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Red Rocket and the surprising legacy of Hollywood stars with X-rated pasts

Actor Simon Rex is picking up Oscar buzz for his revelatory performance as a porn star in the dark comedy ‘Red Rocket’, as well as facing renewed interest in his early work in adult films – but he’s not the first big name to be open about their less mainstream beginnings, writes Kevin E G Perry

Thursday 16 December 2021 06:32 GMT
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Marilyn Monroe, Simon Rex and Sylvester Stallone
Marilyn Monroe, Simon Rex and Sylvester Stallone (Baron/Hulton Archive/Apu Gomes/Getty Images/Snap/Shutterstock/iStock)

In 1993, the Scary Movie actor and former MTV VJ Simon Rex was 19 years old and living hand-to-mouth with his girlfriend and her two-year-old son. Food was scarce. Rent needed paying. One day, Rex’s girlfriend suggested he could make good and fast money in porn. Rex went on to film two solo masturbation scenes for photographer Brad Posey’s Club 1821 studio and pay off the couple’s bills. He thought little more of it. Flash-forward 28 years and Rex is playing a porn star in an acclaimed new film, and picking up Oscar buzz. A new and unexpected darling of indie cinema, the 47-year-old has also been dealing with renewed interest in his own brief encounter with the porn industry. But he’s not the first actor to hit the big time with a few X-rated skeletons in their closet.

In Red Rocket, the darkly comic new movie from The Florida Project director Sean Baker, Rex is Mickey Saber, who returns home to Texas beaten and bruised after two decades living large in Los Angeles. Rex is a revelation in the role, the actor imbuing his character with just enough boyish charm to obscure the sociopathic hustler lurking at his core.

Back when Rex was making films of a more X-rated nature, he was correct to assume they would disappear. It was, after all, an era in which pornographic movies like Posey’s stayed relatively underground – it would be more than a decade before online streaming meant those videos were just a click away. While Rex had his concerns, he was also a teenage boy getting paid to do something he loved. “It was like rock and roll, Sunset Strip, Mötley Crüe, ‘Rock out with your c*** out’,” Rex recently told Vulture. “That dumb s***.”

Rex’s past also makes him part of an unexpected Hollywood lineage. He’s hardly the first actor – and nowhere near the biggest A-lister – to have explicit material from their early days resurface after they find fame elsewhere. Back in 1949, when she was first starting out as an actor, Marilyn Monroe found herself four weeks behind on rent and agreed to pose nude for photographer Tom Kelley for a fee of $50 (£37). When the photographs were published in a calendar, Monroe was identified only as “Mona”.

After Monroe’s star rose, however, the calendar makers realised who “Mona” really was and rereleased it, much to the chagrin of 20th Century Fox, who’d just signed Monroe to a long-term contract. The actor was contacted by the studio while shooting 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the film that would make her an international star. “I remember [the publicity department] called on the set,” Monroe told an interviewer in 1960. “They said something to the effect of: ‘Did you pose for a calendar?’ I said: ‘Yes, anything wrong?’ There was great anxiety. They said: ‘Well if you did, don’t say you did! Say you didn’t!’ I said: ‘But I did.’ I’d signed the release and I knew I should say I did, so I did say that I did. They were very unhappy about it.”

As it turned out, Fox need not have worried. Monroe’s decision to simply tell the truth, and to refuse to allow others to shame her for her choices, neutralised the scandal before it had even begun. In doing so, she laid a template that other stars have followed.

In 1970, Sylvester Stallone was a struggling actor when he landed his first leading role in the softcore porn film The Party at Kitty and Stud’s. As with Monroe, the material reemerged once Stallone had found fame. In 1978, two years after Rocky won the Oscar for Best Picture, The Party at Kitty and Stud’s was repackaged and rereleased with the title Italian Stallion. In an interview with Playboy that year, Stallone pointed out that before taking the role he’d been homeless and sleeping rough in New York. “It was either do that movie or rob someone because I was at the very end of my rope,” said Stallone. “Instead of doing something desperate, I worked two days for $200 and got myself out of the bus station.”

In 1992, around the same time Rex shot his videos for Posey, a then 19-year-old Cameron Diaz found herself in a similar situation. Already established as a model, she had grown tired of shooting catalogue photos and thought fashion photographer John Rutter might help her do more interesting work. He shot her topless in black leather and fishnet stockings, while also filming the session.

Brenda Deiss, Simon Rex and Bree Elrod in ‘Red Rocket' (A24)

Eleven years later, well after Diaz had become an established star and just before the release of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Rutter attempted to sell the pictures and film back to her for $3.5m. He also warned her that he had secret buyers lined up who would “use this against you”. Diaz took Rutter’s words as a threat, and then took him to court. He was ultimately convicted of forgery, attempted grand theft and perjury. During the trial, Diaz made clear it was the blackmail attempt she was objecting to, rather than the pictures themselves. Indeed, at one point she’d even considered partnering with Rutter to release them. “I didn’t think of them as pornographic,” she said. “I didn’t think of them as perverted. My boobs looked good ... At least I had that going for me.”

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During the press run for Red Rocket, Rex has generally given the impression that he’d rather not talk about his past videos, even if he must have known that taking this particular role would stir up the past. “I’d rather just talk about this movie as that was 30 years ago,” he said, when asked about his porn work by Uproxx. “I mean, we could talk about Exxon Valdez too, or we could talk about the Iran-Contra thing, but I don’t want to go backwards.” That said, his experiences seems to have given him a certain insight into Saber’s relentless hustle, not to mention a relaxed attitude to full frontal nudity – which Baker puts to full use.

For Rex, taking the role of a washed-up porn star like Saber was a calculated gamble, and one that’s paid off spectacularly. His fascinating performance plays off his past and his faded Scary Movie celebrity, giving Saber a real and touching humanity even as we’re repulsed by his predatory, self-interested nature. Now Rex is being fêted at Cannes, tipped for an Academy Award, and has already signed on to make indie Down Low with Zachary Quinto and comedy Mack & Rita opposite Diane Keaton. How’s that for a happy ending?

‘Red Rocket’ is in US cinemas now, and will be released in the UK in 2022

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