Wrangler: Anatomy Of An Icon

TLA Releasing

Jeffrey Schwarz

Jack Wrangler, Margaret Whiting, Debbi Whiting, Michael Bronski, Durk Dehner, Samuel R. Delany, Jack Deveau, Christine Ebersole, Samantha Fox, Al Goldstein, Rock Hudson,
Chi Chi La Rue.
Rod McKuen,
Sharon Mitchell, Michael Musto. Alan Oppenheimer, Robert Patrick, Marc Shaiman, Bruce Vilanch

Unrated, 85 minutes

More Fun Than Fassbinder
by Michael D. Klemm
A shorter version first appeared in abOUT, October, 2008


I had little hope that Wrangler: Anatomy Of An Icon, the new documentary about former porn star Jack Wrangler, would have much to offer beyond the abundant scenery. To my surprise, I discovered a carefully crafted chronicle of a man whose life proves the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction.

Jack Wrangler was handsome and muscular and looked like the Marlboro Man. A generation of gay men, tired of sissy screen stereotypes, was able to embrace a new hypermasculine ideal. He made 85 films and revolutionized 1970s gay porn. Besides being able to deliver the money shot, he exuded self confidence and intelligence, and connected with his audience. And, yes, he was hot. Wrangler is an intriguing documentary that captures a warts-and-all portrait of a fascinating artist.

He was a geeky kid who couldn't please his father. He wanted to be "larger than life" and was drawn to cowboys on television, especially Michael Landon on Bonanza. As a child, he was bitten by the showbiz bug after appearing in a Sunday morning religious program. Following a string of small roles in bad 60s television shows like The Mod Squad, (he once appeared on The Dating Game too), he drifted into the emerging gay porn industry and the rest, as they say, is history. But there was a complicated man behind this stud. His fans were taken aback when he shifted later to straight porn and were stunned even further when he married a woman twenty years his senior - famed singer, Margaret Whiting.

A shrewd businessman, Wrangler was one of the first adult industry performers to appreciate the value of promotion and marketing. Nowadays, we are used to seeing dildos, cast from the appendages of porn stars, for sale on the internet but this was new territory in the 70s. Wrangler explains his foray into straight porn as being a marketing strategy and nothing more. His love for Margaret Whiting is another matter altogether. Wrangler stresses that, while he remains faithful to his wife, he is still gay. They connect on a level that is beyond traditional norms; he truly loves her and their relationship is one that cannot be neatly categorized into the world of Jim Dobson and all those repressive Family Research Councils. He also makes it clear that his commitment to Whiting is probably why he dodged the bullet and escaped catching AIDS.

Jack Wrangler tells his story to the cameras himself, aided by remembrances from his colleagues and commentators as varied as playwright Robert Patrick, columnist Michael Musto, comedian Bruce Vilanch and poet Rod McKuen. The interview segments with his daughter-in law (who initally disapproved of their relationship) also provide valuable insights as well as some comic relief. What could have been National Enquirer fodder, (his unusual decision to marry, for example), never descends into mockery. The tale unfolds with all its seeming incongruities yet, throughout it all, Wrangler's sincerity and conviction stands tall. His career is explored within its historical context. Director Jeffrey Schwartz does a fine job, for example, presenting 1950s repression and how queer panic helped form Wrangler's new persona.

Examining the history of the gay porn industry might not be as intellectually challenging as looking back on the roots of queer cinema but sociological discussions of both genres are vital to understanding our past. For those who lived in large metropolitan cities, the films of Jack Wrangler often provided the first opportunity for many gay men to see themselves represented positively on the silver screen and they could get their rocks off at the same time. And, I might as well admit it, these blue movies were a lot more fun than the films of Fassbinder.

Much of Wrangler is very playful. Snippets from his movies are often used to illustrate his life story and ironic humor is plentiful. Archival footage of old physique films and a campy homophobic cautionary short ala Reefer Madness - 1961's Boys Beware - add to a general atmosphere of irreverence. Wrangler is not, however, a slapped together and farcical documentary bereft of the cerebral; it is professionally filmed and edited and the only time it faltered, for me, was its somewhat confusing chronology in the last act.

The film also gets a personal nod from me for including Samuel R. Delany, my favorite gay and African-American science fiction writer, (and historian of sexual customs in old Times Square movie palaces - see Times Square Red, Times Square Blue), as one of the talking heads.

But... you're asking - are there ample film clips of Jack Wrangler in action? Of course, and there is much to enjoy for those who are only interested in matters prurient. I'll be honest; I lost track of how many times that I hit the rewind and pause buttons on my remote. Still, this isn't just a collection of porn clips. There is something gritty and honest about his on-screen visage that comes across as being so much more real than the polished models seen in gay porn today. He wasn't just there to provide a wank, he was a role model to many and that isn't a bad legacy. However, as Wrangler himself points out, there is so much more to him and yet - even when he writes a libretto to a ballet - the media still always prefaces his name with "porn star." One thing is for certain, he sure marched to the beat of his own drum. This is an informative, and very entertaining, documentary.

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