Chambers got over that worry. Her next film would be the underseen nudie Together (1971), followed by her big porno-chic breakthrough--accompanied by her turn as the cover model on boxes of Ivory Snow soap. Chambers's work then ranged from cultish mainstream films such as Rabid (1977) (Picture: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4) to the occasional return to hardcore adult videos. There's also been a series of fun softcore dalliances including The Marilyn Diaries (1990) and Marilyn Chambers' Naked Fairy Tales (2002).
A wildfire is raging less than five miles from her Southern California home as Chambers talks to Mr. Skin about her incredible career. "When you're in Kansas," she shrugs, "it's tornados." That's typically cool talk from this sexy legend, who offers a candor we'd love to see in more of our political candidates.
At the start of the '70s, your look was kind of unique for both adult films and the mainstream industry.
The '60s had the Twiggy look. It was a totally skinny, gaunt, sort of drugged-out look. And then the '70s had people like Cybill Shepherd. Her look was kind of my look. I wasn't striving to achieve it, but I had this all-American, no-makeup, cheerleader kind of look. I obviously had no intention of being involved in an X-rated film when I did the Ivory Snow soap box. There was no such thing then. When I did the modeling job and The Owl and the Pussycat, my intentions were mainstream. As fate would have it, the Ivory Snow boxes hit the shelf at the same time as when I did Behind the Green Door. I didn't plan it.
But even before your X-rated debut, you'd made the pioneering nudie Together, with future mainstream director Wes Craven.
And the producer, Sean Cunningham, would go on to direct mainstream films including Friday the 13th. He was an old family friend. I was going out with his brother Kevin. Sean told me he wanted to make a documentary with real people. It was about ESP and that whole genre of films about awareness. Not free sex, but love, peace, couples feeling comfortable in their relationship--blah, blah, blah. I didn't even get a billing. Sean did something really smart where he made a lot of money with this silly film. He bought advertising time on local television stations, and the ads would announce a special sneak preview at 10 a.m. for all the housewives. They'd see this film with a black man and white woman, and she was holding his huge schlong in her hand. There was another scene where the black man got an erection, but no sex. The housewives would tell everybody about this scene, but when it played its regular run in the theaters, the scene would be cut out. That's the power of advertising.
Rabid turned out to be a very smart choice as your first bid for mainstream stardom--if only because it'll always be screened as an early work by director David Cronenberg.
I was thrilled to get the role but also dismayed to find out that David and Ivan Reitman--who produced it--were really just starting out. I was famous, and they were hoping to use my name to make their transition to mainstream films. Critics panned it. They thought it was awful. Today, of course, it's a cult film.
Were you able to tell that Cronenberg would go on to be a major talent?
I remember David telling me on the set, "We don't want to know Rose's personality. She's almost like a robot." I was, like, "What do you mean?" I was all set to do my Stanislavski Method acting. I wanted to show my abilities. David did teach me a lot about acting and being onscreen. He taught me how to under-act. I had a lot of energy that needed to be channeled properly. When the camera is up close, and your face is filling the entire screen, one wink can make a very big impression.
Co-star Mary Woronov recalls the spy spoof Angel of H.E.A.T. (Picture: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4) as a Lake Tahoe vacation interrupted by making a movie.
She's so funny! It was fun to make, but Angel of H.E.A.T. was basically people using my name to exploit and draw attention to a film. I was hoping it would draw attention to me too, but you still need a good script and director. Angel of H.E.A.T. and Rabid are typical, because I get stuck in these movies that they make in eighteen-below-zero temperatures. I never get to go to Hawaii or the Caribbean to make a film. I remember having to dive into Lake Tahoe in the middle of winter. I used to be a Junior Olympic swimmer, but I still thought I was going to die.
Did you ever get close to a role that would've really done you justice?
There was a film that was going to be produced around 1975 or 1976. I had been dancing and singing at the Riverboat Room, which used to be at the bottom of the Empire State Building. I was there for two months. I was a pretty big name then, and I had an offer to do a meeting for a film. So I met with the principles of this organization. I was going to star with Rip Torn--when he was young and good looking--and Nicholas Ray was going to be directing. Norman Mailer would be writing the script. This was huge. We had full-page ads in Variety congratulating Marilyn Chambers upon signing for--I think it was called City Blues. I was paid a princely sum upfront. We started rehearsals with me and Rip and Nicholas all up in my apartment. Then Nicholas Ray went off the deep end doing cocaine and ended up in the hospital. That was the end of that.
What's your favorite role amongst your onscreen work?
I had done this stage show called Sex Surrogate in Las Vegas--a one-woman show that didn't go over too well because it was too intellectual. I played all the roles. It was a huge challenge for me as an actress. I heard Jane Fonda turned it down. When you looked at the script, you'd think there was no way I could do that. When we went to London, we had to change the title to Sex Confessions. About two years later we videotaped it in the States over one day and night. It was this amazing eighteen-hour shoot. That's one of my best acting experiences.
That sounds similar to My Therapist, but that film isn't a one-woman show.
I don't remember making a film called My Therapist. The Playboy Channel once hired me to do thirteen episodes of a series called The Sex Surrogate. We shot the episodes, and they decided not to run with it. They might have taken those episodes to make that movie.
You had enough of a mainstream screen presence to launch the "porn chic" era of the 1970s. It must still seem weird that your past can keep hindering your career.
I'll still get calls from agents such as William Morris, and we get to the point where we're going to sign, and they say, "We don't know what to do with you." The thing about my career is that I've always played myself, basically. That's always been a problem. None of these roles have been a big stretch for me. They didn't do my career any good. Then I started doing these wrap-around segments for movies, and things like Lusty Busty Fantasies--I'm not proud of that stuff. I don't think those even helped pay the bills.
Even in those recent productions, you're always a classy presence. It's also noteworthy that you seem to insist on doing sex scenes with men close to your own age.
They've always wanted to put me with guys who look too young for me. I think it looks kind of silly for me to be with a young, muscular man. They think people are renting the videos to see young sexy bodies, but I think people need to enjoy real depictions of real people having sex. So, yes, I'll take some credit for that.