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Porn Legend Joe Sarno Dies

from Joseph W. Sarno, the cult director of “Sin in the Suburbs,” “Moonlighting Wives” and other films that helped establish the sexploitation genre and break down the taboos against erotic content in American cinema, died on April 26 in Manhattan. He was 89.

The death was confirmed by Michael J. Bowen, who is writing his biography.

Mr. Sarno bridged the gap between the nudist and nudie-cutie films of the late 1950s and early 1960s and the hard-core genre that developed after sexually explicit films like “Deep Throat” came on the scene in the early 1970s.

His early films were straightforwardly, even single-mindedly erotic, although flashes of nudity came only intermittently and the sex act took place outside the frame. Shot in a self-consciously artistic style, films like “Red Roses of Passion” (1966) and “Odd Triangle” (1968) explored the anxiety-haunted, tentative steps toward sexual liberation of middle-class suburbanites born too early to experience the uninhibited self-expression of the baby-boom generation.

“He was one of the pioneers of the American sexploitation film and a driving force in the sexual revolution of the 1960s,” Mr. Bowen said. “The films were gritty, down to earth, with a very distinctive style. At their best they were very dirty — they just did not have explicit sex.”

Joseph William Sarno was born on March 15, 1921, in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and grew up on Long Island in Amityville. His father was a bootlegger, and his mother was a socialist labor organizer. He enrolled in New York University but dropped out immediately after Pearl Harbor to enlist in the Navy. As an airman, he saw action in the South Pacific.

He married for the first time before shipping overseas. That marriage, and a subsequent one, ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Peggy Steffans Sarno; three daughters, Stephanie Colantoni of Manhattan, Patricia Vicoli of Tamarac, Fla., and Eleanor Fossen of Sebastopol, Calif.; two sons, William, of Highland Mills, N.Y., and Matthew, of Brooklyn; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

After the war Mr. Sarno found work as an advertising copywriter and sold ripping-yarn feature stories to digest magazines like Coronet. His film career began when the Navy, mistakenly believing that he had filmed bombing runs during the war, asked him to direct training films. He accepted the offer and then headed off to buy a book on cinematography.

Over the next several years he made dozens of training films for the Navy and industrial films for military contractors. His first venture into feature films came when an independent producer approached him to write the screenplay for an erotic film, “Nude in Charcoal,” which was released in 1961 and shown, like all of Mr. Sarno’s films, in grind-house theaters.

Mr. Sarno wrote the screenplays for all 75 of the 35-millimeter films he made over the next 15 years, and for his subsequent hard-core films. The first film for which he received sole directing credit, “Lash of Lust” (1962), was never released. Atypically, it was an erotic costume drama about Gaul in the time of the Romans, shot in the forests of upstate New York.

With “Sin in the Suburbs” (1963), Mr. Sarno hit his stride. His glimpse into the sex lives of bored suburbanites was commercially successful and helped kick-start the sexploitation genre.

“I went for the ragged, realistic look more than anything, and I was more interested in psychology and character development than most of the other filmmakers at that time,” he said in a 2006 interview for the Torino Film Festival.

Mr. Sarno began shooting in color with “Moonlighting Wives” (1966), about an ambitious suburban housewife who organizes a prostitution ring to solve her money problems. In 1968, seeking to capitalize on the success of “I Am Curious (Yellow),” an avant-garde Swedish film whose sexual content had made it an international hit a year earlier, he traveled to Sweden to film “Inga,” a sexual-awakening story. Its success, and the thrill of filming at a studio used by Ingmar Bergman, inspired Mr. Sarno to make an annual trip to Sweden to film with Swedish crews and actors for the American market.

In the early 1970s Mr. Sarno made some of his most joyous and accomplished films, notably “Confessions of a Young American Housewife” (1974), “Abigail Lesley Is Back in Town” (1975), “Laura’s Toys” (1975) and “Misty” (1976). But the onrush of hard-core films eliminated the market for his style of sex film.

After 1977 he made dozens of explicit sex films, all shot on video and none under his real name. Although he had filmed “Deep Throat II,” a soft-core sequel to “Deep Throat,” in 1974 and worked with some of the hard-core industry’s biggest stars in films like “All About Gloria Leonard” (1980) and “Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle” (1981), he had virtually no interest in simply filming sex acts.

He stopped working in 1990, but as younger film scholars and filmmakers rediscovered his early films, he became the subject of tributes and retrospectives in the United States and Europe.

He re-entered the sexploitation arena in 2004 with “Suburban Secrets,” a film that harked back to his glory years. Many of his films from the 1960s and early 1970s have been reissued by companies like Something Weird Video.

from – When Joe Sarno was good, he was golden. No one peeled back the slick sophisticate layer off the otherwise wife-swapping underbelly of suburbia better than the man who made the ‘60s gated community a bastion of plausible perversion.

On the other hand, when he was coasting, or better yet, when he traded innuendo and style for smut and hardcore, his mid ‘70s to later output suffered. For many, the name will mean nothing, just another in a long line of exploitation giants who few understand and even less loved outright. But for those who know his work, and even better, appreciate his take on the social climate over the last three decades, his death on 26 April at age 89 truly was a loss.

Sarno stands amongst grindhouse giants – names like Friedman, Lewis, Cresse, Mahon, Novak, and Babb. He was the bellwether of the sexual revolution’s earliest days and its harshest critic. While other filmmakers were focusing on gore, or pseudo-sadism, Sarno stood fast in his belief that the secret scandals behind closed doors – and the nudity which usually accompanied same – would more than satisfy the raincoat crowd. When Deep Throat made pornography mainstream, the director jumped on the bawdy bandwagon. From 1977 onward, his name was associated with such seminal works as Inside Seka, Seven Minutes in Heaven, and The Erotic Adventures of Bedman and Throbbin.

He didn’t start out to make movies. Born in 1921, he was raised by very liberal parents on the outskirts of Manhattan. He attended New York University, but dropped out when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. After the war, he worked in advertising, and wrote ripping yarn stories for men’s magazines. When the Navy came calling asking him to create some training films (they mistakenly believed he was a cameraman while in combat), Sarno said “Yes”. He picked up a book on cinematography and started shooting. In 1961, wrote the script for an “erotic” effort called Nude in Charcoal. With some uncredited time behind the lens as part of the production, Sarno was officially a flesh peddler. While his next two films remained unreleased, 1964’s Sin in the Suburbs became a critical smash.

The film focused on bored housewives who find time to frolic once the prying eyes of husbands, children, and nosy-body neighbors are out of view. Centering on the then outrageous concept of wife-swapping, swinger’s clubs, and house key parties, Sarno distilled the numerous rumors floating around the fringes into brilliantly structured vignettes of vile wantonness. As a result, Sin in the Suburbs remains one of his best films, a bold experiment in style and subject matter that would still be branded as borderline scum, even in today’s so-called tolerant environment. It’s a perfectly plotted masterwork of story and shot selection is more like a post-millennial walk through the seedy side of society than a standard early exploitation film.

From then on, there was no stopping Sarno. Sin begat Warm Nights and Hot Pleasures, Pandora and the Magic Box, the fascinating Flesh and Lace, and The Love Merchant. By 1966, when he once again revisited the other kind of trading spouses, he delivered another masterwork. The Swap and How They Make It takes another of his sensational scripts (Sarno almost always wrote his own screenplays) and married it to an untried vision of a carnal comedy of manners. Employing a new kind of camerawork, mostly medium and close-up shots that render the backdrops and settings insignificant, one gets the feeling of being lost. It lends a very dramatic air to the proceedings. Whenever actors interact, they come toward the camera and play out their scenes as if the lens was another witness, an innocent party to the prurient planning.

By 1968, the far more permissive foreign film market was offering explicit takes on erotica (at least in terms of what the US producers were showing) and so Sarno headed to Sweden – home of the notorious I Am Curious (Yellow) – and took up the clapboard. His first film in the country, The Seduction of Inga, was an international smash, combining the standard coming of age narrative with an adult approach to subject matter and spirit. The experience was so favorable for Sarno that he vowed to return – and for the rest of his life, he shuttled between America and Europe, using his newfound commercial cache to explore aspects of the subgenre that were deeper, darker, and sometimes more disturbing. Along with his third wife, Peggy, he became a leading champion for all things carnal and corporeal.

As the ‘70s started, Sarno and his ilk were slowly losing favor with the mainstream. Thanks to the taboo-busting and envelope-pushing pattern of exploitation, the rest of the industry had begun to slowly incorporate their conceits into everyday movies. When Midnight Cowboy became the first X-rated film ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture, many knew their time was up. Sarno, on the other hand, embraced the skyrocketing interest in hardcore, tweaking his tasteful scripts on adultery and sin into wild and wanton explorations of lust and desire. While his first few films of the decade – Confessions of a Young American Housewife, Misty, and a cash grab “sequel” to Throat – were decidedly soft, by 1977 he was churning out choice filth under various pseudonyms.

Like many coming from his past position, Sarno was mostly forgotten by the time home video rolled around. While the sex industry made a mint off the VCR/VHS market, few saw a call for exploitation’s earlier efforts. Luckily, certified fans like filmmaker Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case) and collector Mike Vraney kept the spirit of sleaze alive, using their own interest to form companies like Something Weird. By the time DVD hit the format, their cult had grown. Thanks to constant reappraisal via the Internet and the Geek Nation’s desire to embrace the obvious invention of the phase of filmmaking, forgotten souls like Sarno soon became big again. Along with noted members of the club including Herschel Gordon Lewis, David F. Friedman, and Harry Novak, he went from rejected to revered (so much so that, in 2004, at age 83, Sarno returned to his roots with the delicious Suburban Secrets).

In the lexicon of great filmmakers, Joe Sarno’s name probably doesn’t have an entry – but it should. He vividly explored the phobias and fetishes that polite company only whispered about and did so in a way that combined sexuality with seriousness. While his work today can be criticized as campy or crude, it has a frankness and an honesty that few in the peek-a-boo trade could top. Whether it was in stark black and white or full blown color, with content either implied or explicit, Sarno’s cinematic statements were a definite reflection of our cultural concerns. Few in exploitation can claim such a place. In fact, the same can be said for many in the mainstream as well. That’s how important Joe Sarno was…and is.


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