Sunday, February 21, 2010

[The following text was written for this blog by Joe Rubin, cinephile-about-town, film historian, archivist, programmer, and all-around good guy. Joe's current film series, The Golden Age of American Sexploitation: Forgotten Works from the Sexual Underground, is currently running at Doc Films at the University of Chicago. He is also introducing films as part of Cinefamily's The Art of Exploitation series at the Silent Theatre in Los Angeles.]

I sat for 30 minutes trying to think of a proper way to introduce a eulogy for perhaps the most important and transgressive actor ever to appear in hardcore or X-rated movies. I'm still stumped. It's hard to properly introduce a man whose acting career spans close to 500 leading and supporting roles in feature films and well over 1000 additional appearances in stags films between 1971 and the late 2000s. One of the lucky few sex film actors who was hired just as much for his acting abilities as his sexual prowess. A seemingly larger than life sexploitation demigod whose performances were often more complex and profound than would seem possible in the numerous and dull one-day-wonders he appeared in.

He was a favorite of both filmmakers and fellow actors. An always reliable and always dynamic performer who was behind some of the seminal roles in the annals of X-rated cinema. What other actor can boast a career which offered him opportunities to portray Dracula (twice), a character inspired by Henry Higgins from Shaw's Pygmalion, and, what is still his most notorious role, Burt the Enema Bandit? Gillis was up for anything: a notorious movie villain but a gentleman to all who knew him, because in the end, Jamie was just Jamie, a nice boy from New York City who studied theater and wanted to perform Shakespeare but ended up becoming a great American sex-symbol.

A favorite leading man of Shaun Costello, Gerard Damiano and Chuck Vincent, Gillis was typecast early on as either a sociopath or, at the very least, a lovable asshole, and he fell into the roles perfectly, portraying some of the darkest and most unnerving characters ever seen in X rated films. Often playing rapists, killers, or both, Gillis' performances were very subdued, making them all the more frightening. He possessed a cool and collected madness, reminiscent of Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. His monster was never a compulsive one, but an intelligent and brooding madman hiding under a cloak of normalcy and ready to jump into action at any moment. His portrayal of a manipulative, incestuous father in Jonas Middleton's Through the Looking Glass (1976) is still perhaps the most terrifying performance in the history of sex films.


When I found out about his death, it sounded almost ridiculous. How could Jamie Gillis, the great survivor who had virtually paved the road of sex films since the early 70s, a pioneer in so many areas, suddenly be gone? No one, except for a few very close friends, knew he was sick. He didn't want their pity or their grief. He didn't want their sadness. He wanted to go while people still saw him as strong, not as a withering body and a crushed soul. But he was gone and news of his passing traveled fast, perhaps faster than it should have. Within two hours of my finding out from one of his close friends and even before many of his former co-starts and directors had heard, through the "blessing" of technology his death had been plastered all over the Internet. It was simply incredible to behold. The calls started coming, the text messages, mass emails, and more. But these exchanges weren't vulgar attempts to find out gruesome details, share rumors, or dig dirt, they were outpourings of love and respect for the life and careers of one of the most prolific actors in the history of cinema. Since I'm equally bad at introductions and conclusions, I'll hand the reigns over to what filmmaker Carter Stevens said of Gillis: "There are five kinds of people in porn: heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, tri-sexuals and then there's Jamie Gillis." No compliment could have made him happier.

--Joe Rubin, 2/21/10

No comments: