John C. Holmes is an American legend. With his thigh-slapping footlong cock, Holmes rose to fame during the 1970s as the star of hundreds of porno films. But by the 1980s the sparkle had gone out of Holmes' star. In the span of a decade he had gone from a pop-culture icon to one of Hollywood's most notorious and hopeless drug addicts. And in 1981, the man who claimed to have slept with 14,000 women became a key player in the Wonderland murders, the most brutal murder case in Los Angeles since the Manson Family slayings of 1969.
Director James Cox makes his feature-film debut with Wonderland, a gritty crime drama centered on Holmes and the murders on Wonderland Avenue. Unlike Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, which was very loosely inspired by the life of Holmes, Wonderland chooses not to glorify the man, his life or his misdeeds. "I'm such a tremendous fan of Boogie Nights that I really didn't have any interest in treading on common ground," said Cox during a recent phone interview.
In striking contrast to the redeemable Dirk Diggler of Boogie Nights, the John Holmes of Wonderland, portrayed with emotional nuance by Val Kilmer, is not a likable person. This is not the world-renowned cocksman made famous by such films as Deep Throat and the Johnny Wadd series. This is the hopeless dope fiend, spending days on cocaine benders and pimping out his teenage girlfriend Dawn (Kate Bosworth).
"John is someone whose star has faded," says Cox, describing the Holmes of Wonderland. "I always felt that John was a chameleon. He was a world-class liar."
For an audience that prefers even its antiheroes to be marginally likable, Wonderland offers very little in the way of protagonists to cheer for. The only person with any sort of redeeming quality is Sharon Holmes (Lisa Kudrow), John's estranged wife, who helps him out when he shows up at her place covered in someone else's blood. But Sharon is a minor oasis in a desert of coke-snorting deviants.
"I personally see John, and every character in the movie, as very human and very flawed. I don't necessarily call them or anyone else a bad person, but I think I'm clearly a little bit in the minority on that one. I kind of suffer from that 'Jimmy Conway Syndrome' of always rooting for the bad guy," says Cox, referring to Robert De Niro's character in GoodFellas.
Despite the criticism Wonderland has taken for its dark tone, onscreen drug use, violence and lack of moral redemption, it is essential in telling the story of both the crime that occurred and the man that Holmes had become by the end of the 1970s. "The sheer carnal fact of that amount of skin on skin across those years, and all the cultural awakenings that went on during all of that, destroyed this man's soul," says Cox of the fate that awaited Holmes after his rise to stardom. "And that is almost more wicked than anything I've got in my movie. The bottom of the well is really what my movie is--it's the terminal point for the night he sold his soul for good and was damned."