At a used bookstore in San Francisco in the early '90s, I picked up a volume called What's a Nice Boy Like You Doing? by somebody named Jack Wrangler. On the front page, the author had signed his name boldly and confidently. Who was this Jack Wrangler, and what sordid tales might I find inside this book?
At that time, I was trotting gaily out of the closet, living in San Francisco and reading everything I could get my hands on about gay history. The 1970s was of particular interest, since that's when the party was in full swing, and gay men were finally liberating themselves from thousands of years of oppression. I found inspiration from people like Harvey Milk, Vito Russo, and the countless brave and defiant activists who spearheaded the revolution.
I was also watching a lot of porn.
Luckily, living in San Francisco, the well-stocked video stores provided a crash course in the history of gay pornography, and I studied diligently. I saw everything from the Athletic Model Guild films of the 1950s to the glossy, straight-to-video productions of the '90s, and everything in between. Aside from the obvious prurient outlet they provided, the films also seemed to be a reflection of concurrent gay history.
In the 1970s, as more graphic and confident portrayals of gay sexuality began to appear on-screen, there was an explosion of gay visibility in the real world. Were films like Kansas City Trucking Company a reflection of the sexual revolution, or did they help fuel it? The men on-screen were not swishy stereotypes, but were masculine, confident, and completely unapologetic about their sexuality. Could these new porn stars be considered role models for men exploring their newfound sexual freedom in the 1970s? Jack Wrangler certainly was. After reading his book and seeing his films, it became clear that he both reflected the macho gay culture and helped to define it.
Years later, I was having breakfast with the playwright Robert Patrick, who had written and starred with Jack in a play called T-Shirts . I expressed my fascination and desire to produce a documentary on Jack's life. He put me in touch with the man himself and we developed a friendship. Although he accepted the fact that he could not escape his porn past, he had carved out a successful career as a "legit" theatrical artist, and was hesitant to revisit those years in a documentary. I'm not sure if it was my persistence or Jack's healthy ego and desire to be center stage, but he finally agreed to be the subject of a film. He sat down for a week of interviews, all the while asking me, "Are you sure people will actually be interested in this stuff?"
After the film hit the festival circuit, I found out the answer was most certainly YES. Sold-out showings of Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon let audiences reconnect with the fantasy figure they came of age with. Jack was delighted to know that so many people remembered him, and that his story resonated with a new generation. His story shows how one can deliberately redefine oneself and step forward confidently and fearlessly in the world.
Jack Wrangler was a class act. He was a pioneer, a born showman, and a loving husband to Margaret Whiting. He inspired an entire generation to be comfortable in their skin, and how to become the man of their dreams. There won't be another one like him.