I Might As Well Let Some Folks Hear This
So, when anyone asked me what I was up to creatively the past two years or so, I’d answer, “Oh, I’m working on a podcast, but I’ve decided not to put it out until I had a full first season of 10 episodes.”
I wasn’t lying. That really was my intention and I really have worked on this project in fits and starts over that time—completing three of my planned ten episodes. But I have to be honest with myself. If this was something I was really super passionate about, I’d have finished it by now. The problem, though, is more one of ambition than laziness. To complete the project as planned, I’d have to write what would essentially be an entire book’s worth of material. Sometimes I’d considered asking some cool folks I know to join me in conversation rather than write entire essays, but as fun as the episode ideas I had were, I honestly couldn’t imagine that many people caring.
The first—and easily the best—episode has been up on Soundcloud for over a year now and a handful of people have listened to it and told me they enjoyed (I won’t mention those of you who I sent the link to and have never heard a word back about it again, BUT YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE! JK, it’s fine. No, it’s fine. Totally fiiiine.) Since it exists and is already nominally on the Internet, I figured I’d embed it here. If literally one person mentions it to me positively in the future AND gives tangible proof that they actually listened to it, I’ll upload the other two and call it all a major success.
If someone were to accuse me of being a compulsive movie hoarder, I couldn’t deny it. Right now, as I record these words on my computer, there’s an 8 terabyte hard drive less than a foot away from me. It’s half full with 2,186 films, many of which I’ve recorded off of Turner Classic Movies over the past six years or so.
A lot of them are films I know I’ll probably never watch, but I keep them out of the fear that one day I might want to and won’t be able to find a copy.
But the benefit of this is that whenever I find myself with an open block in my very, very busy schedule, I know I’ll always have something to fill it.
A few days ago, I decided to fill 90 minutes with one of these films. I was in the mood for a musical and had Debbie Reynolds on my mind, so I chose 1953’s Give a Girl a Break.
Now when I chose it, the title didn’t ring any bells for me, even though it should have. There was a time when my brain was a virtual Internet Movie Database that allowed me the kind of freakish recall that often alienated more than it impressed, but over the years my ability to instantly remember the title and credits of every film I came upon faded away thanks to the actual Internet Movie Database.
In my 20s, I could only count on my own memory to know the pertinent details of Give a Girl a Break, which at that time I would have read about in All His Jazz, Martin Gottfried’s biography of Bob Fosse--a fundamental text in my development as a movie lover. But in my 40s, the existence of the IMDb allowed me to delete everything I once knew and as a result I was surprised when the opening credits rolled and indicated that Fosse--my favourite director of all time--co-starred in the film, which--it turned out--was directed by Stanley Donen, the man who--with Gene Kelly--gave us Singin’ in the Rain, the most singularly perfect movie musical ever made.
As pleasantly surprised by these revelations as I was, neither drove me to the IMDb for further research, which happens often when I watch movies alone. That happened only when an actress I thought I have never seen before appeared onscreen.
It says something about a film that features such accomplished musical performers as Fosse, Reynolds and the film’s true stars, Marge and Gower Champion, that Helen Wood never once seems out of her league.
The film is about what happens when a Broadway review loses its star a few weeks before opening night and they have to find her replacement. The director, Gower Champion, prefers his former flame, Marge Champion, who has appeared to given up show business for her marriage, while his gofer, Fosse, is instantly smitten with Reynolds, a small town girl who dreams of stardom. Wood, a jazz dancer with amazing legs, is the choice of Kurt Kasznar, the show’s composer, who has been obsessed with her since seeing her own self-produced dance recital.
That Kasznar would be so consumed by Wood’s stage presence is very easy to accept. At times, on screen, it’s possible to mistake her for Cyd Charrise, which is probably the greatest compliment you can give a dancer from that era.
Her presence was so palpable that it felt bizarre to me that I had never seen her before, which is what prompted me to pick up my phone and look her up.
Now this is what I expected to find. A short filmography mostly composed of background dancer roles in a variety of musicals from that era. It seemed reasonable that Give a Girl a Break would be her biggest role and that for whatever reason, stardom didn’t occur and she retired from acting around 1960 or so, probably after a few guest-starring roles on Gunsmoke and Bonanza. Namely, the exact scenario I’d seen dozens of times in similar instances.
But here’s the thing about the IMDb. It’s always waiting to surprise you and to take you somewhere you never ever expected to go. And in this case, the surprise was the most shocking the site has delivered to me thus far.
I said before that I thought this was the first time I had ever seen Helen Wood in a movie. This wasn’t the case. And like I said, as I had searched for her name I had assumed that Give a Girl a Break would be the most famous film she ever appeared in. This was also not the case.
Turns out, in the early 70s Wood changed her screen name to Dolly Sharp. Now for a lot of people that name won’t ring any bells, but in the early to mid 70s, many would have recognized it as the one belonging to the co-star of the film that--for reasons no one can really explain--sparked the era of porno chic.
Any serious history of film has to include some mention of Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat. Made for about 20,000 bucks in 1972, it might very well be the most successful film of all time. We’ll never know because the people who became rich from it were not honest bookkeepers. Instead they were the type of dudes who made Damiano sign away his share of his profits by pointing a gun at his head.
As weird as it may sound, it’s one of the most culturally significant films ever made. Released at the exact right moment, it captured the zeitgeist in a way no other pornographic film had before or has since. It became the film everyone at the time was talking about, which meant having to actually go to a porno theatre to see it.
There’s a great blog/podcast called the Rialto Report, which is dedicated to unearthing the stories of adult cinema’s golden age. They’re the ones responsible for making the connection between Helen Wood and Dolly Sharp.
Their reporting tells the story of a very beautiful and promising dancer who appeared in the original Broadway productions of Gentleman Prefer Blondes and Pal Joey, before she was scooped up by 20th Century Fox for a seven year movie contract. The first thing Fox did was lend her out to MGM for Give a Girl a Break and it should have been her big break, but the production was troubled and the film lost money. After that, Fox simply forgot about her.
From that point she appeared on TV (frequently on Ed Sullivan) and in Las Vegas revues, before taking on the role of lead dancer of Radio City Music Hall’s Ballet Corps--a position she held for eight years.
During this time she had a small role as a burlesque dancer in William Friedkin’s 1968 movie The Night They Raided Minsky’s. It was her second and last mainstream film before the physical stresses of dance ended her stage career. Divorced with a young son, she found herself at the age of 35 answering an ad for low budget and independent films. Nudity required.
At that point porn was still shot as short films called loops. Helen changed her name to Dolly, disguised herself with cheap wigs and earned $100 a day to appear in them. Older and more sexually adventurous than her peers, she’d often haggle an extra $25 a day by agreeing to do anal.
Within a few years, the loops grew to became longer features, which lead Helen to appearing in Deep Throat, which no one at any time during its production reasonably assumed would ever amount to anything.
Of course, they were all wrong and Dolly--who had only appeared in the films because she assumed no one she knew would ever see them--was suddenly in the most famous porno movie ever made. At the time she had vague plans of transitioning into teaching music and dance to children, but now she knew that would never be possible, so she fled to Virginia and spent the last 24 years of her life working as a waitress before she died of colon cancer at the age of 63 in 1998.
Now here’s the thing about the IMDb. The special quality that makes it so uniquely fascinating. I didn’t need to find the Rialto Report’s post about Helen Wood to know what had happened to her. I knew in the instant I saw those two credits on her page. Everything else was just the details. But the heart of the story was told once I knew her career had taken her from a co-starring role in a classic Stanley Donen musical to a co-starring role in the most famous movie ever made about blow jobs.
Now I’ve only told you this story as a prelude to this piece I wrote for my website almost a decade ago now. It was ostensibly for a series of slasher movie reviews I was writing at the time. The movie in question was so terrible and unworthy of comment that I instead spent the whole review furthering the theory I just suggested above--that the IMDb is--in its own way--one of the saddest websites in the whole history of the Internet.
And to prove this, we’re not going to begin where you expect.
Scott Baio’s IMDb page begins with one of the oddest films of 1976. That was the year that Alan Parker cast him in the title role of a film best explained by Baio’s co-star, Jodie Foster.
His next important credit came the next year when Garry Marshall cast him in the Nancy Walker showgirl sitcom Blansky’s Beauties. It’s okay if you’ve never heard of it. It only lasted 13 episodes, but Marshall clearly saw something in Baio, because he then gave him the defining role of his career--Arthur Fonzarelli’s Teen Beat ready nephew, Chachi Arcola.
But at that point Chachi was just a guest star and Marshall retooled Blanksy’s Beauties showgirl concept without Walker into Who’s Watching the Kids, which flopped even harder than the first series and only managed to last 11 episodes.
After that Marshall gave up on showgirls and made Chachi a regular cast member on Happy Days, which lead to the peak of Baio’s cultural capital. In the same way that the Fonz usurped Richie Cunningham as the true star of the show, Chachi’s screaming fans turned him into the era’s defining TV heartthrob.
He seized on this in ways that worked--the TV movie Stoned-- and ways that didn’t like Skatetown USA and his unfortunate singing career.
In 1980 he appeared in what remains the best movie of his career, Adrian Lyne’s teen girl drama, Foxes, which once again paired him with Jodie Foster.
Unfortunately, in 1982, his first real attempt to capitalize on his TV fame with a leading movie role resulted in ZAPPED, a movie in which he plays a nerd who uses his newfound telekinetic powers to sexually assault The Fall Guy’s Heather Thomas.
It didn’t lead to other starring roles.
That same year Marshall decided to spin-off Happy Day’s biggest couple into their own show. Joanie Loves Chachi was one of the biggest hyped series of the year, but Baio’s base of young screaming girl fans did what most bases of young screaming girl fans do, they grew up and moved on. Joanie and Chachi’s love story ended after only 17 episodes.
Baio returned to Happy Days for its unhappy final days and when it ended in 1984 moved on to his rebound series, Charles in Charge, which reunited him with his Zapped co-star Willie Aames for reasons today’s cultural archeologists still can’t explain. It only lasted one season on CBS, but managed to exist for four more thanks to the magic of syndication.
Wanting to prove he was more than a pretty face, Baio directed 36 episodes of Charles in Charge. He leveraged this experience to direct episodes of other series you probably don’t remember, including Out of This World, Shaky Ground and Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher.
After two seasons helping Dick Van Dyke catch killers on Diagnosis Murder, Baio’s acting career floundered with only occasional guest spots and roles in independent movies no one saw. By 2005 he was reduced to being a human punchline playing himself in Wes Craven’s forgotten werewolf misfire, Cursed before finally accepting the modern fate of all c-listers, a reality show based on his famous history as a ladies man.
In 2012, TV Land jumped on his nostalgia cred for a two season run of a family sitcom called See Dad Run, which is the last credit on his page as it currently stands. We won’t go into how he stays in the headlines today, because that part of his story isn’t told on the IMDb, but the story we do see is one show business historians know by heart. It is a tale of massive early success, followed by mediocrity, burn out, ridicule and embarrassment with only the tiniest slivers of redemption at the end.
But here’s the important thing and the reason why we’re starting on his page before we move on to the others. For all of its inherently melancholy, this is the IMDb page of a hollywood success story.
By the standards of his business, Baio has had a pretty great career. During it he achieved a level of popularity millions of people in Los Angeles would literally kill to experience for just a week or two. And as much as we may use it to mock, sneer and roll our eyes at, we still know his name today. Which, in the world of the IMDb is a truly epic achievement.
Now let’s make a few clicks. Let’s go to the Joanie Loves Chachi page and check out its full cast list. If we scroll down we’ll find Steven Baio, who appeared in one episode of the show.
The short bio on his page tells us he’s Scott’s brother and this is reflected in his handful of credits. Two of his five acting credits are from his brother’s shows. One of his three writing credits is for an episode of Charles in Charge and two of his five producing credits are for independent movies starring Scott.
But we’re going to focus on one of the credits that Scott had nothing to do with and that Steven can fairly claim as completely his own.
Evil Laugh is a 1986 slasher movie that Steven co-wrote and acts in. His collaborator was another struggling actor who had bit roles in Once Bitten and the Friday the 13th sequel that doesn’t have Jason in it (I’m not naming him for creepy reasons you can google). Together the two of them wrote an Abbott & Costello style comedy script called Two Guys From Brooklyn that they hoped would be their gateway to their movie stardom, but in order to get the money they needed to make it they decided to make a movie they knew would be much easier to sell first.
Steven’s co-writer was always annoyed by how the characters in horror movies never knew anything about horror movies and--as a result--always made the decisions guaranteed to get them killed. Because of this, Evil Laugh’s one creative spark comes from the character of Barney, a horror fan who predicts the film’s events a good five years before Rolfe Kanefsky’s There’s Nothing Out There and eight years before Wes Craven’s Scream.
But beyond that the movie is terrible in every conceivable away. Some forgiving genre fans might be tempted to celebrate it as entertaining camp, but don’t listen to them it’s really just not a good movie.
It’s the kind of film where the main female character spends much of the movie in a swimsuit with a towel draped over her shoulders, covering her breasts, so that later on during her inevitable shower scene we hopefully don’t notice that the body double they hired for her is significantly better endowed.
Also, this song is played multiple times throughout.
But that doesn’t matter. Because Evil Laugh not only got made; it also got released and found its way onto home video. Something many films--including the ones Steven produced for his famous brother--cannot claim. And though no one ever--probably thankfully--never made Two Guys From Brooklyn, Evil Laugh did well enough for the two of them to make a second horror movie--the equally terrible Hard Rock Nightmare. For that reason, this page also be documents a Hollywood success story.
Today, Evil Laugh is more notable for its odd cast that not only features the late talk show host and game show producer Merv Griffen’s son Tony, but also Jody Gibson who later took over as Hollywood’s most popular madam after the downfall of Heidi Fleiss in the 90s, but we’re not clicking over to their pages. Instead let's check out the page for the film’s leading lady.
In her bio it says her birth name was Kimberly Ashley McKarny, but in Evil Laugh and the four other films she made between 1986 and 1988 she billed herself as Kim McKamy. McKarny looks like McKamy if you squint at it, so that may just be a typo.
Four of these five Kim McKamy films are all z-grade horror. Evil Laugh doesn’t even manage to be the worst of the bunch. The fifth is the third film in the hookersploitation Angel franchise and it’s the most prestigious film of the bunch, so--naturally--she’s only in it for one shot.
As a beautiful wannabe actress in LA, Kim had two things going against her. In her mid-20s, she didn’t look like the innocent young ingenues who got cast in 80s teen horror movies. She instead had a sexy mature edge better suited for high-powered executives or southern social climbers. Even though they were the same age, she looked and sounded more like her co-stars’ unusually hot mom than their friend and peer.
Also, she just wasn’t a good actor.
For these reasons, after Angel III in 1988, the parts stopped coming. And on many other IMDb pages this is where we’d see her dream of stardom end, but Kim wasn’t quite ready to give up just yet.Sometime between that film and her next, Kim decided she would never be forced to wear a towel around her shoulders ever again. She found a surgeon, changed her body and appeared in 17 movies in 1990 alone.
But now she was billed as Ashlyn Gere and the films she appeared in were in the section of the video store that was usually kept in its own separate room. Titles include All That Sex, Total Reball, Bun for the Money, Club Head and Sweet Angel Ass.
The qualities that held her back in mainstream hollywood were no longer an issue in porn. Her mature sophisticated sex appeal made her stand out from other adult actresses and performances that once seemed mannered and forced were now considered award worthy.
Literally. She won awards for them.
And thanks to the friendship she developed with the writing/directing team of Glen Morgan and James Wong, she also became the rare adult actress from the period who you could occasionally expect to see pop up in roles on TV shows like The X-Files, Millineum and Space: Above and Beyond and in movies like The One with Jet Li.
But her biggest movies were two where no one even saw her face. Having started her career insisting on a body double for Evil Laugh, she went on to serve that role for Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal. She went by Kim McKamy in the credits for both of them.
Unlike Helen Wood, who saw porn as a last resort she fled from once she risked being recognized, Kim embraced it as a path to the celebrity she was never going to find in mainstream Hollywood. As Ashlyn Gere she became a bonafide star. Albeit the kind most people will never admit to having heard of while in polite company.
And for that reason, her IMDb page is also one of a Hollywood success story.
Which leaves us with this: If the pages of success stories on the IMDb leave us focusing on the inherent indignity of show business life, then what are the pages of actual failures like? And not just them. What about all those people who tried all their lives and never did anything worthy of the IMDb at all?
This has been There are only so many breaks to give for the Vanity Fear podcast, written, performed and recorded by Allan Mott. Learn more about me and the show at vanity Fear dot com and on Twitter at houseofglib. If you enjoyed this episode make sure to like, comment, subscribe, tell your friends or do anything that makes me feel like the effort has been worthwhile.