Boogie Nights at 25: How Paul Thomas Anderson Foresaw Changing Attitudes Towards Art, Porn, and Commerce

With his breakout film, Anderson also captured what it means to pursue your dreams, even when it's painful

Boogie Nights Why It's Bad
Boogie Nights (New Line Cinema), illustration by Steven Fiche

    25 years ago, Boogie Nights arrived in theaters, introducing audiences to a promising-turned-renowned filmmaker (Paul Thomas Anderson) and showcasing a fantastic ensemble of young breakout performers (Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman), rising character actors (Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore) and Hollywood veterans (Burt Reynolds, Philip Baker Hall) in an endlessly entertaining depiction of the Golden Age of Porn.

    Laced with colorful period detail and a vibrant wall-to-wall soundtrack of pop, disco, and Motown, Anderson’s sun-soaked chronicle of the San Fernando Valley in the late 1970s illustrated a seemingly halcyon time in American culture. As the film’s trailer posits, it was an era when “sex was safe, pleasure was a business, and business was booming.” We used to be a proper country, Boogie Nights seems to suggest.

    Anderson filters all the ostensible love, optimism, and prosperity from that period through the partnership between high school dropout Eddie Adams (Wahlberg) and popular porn director Jack Horner (Reynolds). On one fateful night at the Reseda nightclub Jack frequents and Eddie works at, Jack recruits Eddie to act in his next slate of films. Cursed with a dysfunctional home life in Torrance but gifted with a large appendage, Eddie decides to inhabit the role of Jack’s muse, successfully transforming into the porn persona Dirk Diggler.


    Joining Jack’s loving if transgressive surrogate family, Dirk immerses himself with hapless single mother Amber Waves (Moore), radio salesman Buck Swope (Cheadle), aspiring magician Reed Rothchild (Reily), cucked assistant director Little Bill (Macy), awkward gay boom operator Scotty (Hoffman), and the startlet Rollergirl (Heather Graham).

    Dirk’s youthful sexual potency represents both a beacon of creative and economic potential for Jack and an avatar for Anderson’s own hot-shot ingenuity — the writer-director made Boogie Nights at 26 years old. Like Dirk, everyone faces some form of professional, domestic, or romantic rejection that deepens their desire for autonomy as much as it sets them each on a path toward disappointment or self-destruction.

    “There’s Practically No End to How Much Money You Can Make”

    As Boogie Nights moves into its cynical, often grueling second half, set during the conservative, materialistic Reagan years of the ‘80s, the greedy, seedy exploitation and drug-fueled violence lingering underneath the adult film world comes into full focus.

    Profits are prioritized over spirit and vision. Production companies shift from the textured grain of analog film to the garish lo-fi aesthetic of VHS. Even the language around consent and boundaries on Jack’s sets changes from enthusiastic and straightforward to reluctant and perfunctory. There’s no more pleasure in the “pleasure business,” and Dirk, Jack, and everyone else start to unravel because of it.

    Boogie Nights illuminates so many wonderful, profound insights about identity, purpose, and unfulfilled dreams, but what’s perhaps most interesting and prescient about the 1997 classic is its examination of the tension between art and commerce. That conflict between wanting to make something and being confined to the financial and creative demands of the times not only spoke to the evolving technologies and dueling ideologies that bookended those decades, but also reflect our current media landscape as well.


    The dominance of streaming services over the past decade, for example, has essentially reduced storytelling into content. While lots of great stories have come out of the streaming world, the business model for it tends to favor and market narratives dictated by an algorithm over ones that could make more of a cultural impact.

    Yes, there is more access to watching and talking about television and films than ever before, and yet there is also a distinctive loss in how we experience stories nowadays, especially when everything seems to be reverse-engineered to become social media fodder.

    It can be argued that porn is simply content too, a mere spectacle meant to be quickly consumed and disposed of, but Jack’s films show that porn can have just as much artistic merit as any other mainstream piece of art. Crude and often silly as they are, they clearly have a fun, scrappy energy to them that communicates Jack’s yearning to make movies that are “true and right and dramatic,” a line he tells Dirk early in Boogie Nights.


    Also serving as a stand-in for Anderson’s simultaneously passionate and frustrated artistic side, Jack believes in what he’s producing, even if the quality of his oeuvre may not be perfect or accessible to the average viewer. However, once he’s forced to cut costs and adapt to videotape, Jack develops a resigned disinterest in the alchemical process and attention to detail that stimulated his earlier work, leading his films to become darker and more vulgar.

    The same goes for Dirk, whose abundant carnal stamina and boyish charm regress into impotence and hot-headed arrogance as he falls deeper into a cocaine addiction and embraces the misogyny of his on-screen alter ego, Brock Landers.

    His seething jealousy over his dopplegänger replacement, Johnny Doe, furthers the already growing divide between him and Jack, culminating in a breakdown that leaves Dirk unemployed and desperate for money. Because both Jack and Dirk tie so much of themselves and their self-esteem to their jobs, they prioritize control over craftsmanship and subsequently lose touch with what drew them together in the first place.

    “I Like to See People Fucking on Film”


    The disorienting effect of this cultural transition in Boogie Nights also foreshadowed our culture’s changing view on cinematic sex. Moral panic around on-screen depictions of sexuality and nudity has existed since the Hays Code days, but a puritanical sentiment towards media has slowly but surely grown over these past few years. In online spaces especially, people have debated over the very necessity of sex scenes in film and television.

    The problem isn’t that sex scenes are unnecessary; rather, it is a severe lack of imagination that inhibits on-screen sex from being more erotic and enjoyable to watch. In the same way that streaming has created a more efficient if numbing formula to engage audiences, so too has mainstream cinema increasingly floundered its ability to titillate audiences, opting either for empty provocation or sanitization.

    Boogie Nights demonstrates the value of imagination in porn and filmmaking as a whole, how it not only creates a more intimate atmosphere but a more comfortable and coordinated one as well. It’s pleasing to watch sexy characters with good chemistry copulate, but even more so to see an idea come together with ease, eagerness, and care. When storytellers and performers are excited to work, are valued for their labor, and are unrestricted by the pressures of industry forces, the potential to make something special and meaningful becomes limitless.


    What can also be imaginative and just as arousing is the subtext, what isn’t seen and what is merely referenced. For instance, Dirk’s cartoonishly large penis isn’t seen until the film’s final iconic shot, only alluded to through surprised and awed responses from various characters. In fact, most of Boogie Nights’ multitude of sex scenes are obscured by the intrigued, hypnotized reactions of Jack’s crew members or bystanding spectators.

    By displaying the wonder around the spectacle as much as the spectacle itself, Boogie Nights creates a kind of alluring mystery around sex, edging the audience enough to make those brief, vivid moments of carnal delight feel all the more satisfying.

    Of course, there is a reason for the film’s occasional elliptical tendencies around depicting explicit scenes: Anderson originally wanted an NC-17 rating for Boogie Nights, but New Line Cinema producer Michael de Luca told him it needed to fit an R. According to William H. Macy’s oral history on the film, the MPAA made a much bigger deal over the film’s nudity than its graphic violence.


    Violence does play an important role in Boogie Nights (and many of Anderson’s other films), acting as a consequence of institutional coercion, commodification, and what it takes to make it in America, a nation built on violent opportunism. It’s especially significant during the film’s equally thrilling and devastating final act where Dirk and Jack engage in separate violent encounters that lead the two to reconcile.

    But limiting the exposure of sex — the lustful pleasure and fantasy of it — deprives audiences of getting to experience one of the many joys of being human. Even if it’s not what Anderson intended, this metatext around New Line Cinema’s attempts to stifle Boogie Nights’ most explicit elements prompts a series of pertinent questions: Why, as a culture, do we value brutality over pleasure so frequently, particularly in the media we consume? Is it because sex requires more vulnerability? That violent imagery is more cathartic to digest because we can passively witness it rather than actively participate in it?

    Boogie Nights doesn’t provide a clear answer to those questions, but its earnest, hopeful ending does point to how we can make peace with the circumstances we’re given. In an emotionally resonant tracking shot that mirrors the film’s technically elaborate opening, Anderson shows Jack’s unconventional family unit reunited again. Everyone is still wounded from their individual traumas but also a little more grown up because of them.


    Dirk gets his act together, practicing his lines in front of a mirror with a renewed sense of self before taking out his engorged member and reiterating his star power. Anderson seems to say that if we’re able to persevere through painful moments in our lives and still maintain a desire to pursue our true calling, then it’s an endeavor worth doing. Whether that’s making a film or making a family — that’s the real good stuff.