By Jeffrey Escoffier
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The famous opening line of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities certainly seems like an appropriate way sum up 1970s New York, but I cite it also because the novel itself comes up in The Deuce’s first season as a book that launches a young prostitute on the road to reading and going back to school. Objectively life in New York City during the 1970s and early 80s was pretty bad — high crime rates, rampant homelessness, loose trash everywhere, whole neighborhoods of abandoned buildings crumbling and burning — yet it was an incredibly creative time as well: in music, art, performance, theater and sexuality. This was brought home to me recently when a 70-year-old retired professor of history said to me: “I know everything was so terrible in that period, but it was also incredibly exciting.”
Times Square, 42nd Street, and the area around them have a long history associated with sexually-oriented businesses — going as far back as the 1880s when, as Timothy Gilfoyle has pointed out, the Metropolitan Opera was located on Broadway between 39th and 40th Streets and attracted high-priced prostitutes, opium dens and “swell joints” to the neighborhood. By the 1970s, the strip between Times Square and the Port Authority Bus Terminal was lined by theaters showing Kung Fu movies and pornography; rundown hotels; prostitutes, drug dealers and teenage male hustlers soliciting customers; adult bookstores and arcades with peep shows; and an aimless traffic of people looking for drugs and sex.
Although Simon and Pelecanos originally characterized the show as about the founding of the adult film industry in the early 70s, they now mostly characterize it as being about ‘the objectification of sex in America’ during that time. So far, the second description is more apt than the former. But as the show’s title seems to suggest, it is primarily the story of the two block stretch in Manhattan known as the Deuce, the nickname of 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth avenue, right off of Times Square — once the center of the theatrical district in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, then the center of the sex industry in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and now the center of a tourist district that plays off the excess and extravagance of a sanitized but “sinful New York,” the descendent of the theater, nightclubs, and sex trades of its past. The first season does cover the emergence of the “porno chic” era (a short period when pornographic films appealed to a wide audience and competed with mainstream Hollywood movies) and the evolution of the adult film industry, but it also covers prostitution as a business, the Mafia’s involvement in the sex industry, Times Square redevelopment and police corruption.
The Deuce interweaves three narrative threads: the mob’s increasing control over the bars and the nightlife in the Times Square area; the opening of massage parlor brothels which took prostitutes off the streets and moved them to warrens of cubicles run by the Mafia; and the development of the adult film industry. The Mafia were at the center of all these developments. Within these three broad narratives there are moments of both intensification and resistance; we see the expansion of peep show booths (showing short sex movies) that is the first kind of porn movies available on 42nd Street and we see the emergence of efforts by feminists and prostitutes to halt abuses by pimps. And we see how the pimps themselves become obsolescent when their prostitutes move from the street into the massage parlor. Looming in the background of the interwoven storylines are the recurrent efforts by the City to clampdown on police corruption and to ‘clean up’ Times Square — initiatives launched by Mayors Lindsay, Beame and Koch which mostly failed.
Like all of Simon’s shows, The Deuce relies on deep reporting and extensive documentation. The producers brought in historical consultants knowledgeable about many of the specialized topics relevant to the show — prostitution, the adult film industry, the Mafia, and police corruption among others. But the making of The Deuce faced a special challenge. Almost nothing of the look of the city has remained from 1970s. The rundown buildings, dark streets, dim lighting, and shabby storefronts are gone, replaced nowadays by shiny new high-rises, brighter lights, chic shops and city blocks lined with trees. In 1971, when film production first returned to the city after a long hiatus, the New Yorker’s film critic, Pauline Kael, speculated on its significance and noted that “the movie companies use what’s really here, so the New York-made movies have been set in Horror City,” thus providing “a permanent record of the city in breakdown. The city has given movies a new spirit of nervous, anxious hopelessness, which is the true spirit of New York. It is literally true that when you live in New York you longer believe that garbage will ever be gone from the streets or that life will ever be sane and orderly.” The challenge was: could the series even be shot in New York?
The Deuce’s producers chose to adopt the visual style of the great noir-ish films made in New York City in that period. In particular, the series shows the influence of Marin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) — which included scenes shot along 42nd Street — as well as films such as his Mean Streets (1973), Gordon Parks' Shaft (1971) and Jerry Schatzberg’s Panic in Needle Park (1971), among others. That decision required historically meticulous set design and computer-generated imagery (CGI). The location scouts eventually found two blocks in upper Manhattan that could serve as a side street — with no trees and the right architecture. Once selected, the series’ visual style built on, just as Kael had predicted, the “permanent record” of a broken city created by those films, and that style managed to capture some sense of the “nervous, anxious hopelessness” of that period as well as its shabby vitality. And it’s the visual style — and the set design based on it — of The Deuce that gives the show its historical credibility and that managed to recreate the texture of daily life in the 1970s.
The other challenge in a show like this is how to represent the sex (and the sex workers and porn actors) without condescension or shame. I know how difficult this is from my own experience — I served as an historical consultant for Adonis Memories, a play about the sex that took inside the famous Adonis porn theater during the 1970s. Contemporary actors had a difficult time re-enacting without embarrassment the sexual abandon of the pre-AIDS era. The Deuce has many sexual scenes with nudity, glimpses of genitalia, and simulated sex acts. There are scenes of exploitative sexuality as well. But the sex scenes are, more or less, treated straight forwardly without either overt moralism or romanticization.
The adult film industry got its start in New York after the U.S. Supreme Court made a series of crucial decisions on obscenity that give permission for more sexually-explicit representations in various kinds of media. On 42nd Street, porn movies first showed up in the coin-operated movie machines (called peep shows) that Marty Hodas, known as “King of the Peeps,” placed in the funky bookstores that sold pulp novels and cheesy magazines. Hodas, shows up in several scenes of The Deuce. Originally the porn in the peep shows was soft-core (nudity and simulated sex), but by the early 1970s, hardcore emerged as a commercial imperative. The transition from soft-core pornography to hardcore produced a dramatic break in the production of pornographic films — both in how sex was portrayed on film and in the way the production of pornography was organized, who performed in it, and what other kinds of activities were associated with it.
Historical research on the history of the adult film industry is still at an early stage of development and The Deuce’s producers turned to The Rialto Report, a web-based archive of oral histories, to document the emergence of the adult film industry in New York City. Developed by Ashley West and April Hall, the Rialto Report has compiled dozens of oral histories of actors, directors, theater owners, distributors, cops and even politicians who had anything to do with the porn industry in the 1970s and 80s — many of which are available as podcasts. But the website also has a massive archive of historical photographs, out of print books, skin magazines, and documents relating to the history of adult films in New York and other places as well. There are interviews with or about many figures involved in the pornographic film industry in the early years — some of these show up in the series, like Marty Hodas along with other participants in the industry such as Linda Lovelace, Harry Reems, Tina Russell, Jamie Gillis and Gerard Damiano, the director of Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones — whose experiences were drawn upon to develop the characters and storylines in the making of the series.
The Deuce is not a documentary but a fictional recreation of 42nd Street and its sex-related businesses. And of course, anachronisms are scattered throughout. The different aspects of the Times Square sexual scene were interwoven, although they weren’t necessarily related in exactly the way portrayed in The Deuce. While the show doesn’t quite capture the exuberance of the sexual revolution taking place at that time, or the fun (according to some of the interviews on The Rialto Report) that porn performers — mostly unemployed actors and musicians rather than prostitutes or pimps — recall having while making porn movies, it does offer a fair portrait of the seamy underside of the businesses that dominated Times Square in that decade and a half.
Jeffrey Escoffier has written about porn and sexuality in New York City in “Sex in the Seventies: Gay Porn Cinema as an Archive for the History of American Sexuality,” in the Journal of the History of Sexuality (26:1, January 2017). He is the author of Bigger Than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema From Beefcake to Hardcore (Running Press, 2008). Last year he served as an historical consultant to Adonis Memories by Alan Bounville.