie Adams.

That’s a lot of characters to incorporate into a screenplay but none of them get watered down. In this five-minute sequence, we already have an idea of what these characters are like, who they interact with, etc. Anderson doesn’t give away their whole arc but just enough for us to get invested in their journey. The last shot makes it clear though—even with a plethora of characters, this movie is going to follow Eddie’s rise and fall as he gets engulfed in this eclectic and demanding world. 

Jack, wearing a blue button down, sets the scene for a shirtless Dirk to make sure he nails the scene.
Jack (Reynolds) lays out the scene for Dirk.

Once Jack discovers Eddie, the film takes off faster than a supersonic jet. We find out Eddie is quite well-endowed and thus creates one of the wackiest motifs in any movie. Many people ask Eddie to show his penis and he does so. But, Anderson never shows it to the audience (until the very end), leaving it to our imaginations to what these characters are witnessing. Rollergirl does a double take, industry producer known as The Colonel James (Robert Ridgely) can’t help but admire it, and everyone on set at Eddie’s first shoot is in awe. Amber’s line reading during the shoot—perhaps the funniest part of the movie—sums it all up: “This is a giant c*ck.” 

One of the best parts about Boogie Nights is how fast it moves. At 155 minutes, it’s a loaded film but never feels like it, especially during Eddie/Dirk’s rise. The editing is sharp and the dialogue is snappy. Rather than editing multiple scenes together, Anderson chooses to have long sequences with multiple scenes happening within one scene. For example, Jack hosts a pool party with all the people from the nightclub. Eddie meets everyone formally there but the camera follows the other characters. So while Eddie and Reed start to become friends and one-up each other, Maurice is asking Amber to get him into adult movies, The Colonel has to deal with a young stud and a girl overdosing, and we meet Scotty J. as he locks eyes with Eddie and “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate plays. Just in this one elongated sequence, we see so many character arcs progressing without it ever feeling messy. No one does big ensemble movies with multiple storylines better than Anderson. 

That night, Eddie decides to go by the screen name Dirk Diggler. The name is outrageous and is perfect for the character. His first film is a success and the team turns the porn industry on its head by creating action-themed adult films. Dirk wins awards, acclaim, and a lot of money. He, along with Jack, Amber, and Reed, are living their greatest lives as the ‘70s are threatening to end. This part of the movie is rapturous—montages galore, phenomenal music, and scenes from action-porn movies, all at a relentless pace. But, everything that goes up must come down. I’m talking about the 1980 New Year’s Party at Jack’s house.

A bright, neon sign displaying "Dirk Diggler" as Eddie imagines his stage name.
Dirk Imagines his name as a bright blue neon sign.

Right when the audience is thinking everything is great and nothing could go wrong, Anderson subverts our expectations. He’s shown us the luxurious side of porn, now it’s time for the dark side. Tensions are mounting, especially with Assistant Director Little Bill (William H. Macy). After catching his wife (Nina Hartley) having sex with another man for the third time in the movie, Bill decides he’s had enough and shoots his wife, her lover, and himself as the partygoers count the remaining seconds of 1979. 

Dirk and Reed start using cocaine and it doesn’t go well. Dirk can’t get an erection anymore and loses his greatest ability. He says to his emotionally abusive mother earlier in the film, “Everyone’s blessed with one special thing.” Dirk knows his special thing is his penis but he lets other vices come in the way of that. He becomes jealous of another budding star and loses his cool with Jack in a tense yet hilarious scene. Tense because you feel the anger between Jack and Dirk. Hilarious because Wahlberg’s high-pitched and frantic act is just a sight to see. With a straight face, Dirk says, “I wanna f*ck. It’s my f*cking big dick. Who wants to f*ck?” I mean, it’s almost poetry. 

Jack fires Dirk and is approached by film bigwig Floyd Gondolli (Phillip Baker Hall) to start shooting on videotape with amateurs rather than true stars. Floyd says this is the future of the industry and Jack rejects his advances. Hall steals the movie in this one scene with the line reading, “I like simple pleasures, like butter in my ass…”. No one, I mean no one writes dialogue like Anderson. Both Amber and Buck show the audience a truly sad side of the adult film industry that most likely plagues them to this day. Amber can’t get custody of her child and Buck is unable to get a loan from the bank, all due to their past. 

Jack (Reynolds) and a shirtless Dirk (Wahlberg) have a loud argument at Jack's pool as Scotty J (Hoffman) worries in the back.
Tensions rise between Dirk and Jack.

We approach the climax as Jack gives into Floyd’s vision of the future and Dirk falls deeper and deeper into his vices. In a limo with Rollergirl, Jack attempts to find young men on the street to have sex with her and record it on videotape. He says shakingly, almost as if being kidnapped, “We’re about to make film history right here…on videotape.” And, it could not have gone worse. Jack can’t seem to let go of his habit of blocking the scene and creating appealing angles in this tight space and the man they find insults both him and Rollergirl. Both Jack and Rollergirl are distraught and beat the man on the street. 

After a failed attempt in the music industry, Dirk, Reed, and Reed’s friend Todd Parker (Thomas Jane) try to make money by tricking unhinged drug dealer Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina) into buying baking soda masquerading as cocaine. This is, perhaps, the most stressful scene in a movie of the past 25-30 years. Once the door opens, the vibes are already bad. There’s loud music playing, firecrackers going off in the background, and Rahad jamming out to “Jessie’s Girl” like a maniac. Dirk, Reed, and Todd are stoned out of their minds and Todd decides to change the plan by pulling out a gun. In a scene that was already so anxiety-inducing, we get a shootout. Again, most of these sequences would be messily directed but Anderson pulls it off time and again. 

Rahad (Molina) wields a gun in his silk robe, scaring his visitors.
Rahad (Molina) wields a gun.

What works about Boogie Nights, 25 years later, is that it’s relentlessly entertaining. Anderson starts the movie with his foot on the gas pedal and does not lift it up. Once we’ve spent a while on a character’s arc, Anderson doesn’t overstay his welcome and moves quickly to another character. He keeps the audience on their feet, especially in jarring tonal change once Little Bill shoots his wife. It’s no coincidence Anderson times the murder-suicide with the ‘70s ending. The ‘80s were the end of the Golden Age of Porn and Anderson shows that demise in the most tragic way he can find. The jammed-pack screenplay never at once feels messy and—were it not for the sensation that was Ben Affleck-Matt Damon (see: Good Will Hunting)—Anderson would have one Oscar to his name. 

The performances are all terrific across the board. Both Reynolds and Moore were rightfully nominated for their roles and should’ve won. Reynolds shot himself in the foot by complaining about the movie during production and no one had a shot against Robin Williams in the aforementioned Good Will Hunting. But Jack is truly one of the greatest American film characters. It doesn’t matter to him if he’s making an adult or stag film. It’s the craft that matters to him. He cares about the narrative and the lighting as much as he does about the actual act of sexual intercourse. There are shades of current directors fighting against streamers and IP in Jack Horner (more on that later). Moore matches him step by step in a difficult performance. She has to play both Amber Waves, the adult film star, and Maggie, a mother. Amber has to be sexy and alluring whereas Maggie has to be strong. She’s a thrill to watch in the cocaine scenes and her and Wahlberg’s odd Oedipal dynamic is fascinating to watch.

Wearing sparkly and gaudy '70s outfits fit for a pornographic scene, Amber (Moore) and Dirk nearly kiss while shooting.
Amber (Moore) and Dirk shoot a scene.

Wahlberg is a true revelation. His only claim to fame until this movie was “Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch” and Anderson took a huge swing by having him lead this movie. It’s not even close—this is Wahlberg’s best performance. Dirk goes through such a strenuous journey and becomes a completely different person by the end of it. There’s innocence, determination, confidence, arrogance, and sadness in this character, and Wahlberg nails each one of those qualities. His fight with Jack at the pool party will be his greatest scene and line reading: “I’m the king of me. I’m Dirk Diggler. I’m a star.” Dirk is a star and this movie cemented that Mark Wahlberg was a future movie star.

The technical elements are always sound in Anderson movies and this one is no exception. Much has been said already about the cinematography and interesting camera angles. The costumes and production design give a wonderful 1970s feel and immerse you in the period. More than those two, the soundtrack is what transports the audience to an era they might not have lived in. Most movies use tracks from different eras but Boogie Nights has a jukebox soundtrack from the era it’s depicting. The songs that play are songs that would play at the eponymous nightclub or Jack’s party. Songs from Rick Springfield, The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Electric Light Orchestra, and many other ’70s-era musicians make appearances in the film. To put it short, the Boogie Nights soundtrack is perhaps the greatest movie soundtrack of all time.

But, to understand why this movie still remains part of the zeitgeist 25 years later, all you have to do is watch the scene between Jack and Floyd. Floyd is telling Jack the industry is changing from his classic style and he must adapt to newer, less cinematic techniques. There’s a direct parallel to be drawn between auteur directors and their arguments about the industry today. Auteurs like Martin Scorsese and actors like Tom Cruise refuse to bend their knees to streamers and intellectual property. Similar to Jack, they believe in the power of cinema. Floyd represents the naysayer executive who cares more about making money than making something moving. For Jack, it was never about the movie—it was about keeping people in their seats after they’ve climaxed. Jack does give in to Floyd when he shoots the limo video and, to no one shock, it’s an epic failure. It’s similar to Chloé Zhao making a Marvel movie: the philosophies can never mesh well. In the end, however, the power of cinema always wins. 

After seeing himself fall from stardom, a more refined Dirk wearing a white suit jack looks at himself in the mirror and gives himself a pep talk before shooting his next scene.
Dirk gives himself a pep talk as he prepares for his next scene.

Today, Top Gun: Maverick proved that people will go to movie theaters for an old-fashioned spectacle. Not everything has to be a bland, big-budget Netflix movie or a mega Marvel property. Jack and Dirk learned they both need each other to succeed in this industry. Dirk needs Jack’s precise and dedicated direction and Jack needs Dirk’s stardom (and large penis). We finally see what Dirk is hiding behind his pants and it’s one of the most ridiculous closing shots of all time. It truly has to be seen to be believed. In the end, however, Jack and Dirk reconcile and begin shooting their next film—sure to be a huge hit. 

Anderson’s filmography is so vast and diverse, virtually every person will have a different ranking. There Will Be Blood is his best movie. Phantom Thread is his most elegant. The Master is his biggest psychological challenge. Licorice Pizza is his most euphoric. Boogie Nights is none of these qualities because it can’t be labeled that easily. It’s all of those things and none of them at the same time. 

One thing is for sure, though. Boogie Nights is the movie people will remember Paul Thomas Anderson by. 

Written by Aqib Rasheed

AQIB RASHEED is a staff writer at Film Obsessive. Member of the Chicago Indie Critics and served as the Resident Film Critic for the Loyola Phoenix from 2021-2022. An admirer of movies, old and new, from all over the world. President of the Al Pacino and David Fincher fan clubs.

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