Kevin Smith has often told the story of how, when making Chasing Amy, and stating his intention to cast actors that he kept company with rather than box office draws, a studio executive chastised him saying, “The movie business is not about making movies with your friends.” A statement which inspired him to consistently disprove that belief. And over the span of his career, he has been able to enjoy the best of both worlds, working in the low-budget realm with trusted collaborators and helping elevate them to stardom, and sometimes getting to work with big names and larger budgets, moving between the extremes as he pleases.
photo courtesy of Rick Marx
In the early ‘70s, filmmaker Chuck Vincent was already living out the same ethos before Smith had even uttered his first dirty word. In a 20 year filmography both prolific and yet too brief, Vincent built up a big tent of actors and craftspeople that brought panache to his thriftier projects, and from those received larger opportunities with proven names and legacy producers. All with an extra wrinkle: Vincent’s primary fortunes were made in the adult film industry, a strata that a few fortunate artists have been able to leverage into regular commercial filmmaking, but even fewer would ever want to acknowledge or return to afterward. As Gene Ross described for Adult Video News magazine in 1988, “Certainly one of the most ebullient guys you’ll ever have the pleasure of coming across, Vincent’s run-for-the-fire-exit zing triggers the pace of his films, which can be likened to spastic attacks at a topless methamphetamine convention.”
Charles Vincent Dingley was a Michigan native, son of a Maltese immigrant father, who made his way to New York to pursue a theatre career. Working his way through stage companies including Yale Repertory and Negro Ensemble Company, he held many positions but never got to direct a production of his own, prompting him to shift his interests to film. He made his first short, The Appointment, in 1970, a satire on the very concept of “skinflicks” in which an outwardly nebbishy couple have an over-the-top liason in what they think is a clandestine space that is increasingly besieged by various spectators. The short was a hit at Roger & Michael Sichel’s first New York Erotic Film Festival, and reached a larger audience when New Line Cinema packaged it in a “Best of” compilation screened on college campuses and midnight shows, and later one of the first home video releases. Vincent made a color followup, Wild Honey, again tweaking themes of other sex movies of the time, and shortly after was invited to direct a full adult feature.
Vincent, a gay man whose tastes leaned to comedies like Tom Jones and Some Like it Hot, told Gene Ross in the aforementioned AVN profile, “The first time I was scheduled to do a porn film, I said oops, I’d better take a look at one to see what they’re like. I went to theatres on 46th St. (New York), and I hated every film. I knew exactly why I hated them and said, ‘That would never happen to me.’ There’s got to be lead-up, foreplay, and tease.” In an earlier 1980 interview for Cinema-X magazine, he offered further insight. “[Money] shots…they’re in movies because we’re told the public wants them. But when I talk to the average theatre-goer I get a negative reaction…I feel they’re unrealistic because nobody has sex that way…[they] don’t make any sense…and I also don’t like what I call medical shots, or liver shots, the extreme close-ups, but the audience seems to like a good close-up…”
Consequently, while he would fulfill the requisite demands of the marketplace by including the coarse basics of an average dirty movie, he consistently pushed back against them by emphasizing aesthetics, acting, and humor. As Vinegar Syndrome founder and adult film historian Joe Rubin observed in a 2012 Facebook post, “[Vincent] made fully integrated films in which sex scenes were an integral part of the narrative and character development, rather than diversions from it.”
Vincent’s charm offensive served him well. In a time when most adult filmmakers would seek a low profile, and those that provided them resources would want to stay even deeper in the shadows, Vincent often garnered glowing press coverage depicting individuals in the towns where he filmed eager to work with him. When filming what would become When the Cat’s Away in Nyack, the headline happily declared an X-rated film was shooting on location, with a photo of its star Kathryn Ford beaming like Mary Tyler Moore on the street. When Vincent returned to shoot the What a Way to Go-styled Mrs. Barrington, the same newspaper revealed that this project’s unit manager, Paul Giacobbe, was the owner of a local beauty salon and chairman of the Nyack Conservative Party, an unthinkable dichotomy today.
Nyack would also be the place where Vincent would shoot his first significant crossover film, Blue Summer. Initially filmed as a hardcore feature, he instinctively knew this story about two high school friends on a road trip before going their separate ways to college could have an even bigger life beyond the adult market. Thus, shortly after its initial playdates, it was trimmed for an R rating and given a wider release. Writer/podcaster Heather Drain, in an extended essay for Mike McPadden’s 2019 guidebook Teen Movie Hell, proclaimed the film “tremendously underrated and surprisingly poignant,” elaborating, “[it] boasts plenty of nudity and roadside shenanigans to satisfy prurient desires…Yet this film’s heart is bigger than its groin. [He] injects these characters with nuance and emotion, both rare traits in this critically forgotten film genre.”
Through the ‘70s, while making well-received X-rated hits as Farewell Scarlet, Bad Penny, and Jack ‘n Jill (which, in keeping with his comic sensibilities, had its press materials designed as a coloring book!), Vincent simultaneously made regular forays into softer, R-rated fare. With several of his adult film compatriots, and rising stars like Joe Piscopo, he made the 1976 sketch comedy American Tickler. He followed that with a Meatballs-style summer camp comedy called, justly, Summer Camp, featuring early performances by Linnea Quigley and future “Twin Peaks” supporting player Walter Olkewicz, for father/son producers Seymour and Mark Borde, who would later produce one of his bigger ‘80s hits, Hollywood Hot Tubs. And he directed one project for pre-Golan & Globus Cannon Films, Hot T-Shirts, and scripted another, Cheerleaders’ Beach Party.
In 1982, Vincent released what is perhaps his milestone film, Roommates, a strikingly sincere drama about female friendship and the forces of male hostility and indifference that impacts their dreams. Loosely modeled on Jean Negulesco’s 1959 melodrama The Best of Everything, and the personalities of his favorite actresses, it starred Samantha Fox as an ad exec transcending a fraught past, Kelly Nichols as an aspiring model with an addiction, and Veronica Hart as an actress stuck in thankless jobs. Co-screenwriter Rick Marx described the experience to The Projection Booth podcast as, “That was Chuck Vincent’s dream project. He had been developing it for a long time. It was meaningful to him because until then he had been known for his goofy comedies. The movie was really heavy. We wrote it at his place in East Hampton in three or four straight days. That’s how we always worked.” While some adult film critics took issue with its tone, saying the harsh plot turns torpedoed any sense of arousal, it drew rave reviews not just from expected sources like Hustler and High Society, but from respected publications as GQ, Variety, and The New York Times; Judith Crist of New York magazine praised the performances and its balance of comedy and poignancy. Released in both hard and soft edits, Roommates became as recognizable as Deep Throat in the mainstream, and would win several awards from the Adult Film Association of America, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress for Veronica Hart, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography.
The ‘80s brought two significant changes for the director. After many years of working out of Manhattan, frustrated by rising rent costs, he opened his own studio for his production/distribution company, Platinum Pictures, in a former taxi garage in Long Island City, providing lots of room on the bottom floor to build sets, and space on the second floor for his offices, editing, and living accommodations for himself, his longtime companion and producer Bill Slobodian, and their mutual friend and frequent photographer Marco Nero. And as the popularity and viability of narrative-driven adult films began to wane, he pivoted almost completely to making R-rated projects, signing a large production deal/partnership with Playboy’s TV division and Vestron Video. If you grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s staying up late with cable and VHS tapes, you’ll likely remember several of these movies: Preppies; R.S.V.P.; Slammer Girls; Young Nurses in Love; Party Incorporated; and many more. In an interview published in Slaughter House magazine #4 in 1989, he elaborated, “As far as the ‘move’ was concerned, that was pure luck. In the ‘70s, I [got] started in soft stuff, and then I dabbled in the X’s. I found it was very lucrative financially. Then in 1983-4, I almost exclusively made R’s, and I wasn’t doing much more X’s. During that time, the bottom fell out of the X market. I was very lucky.”
In turn, Vincent would bring along several of his adult film collaborators to work on these films, especially the performers. Georgina Spelvin, Harry Reems, Jennifer DeLora, Sharon Kane, Colleen Brennan, Jamie Gillis, Samantha Fox, and most often, his favorite star Veronica Hart (under her civilian name Jane Hamilton), all had significant starring roles in his films, with his frequent director of photography Larry Revene behind the camera. As he asserted to Gene Ross in 1988, “I cast the best people I know, and it so happens a lot of the people in the X-rated industry are the most experienced in the world. I mean that. Where else can you do 10, 20, or 30 films [and videos] a year? That’s great experience.”
Many times, his ‘80s Platinum productions were stealth remakes of Hollywood classics, albeit with more raunchy comedy and sex. Slammer Girls parodied several noirish women-in-prison stories, Wimps was modeled on the legend of Cyrano, Sex Appeal took after The Apartment, New York’s Finest and it’s three-girl storyline was a throwback to How to Marry a Millionaire, and the gender-switch-reincarnation plot of Cleo/Leo drew from Goodbye Charlie. Sometimes he even remade his own movies: Sexpot was a tamer redo of Mrs. Barrington, while the thriller If Looks Could Kill was a softened interpolation of one of his last X-rated films, Voyeur. Vinegar Syndrome’s Joe Rubin observed in a 2012 Facebook statement, “Vincent treated sex as a means to an end. He was not concerned with eroticism, period. Sex scenes were punch lines, means of developing characters, etc…Vincent was a showman, through and through. His moviemaking reflected his reverence for pre-code films, 1930’s and 40’s screwball comedies and women’s pictures.”
photo courtesy of Michael Varrati
He concurrently welcomed chances to work with name stars when it was offered. As he proclaimed to Cinema-X in 1980, “I want to make Hollywood films. I want to do three million dollar movies…[I] want Hollywood backing because if I ever make a million dollars I’m not going to dump it into a film.” And as he wound down his slate for Playboy, he would direct Sybil Danning and Donald Pleasance in Warrior Queen for producer Harry Alan Towers, Wings Hauser in Bedroom Eyes II for future Oscar-nominated producer Anant Singh, and Linda Blair and Troy Donohue in Bad Blood. He also gave early acting jobs to Calvert DeForest, who would be immortalized as “Larry ‘Bud’ Melman” on David Letterman’s talk shows, and Beth Broderick, years before she became beloved “Aunt Zelda” on the ‘90s sticom “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” And these stars would work directly with his adult stock company to compelling results. “I use actors who don’t disappear into the furniture,” he quipped to the zine Brutarian in 1988.
Through his career, Vincent was a prescient thinker. When he spoke to Cinema-X in 1980, VHS and laserdisc were established formats, but he might as well have predicted the DVD boom of the 2000s when he said, “The biggest change I see coming is the video discs. Video tapes at $100 each are too expensive, while video discs will cost $15, and pornography is perfectly suited to the small screen on a television. Some people are even worried that the home-porno market might close some theatres.” And when he spoke to Slaughter House to promote his slate of thrillers, he drew a trenchant parallel between the erotic films of his past and the scare films he was making then: “It’s interesting though, about horror. It’s the kind of genre that attracts a lot of business men/producers who think, ‘oh, I’ll just throw a couple buckets of blood and I’ll make my money back.’ These are the guys that are destroying the horror market. That’s the same thing that happened to the X-rated field. When video came out, anyone with a video camera put out product. There was a glut of bad product out there, and people stopped buying it.”
The career of Chuck Vincent began a slow somber close at the end of the ‘80s. His life partner Bill Slobodian died in 1988, eroding Vincent’s enthusiasm to continue directing. He would sell off the Long Island studio building, and relocated to Key West, Florida, sharing a two-family house with his friend Marco Nero. He succumbed to AIDS-related complications on September 23, 1991, 17 days after his 51st birthday. In 20 years of active directing, he yielded 55 films.
“Chuck was one of my top three directors to work for… A real sweetheart of a person. My favorite film of his is Farewell Scarlet, a somewhat unknown dark comedy…I also designed his ad campaign for Jack ‘n’ Jill. Such a fun person to be around.” – Eric Edwards
“Chuck’s studio was one of the inspirations for what I wanted to achieve with my company, Femme. It was a good sized, and meant you didn’t have to rely on external locations. It was very professional.” – Candida Royalle
“One of the best” – Annette Heinz
“I loved Chuck. He was a great-hearted guy with an amazing personal story…I liked his sense of humor and love of life. He had a great array of friends from all walks of life…He was impossible not to enjoy being around.” – Rick Marx
In his 1980 Cinema-X interview, Chuck Vincent was asked about the trend of realism in adult films, such as depicting perspiration. The interviewer likely had no idea that ten years later, amateur porn shot with consumer equipment would become the new dominant genre in adult entertainment, and twenty years later, physical media itself would be replaced by the internet as the means of conveyance, and thirty years later, clip sites and live webcams would all but eradicate the kind of story-driven entertainment Vincent created and the magazine promoted. That realism would ultimately win out. Vincent’s reply was unambiguous:
“I personally hold a Hollywood standard because I always want my leading ladies’ hair to be perfect, even though she’s just been in bed for 12 hours and gotten [it more than once]. I still want her to be perfect. I don’t want dirty feet, I don’t want dirt underneath the fingernails, and if it’s a romantic scene, I think sweat takes away from it. I think people want pretty people in their fantasies, and fantasies don’t sweat.”
And as the people who worked with him and remember him fondly today, there was very little in life that Chuck Vincent felt the need to sweat about.
photo courtesy of The Rialto Report
Enormous thanks to Ashley West at The Rialto Report, and Michael Varrati’s Chuck Vincent tribute page at Facebook, for preserving and presenting so many source materials and images from his life.