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Kay Parker, Taboo, and the Golden Age of Porn #NSFW

by Aram Saroyan on April 3, 2014

Kay Parker in Taboo (1980) (GIF by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Kay Parker in Taboo (1980) (GIF by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Given the vantage point of the digital era, the 1970s to the mid-1980s can now be reckoned the porn era’s golden age, such as it is. Those were years when feature-length pornographic films were shown at movie houses all over America. Admittedly the stories were ridiculous, straining credulity and even sanity, but still they aspired after narrative and on occasion even attempted a soupcon of wit. Nowadays the internet has made the sexual highpoints of these films available free, mostly in five- to twelve-minute increments, very few “vintage” films having been deemed worthy of complete viewing. Whole films can be purchased by the dedicated as DVDs or directly streamed, but these are occasional sale items whereas the free abridgements receive thousands of hits daily.

A major exception is the film Taboo (1980) starring Kay Parker, which inspired twelve numbered sequels (only the first two of which also starred Parker), and which can be seen in its entirety on various free sites (link NSFW). The eponymous taboo is incest. Parker plays Barbara, a fortyish woman who refuses to perform oral sex on her husband with the bedroom lights on. This opening scene culminates with loveless intercourse and when it’s done Parker immediately gets up off the bed and puts on a blue silk robe. Her husband also gets up and begins packing a suitcase. When she asks what he’s doing, he tells her angrily that he’s fed up and moving out.

The next morning, in the same blue silk robe tied loosely and barely covering her breasts, Barbara is getting breakfast with her son Paul, a handsome young man with an innocent air (Mike Ranger). Told by her that his father has left them, Paul responds offhandedly that he’ll come back, but then offers to quit school and get a job to support them. Parker replies that he needs to complete his education and that she herself will get a job.

“I mean I’m not exactly over the hill, you know,” she tells him.

Ranger agrees and adds that she’s the best looking mom around. Parker’s breasts have almost appeared from behind her loose wrap when he says this and she smiles and says, “Well, thank you, sonny boy,” somehow without a salacious undercurrent, and tightens her robe.

Performers of this vintage seem rather quaint and old-fashioned today, a motley crew earning an unlikely but honest living in generally awful films, hence the abridgements.  And the highlights are arguably the least interesting parts, since the sexual mechanics past a moment or two aren’t really so riveting. What is of interest, and I would guess remains fresh, is the small, ephemeral betrayal of a personal signature by someone — a trace of actual personality or interest or passion — but these are generally in short supply.

The exception is Parker, who according to her Wikipedia entry began her career as a legitimate actress with an improv group and got into porn by stages, assuming non-sexual roles in her first few films made in the late 1970s. Having made the plunge into hard-core sex films, after a few years she rethought her direction and decided to leave San Francisco, the capital of the porn industry at the time, and move to Los Angeles to get back to legitimate acting — but now was offered the lead in Taboo. In an interview with her on YouTube, Parker says that knowing several women who were victims of incest, she hesitated and mulled the decision for several days. Knowing somebody would take the role, she eventually accepted, thinking “[that] I [could] put some sensitivity, empathy into it.”

Taboo succeeds in large part on the single casting choice of Parker, a stately voluptuous brunette with a face that registers nuances of response generally unavailable among her peers. It’s the face of an adult woman grappling with the complications of her life with sincerity, perplexity, and what appears to be a generous reservoir of good will. In fact what’s most surprising about Parker’s softly shaded performance is the moment when she engages in straight no chaser sex. It’s at this point that the viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief comes to a halt simply because it’s no longer needed. What one is watching is no longer make believe, the feature is now a documentary.

The Oedipal drama is among the most popular tropes throughout hard and soft core pornography, and part of the preeminence of Taboo is that Parker is a plausible mother figure at the same time that she projects a strong and again good-natured sensuality. In this first film she’s also a virtual style maven, dressing for job interviews and then her office job with solid color pants-suit ensembles and a wide-brimmed hat.

A daisy chain in Taboo (1978)

A daisy chain in Taboo (1980)

The scenes in Taboo in which Parker either doesn’t appear or is a repelled or bemused observer, depict a world in which sex seems to dominate everyone’s life with joyous albeit mindless unanimity. There’s an aerial view of an orgy with a Busby Berkeley-like mandala or daisy chain of couples engaged in 69. Parker’s female friend in the film, played by the well-known porn actress known as Aunt Peg (the late Juliet Anderson), seems to be ensconced in an ongoing ménage a trois with a young couple who while copiously active don’t have speaking roles.

On her first post-separation date, Parker goes out with a man who would like her to participate in an orgy. This scene echoes the contemporaneous Travis Bickle’s decision in Taxi Driver to take Cybil Shepard to a Times Square porno movie on their first date — one mainstream acknowledgment of the public prevalence of porn at the time.

As Parker’s exasperation mounts, she periodically takes note of her handsome son who turns out to be another sexual athlete, with a blond girlfriend played by Dorothy LeMay who, with barely a speaking role, commands third-star billing after Ranger. (A generic porn music comes into play in these films during longer scenes of physical play minus dialogue.)  Home from her fiasco of a date Parker glimpses her son asleep naked on his bed, leaves his room, recalls a vivid sexual tableau she just witnessed, returns, and eventually sits down on his bed.  When Paul wakes up to find his mother at his groin, the scene escalates into passionate sex while Parker registers both desire and despair. “ … Incest … incest … ” she intones, frowning.

Upset by what happened, the next day Parker turns to Aunt Peg and pays an unannounced morning visit to her apartment, where, on hearing the doorbell, she irritably gets up out of bed with her two partners and throws on a robe. Surprised to find Parker at the door, she invites her in and sits down while Parker sits in the living room and, confused and remorseful, confesses what’s happened. Aunt Peg, who in an earlier lunch date with Parker noted Paul’s good looks, registers her shock.

“You had sex with your son?” she exclaims. “You had sex with Paul?” — and begins to masturbate until she’s unable to continue speaking. The absurdity of this scene which Aunt Peg, a tart blond and perhaps porn’s wittiest actress, renders with poker-faced aplomb, is something out of an X-rated Ionesco.

Later that day, at her boss Jerry’s urging, Parker agrees to knock off work for the afternoon and go on a date with him — the mise-en-scene a montage of the couple enjoying Chinatown with Bay Area landmarks in the background. The boss is something of an up-market sleaze, an old friend who groped her on her first day on the job as his secretary but has since reestablished a respectable sheen. That evening when he’s driven her home, Parker doesn’t ask him in but invites him to come to dinner the following night. When she enters her house alone, she goes directly to apologize to Paul but he insists on replaying the previous night and she succumbs.

After an awkward dinner with Parker, Jerry, and Paul, who abruptly leaves the table, the film closes with Parker and her new beau in bed in another sexual marathon, during which Jerry proves to be an ardent lover. Lying in bed together afterwards, he proposes to Parker, who tells him that while he makes her very happy, and she would like him to be a part of her life as her lover, from now on she will be deciding the way she wants her life to be.  When he asks what the other parts her life will be, Parker puts a finger to his lips to shush him and with that gesture the film ends and opens the door for a sequel. Thanks primarily to Parker, but also to Mike Ranger, Aunt Peg, and the others, this Reagan-era Oedipus has a higher than usual erotic charge as well as its funny moments.

In retrospect, the company of actors who performed in these vintage films seems an oddly ingenuous, avid, almost hygienic cohort. The players, both male and female, from Annette Haven to Seka to Ginger Lynn, from Jamie Gillis to John Leslie to Harry Reems, all seem possessed of cooperative, accommodating spirits as well as bodies. At times it’s as if they’re charting en masse something like a sex education juggernaut. When Harry Reems in The Grafenberg Spot (1985) is troubled by Ginger Lynn’s squirting during sex, he consults with a male friend and then with Dr. Annette Haven about the phenomenon — which she advises him on by demonstrating the G Spot on herself. John Holmes, with his legendary endowment, appears as a generally caring, attentive lover with his partners, seeming to favor performing oral over genital sex.

In the intervening years, during which porn expanded into videos, DVDs and the internet, the thin narrative lines of the vintage period were stretched to the point of dissolution, with the concomitant loss of human nuance. For example, the Oedipal theme of Taboo, an 80-minute film, receives a 20-minute reprise in an internet offering called Tutor Knows Best (link NSFW).  In this version, Johnny, a young man having trouble learning calculus, is given oral sex by a buxom blond tutor to help him over the educational hurdle. In the middle of this first “lesson,” Johnny’s mother, who hired the tutor, reappears and is shocked to discover what’s happening.

“What’s going on here!” she shouts.

The teacher speaks about the success of her method and tells her that if she wants her son’s mind to clear she will need to do this for him herself.

“Do you think it will really work? … Well, at this point I’ll try anything.”

The cut-to-the-chase scurrilousness of this, even allowing for the robotic comedy in it, is enough to make the vintage efforts at least momentarily a subject of nostalgia. Today Parker, a native of Birmingham who retains a slight trace of an English accent, is a handsome woman of 65 who according to Wikipedia works as a New Age counselor and lecturer. In 2001, she published a memoir, Taboo: Sacred, Don’t Touch, in which she wrote about “her early childhood, her career in the adult industry, and the metaphysical.” When I looked only one copy was available on the internet for $500. In effect she’s emerged as a survivor of the epoch, a fondly remembered cult figure.

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