Dave explores Gary Graver’s sole collaboration with Candida Royalle, a real trailblazer in the Golden Age of Pornography.
If you have any affection for the history of adult entertainment, and more specifically the icons that stood out from its frequently characterless ensembles, then Sheona McDonald’s documentary Candice (2019) is essential. Born in Brooklyn, NYC, Candice Vandala fell into porn in the mid-‘70s after moving out west to San Francisco, rechristening herself ‘Candida Royalle’ in the process. The name stuck, and Vandala embarked upon a five-year career that saw her appear in close to thirty XXX pictures.
Disillusioned with what she termed “misogynous predictability”, Vandala returned to New York in late ’79, and eventually set up her own company, Femme Productions, which would make eighteen acclaimed movies that focused purely on erotica tailored towards female desire. Insisting on no cum shots, no boob jobs, and even no fake nails, this trailblazing endeavour established her as a feminist icon whose life was justifiably lauded upon her tragic death from ovarian cancer in 2015.
Over the years, Vandala had been quite scathing towards her acting career in the late ‘70s, and remarked in McDonald’s film that:
“There was nothing I was proud of. Everything contributed to a woman’s sense of shame about their sexuality.”
It’s a justifiable opinion, especially when you look back at something like Joey Silvera’s Easy Alice (1976), where Vandala is subjected to a rape sequence in a laundromat. But I do insist that there’s some well-balanced movies within her on-screen CV; films that have couples appeal and that don’t necessarily pluck the lowest hanging fruit for the sake of a quick buck.
One such picture, is HOT RACKETS.
Filmed in the same year that he did (the admittedly superior) Tangerine (1979) and The Ecstasy Girls (1979), Hot Rackets was Gary Graver’s first collaboration with producer Sam Norvell, with whom he’d work with regularly on a mixture of porn (Suzie Superstar (1983)) and mainstream (Evil Spirits (1990)) fare over the course of a thirteen-year period. Norvell wrote the script with a ‘Milt Morton’ (probably Graver) – and although it’s back-of-a-beermat stuff in terms of depth and complexity, it nevertheless provides an original and entertaining framework.
Vandala plays Liz Adler: a housewife disinterested in sex, and whose husband, Herb, has joined the local tennis/swingers club in an effort to re-string his racket. Envious of the fact that her hubby is giving a forehand smash to anyone in a white tennis skirt, Liz heads down to the club to discover which side of the net his balls are landing…
One of Graver’s greatest assets was his ability to move between genres with ease, and comedy was always his forte. Hot Rackets is funny, and Graver is the biggest proponent of that. From his deadpan newsreader lines at the beginning (“Traces of meat have been found in McDonald’s hamburgers”), and his cameo as a wine taster at the Horny Owl nightclub; to his old-school sight gags and slapstick (the penis with sunglasses smoking a fag is hysterical). Hot Rackets has his humourous hallmarks etched right through its core.
Vandala is sublime here too, perfectly encapsulating the prudish reluctance that embodies her character, and she’s aided by a troupe of actors who compliment her radiance: Desiree Cousteau, Rhonda Jo Petty, Jon Martin, and Mike Ranger. It’s sex heavy and plot light – an anomaly for Graver’s golden-era work- but Hot Rackets rattles along at a rollicking pace that goes some way into masking its occasional flaw – notably the looped dialogue on around half of the copulation scenes, which seem to be voiced by other actors.
Would Vandala dispute the feminist credentials of Hot Rackets? I’m not so sure. Liz’s journey from a detached spouse to someone who not only embraces their sexuality, but surpasses her husband in regards to the determination at which she reconciles her desires, is surely peak-liberation. Granted, it occurs within the boundaries of something eminently frothy, forgettable, and distinctly featherweight, but its empowering message is rarely lost.
USA ● 1979 ● Adult ● 81mins
Candida Royalle, Jon Martin, Mike Ranger, Desiree Cousteau ● Dir. Gary Graver ● Wri. Milt Morton, Sam Norvell