In The Deuce, James Franco—in what could have been the most Franconian casting stunt since he appeared on General Hospital as a performance artist called James Franco—plays twins. Like Lindsay Lohan, about whom he wrote and published a short “work of fiction” that was both mean-spirited and not much good, he is adroit at playing two halves. Whether you believe two Francos to be better than one Franco, in this instance, will depend on the extent of your own Franco-philia; but from thirty minutes into David Simon’s pilot, following the exploits (and more often, sold-or-paid-for sexploits) of a certain downtown, downbeat and down-on-its-heel New York melee, beginning in the Seventies and running to the Eighties, I was hooked.
Then Hefner died. To write about the skewed, historical and sexualized Americana of The Deuce—a show about New York’s role in the fledgling pornographic industry, post-sexual-revolution—without making reference to the skewed, historical and arguably all-American approach the late Hugh Hefner took to sexuality would be (like never mentioning The Hef’s proclivity for baby oil and baby-pink attired blondes, only his freakish editorial longevity), a case of burying the lede. The long-lived, lifelong playboy, “in his endless dream,” Choire Sicha wrote in the New York Times, “forever part[ied] in his custom black lodge,” as if “nothing changed around him … But, like in a nightmare, Mr. Hefner was the only one at the party who aged.”
For people of my generation, what he aged into was sexless, toothless, fossilized and camp. For people from a previous generation, Hefner was—depending on the writer’s viewpoint—a provocateur, or a misogynist and total bastard. For near everyone who’s ever heard of Hefner, seen pornography or pornographic magazines, had breasts, liked breasts or glimpsed a pair of breasts, it’s true he (dubiously) redefined the culture.
As it happens, Franco played Hugh Hefner once: in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s moralizing Lovelace. Given that the film was split in two, the first half Rabelaisian and rosy, and the second blue (and blue as in depressing) it’s another dual role. In his first scene, Franco’s Hefner is a kindly sexual sage, and in his second, he’s a pushy john who doesn’t pay a dime for Linda’s skills. The curious thing about James Franco as Hugh Hefner is the contrast between what Hugh Hefner stands for, meaning old-style, lantern-jawed and totally insensitive male power, and the fey and offbeat heartthrob actor standing in his shoes. In the movie, he looks feminized and faintly ghoulish: in a velvet robe, in what the real Hef called “gunfighter black,” he looks as if he’s dressing as a wizard for a cosplay gathering.
An artist and English Ph.D. student, fluid with his sexual presentation and unbothered as to where he might be seen to register on Kinsey’s scale, it figures Franco fits our current image of a playboy and a bachelor. Girls adore him; and they still adore him even when he dares suggest he might not like, or might not only like, girls. (I have mentioned his adroitness when it comes to splitting down the middle, into two men: now might be the time to also mention his imagined Q&A “The Straight James Franco Interviews The Gay James Franco,” where he talks about himself as being like an update of the hairdresser that Warren Beatty plays in Shampoo, i.e. camp-ish but seductive, irresistible to women.) The Hollywood Reporter says that he’s a “stromo”—meaning, crudely, “a straight homo.” Modern, cis-male heterosexuality appears, at least in this projection, to be a broader church than Hefner’s stolid, paradoxically self-conscious paradigm.
All of which is a long walk for a tall highball of whiskey: because The Deuce is, for a show set forty years ago in New York’s seediest and arguably least “woke” industries, extremely modern. Like James Franco’s not-exactly-macho figuration of The Hef, it treats a passé idea, a real dinosaur dynamic, with such grace and sensitivity that it begins to feel more now than now. Does The Deuce project our modern sensibilities onto the past? Having never been to New York in the Seventies, and having never worked in porn or in the sex trade, I can’t really say. What I might suggest is that the show, like a number of its characters, is smarter, more perceptive and more complicated than a casual, maybe-prejudiced observer might expect.
Two brothers, Franco’s twins, decide to open up a bar together, even though one is a no-good gambling bum. The bum is Frankie. The good brother is called Vinnie. Vinnie’s wife, a woman who loves late-night pool with strange men in dark bars, is now nearly his ex-wife. She kept the kid. Around both brothers, a tight coterie of pimps and hookers flock, disperse, trick, and then reconvene. A Midwest naïf freshly off the bus, named Lori, turns out not to be naïf at all. A drop-dead gorgeous journalist deep undercover gets called, dryly, “Angela Davis” by a clued-in cop. A baby-faced black modette, Darlene, tentatively sets out reading Dickens while off-duty and between dicks. Someone so inclined could write a thesis on The Deuce’s half-nostalgic treatment of racial integration in the lower-working classes of the era—pimps and hookers, sex-shop clerks and barmen, white and black, all mired in the same tough grind.
Most interesting of all by dint of being uncompelling, even bratty and annoying, is the pompous college dropout and non-hooker Abby, whose namedropping of Camus, staunch proto-feminism and resistance to hard labor mark her out as Other on these grim New York streets. Dropping into Vinnie’s bar, she’s horrified to see the waitresses in leotards. “Ever wonder what it’s like for them to be objectified?” she asks him, before clarifying: “It means treating a person like a thing.” “I don’t know what they think,” shrugs Vinnie. “All I know is they made more money here tonight than any night here in months.” Abby needs the money. She is working there within three episodes, and sleeping with Vinnie after one more.
Outrage is a privilege. Most porn histories fail to see this. The terrific Hardcore by Paul Schrader treats the industry as something like the setting for a horror film: the horror, so by proxy the emotion and the storyline, belonging to the father of a girl who acts in porn, and not the girl herself. In Lovelace, half of Linda’s story—the “good,” earliest half—appears to happen to her, not because of anything she does or wants, or needs, or is particularly horny for; and in act two, her husband holds the cards as tightly as he holds her deep, white throat. In Boogie Nights, porn is the set for something like an epic (anti-)hero’s journey—what might have been called, if it did not have dicks and cocaine and a naked chick on roller skates, “an epic yarn.” The little-seen and justifiably disliked mid-noughties thriller Wonderland deploys Val Kilmer as John Holmes as, basically, a druggy meathead caught up in a murder.
The Deuce does something far more shocking: rather than portraying pornography as straightforwardly horrific, thrilling or entirely dependent on the actions of a man, it makes the whole story utterly banal. Its characters talk yeast infections, period sex, “the shits,” and contraceptive sponges. Mostly, they just do their “goddamned jobs.” Perhaps the greatest actor in the series, Maggie Gyllenhall—whose drowsy, bovine eyes and lanky form have always seemed as at-home in a high-end lingerie campaign as when the actress is embodying a down-and-out—looks like one of those LaChapelle shots where the models are in candy-colored afro wigs, but two full decades later. Hardscrabbled and a single mother, Candy is the one sex worker in the series not to have a pimp. “Nobody,” she says sharply, “makes a cent outta my pussy but me.” When a sixteen-year-old customer implies it isn’t “fair” for her to take his money, seeing as he only lasted thirty seconds, her response is level-headed:
“Fair?” Candy asks, amused but firm. “And what do you do, Stuart?”
“I’m in school.”
“What’s your daddy do?”
“He sells cars. He’s got a dealership.”
“And that’s his job, right? Someone comes in, knows just the car he wants, doesn’t dick around, no arguments about the color, whatever, does he give him a car for less?”
And of course, he doesn’t. As far as Candy is concerned, this naïve punk has walked into her figurative showroom, seen the thing he liked, and made his feelings known immediately.
It is true that there are ethical considerations in the act and fact of women selling sex, yes: hence the agonizing back-and-forth in almost all the other films about this era, showing them as either purely hedonists or purely victims. But in The Deuce, need typically meets need, and desire is a secondary factor, pending monetary solvency. Which means that rather than straightforward good and evil, what we see are themes and variations on exchange; the traders on both sides have merits and demerits. Sex work is just another capitalist transaction—albeit one you do naked, with the risk collateralized in one’s body, in the flesh.
Several years of poetry, performance projects, articles in literary magazines, and stunt interviews might have erased the memory of James Franco as an actor in the viewer’s mind. It feels like a relief to suddenly remember he’s a fine one. Frankie is a bad seed, but good-hearted. Vinnie is a good seed with a tendency to overlook, to tacitly permit, bad things. Both characters make intermittent use of Franco’s greatest asset: his persuasive, wolfish grin, the smirk of a stoner and seducer. Playing two men styled almost identically, with twin pornstaches and twin slicked shags, twin Noo Yawker accents, he is skilled enough to give them minor, demarcating quirks. Frankie swaggers. Vincent, even when he’s wearing that trademark Franco grin, still shows traces of a hangdog frown. The difference in the two men is not what they have endured, but how they carry all that weight. Being a father, or perhaps just being nominally nicer, means that Vincent has to look three steps ahead—to think about provision.
Almost everybody in his social circle thinks to some degree about provision. Some go hungry. The show deals not just with the definition of sin’s wages, but with their literal per-hour value; whether sin pays better than fast food or street sweeping or cleaning hotels tends to vary in accordance with the kind of “sin” on offer. In The Deuce, the girls are almost always short on cash. As penance, they strut, sell themselves and fuck all day and all night. They make up for their “bedroom like a Manson scene” days with “more sucks,” which they see as mathematics; albeit mathematics where the x and y in the equation are the obvious chromosomal, biological and gendered analogues. Sex at fifteen dollars here is never played as sensual, or distressing, but as fact. It is—as is so often said when chips are down and life is less than ideal—what it is.
“The key,” executive producer Nina Noble told the Guardian, in a piece about the act of scripting female sex workers, “is that it’s never sexy or titillating. We’re not trying to turn people on.” By “people,” it is hard not to assume that she means “heterosexual guys.” One last truism about the monetary benefits of sex work ably documented in The Deuce is that they are sometimes greater for the men who do the selling than for the women who are sold; the show makes no attempt to hide the fact that its hustlers don’t just own, but out-earn, all their hookers. When he died, Hugh Hefner—having spent a lifetime using not his own sex appeal but the sex appeal of women, to do very little other than make money out of turning people on— was said to be worth “only” $50 million. Crystal Hefner (31), who presumably agreed to marry Mr. Hefner (91) because sometimes it is what it is, was written out of his will.
“Daddies, husbands and pimps, they’re all the same,” an older prostitute says plainly in The Deuce—and then, because like all its women she’s a sexual pragmatist, she shrugs. “At least pimps are up front about it.”