All for $100
Moynihan, Michael, Newsweek
Byline: Michael Moynihan
The eventful life of Harry Reems.
Obscenity, supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously declared, is difficult to define but rather easy to identify. One knows it when one sees it. British philosopher Bertrand Russell provided a more succinct definition: "Obscenity is whatever happens to shock some elderly and ignorant magistrate."
In 1972, elderly and ignorant magistrates, alongside conservative Christians and radical feminists, were shocked by the runaway success of the low-budget porno-comedy film Deep Throat, which quickly distinguished itself as the highest-grossing adult movie in American history. The film's male lead, Harry Reems--the suggestive nom de porn of Brooklyn-born actor Herbert Streicher--was paid the princely sum of $100 for his performance.
Deep Throat's infiltration of the mainstream (it grossed, according to some estimates, $50 million) demanded legal remedy. And the Nixon administration, sinking in the quicksand of Watergate, responded with enthusiasm, choosing to prosecute those associated with the film in Memphis ("the buckle on the Bible Belt," Reems quipped). The film's director and its female lead, Linda Lovelace, were granted immunity for cooperating with the feds, leaving Reems, a poorly remunerated actor, to be prosecuted--and convicted--on the charge of "conspiracy to transport obscene material across state lines." The sentence was later overturned on appeal.
As Reems was fond of pointing out, he was the first film "actor" to be prosecuted by the federal government for starring in a movie, and the case made Reems something of a cause celebre to the radical-chic brigade. Shirley MacLaine, Stephen Sondheim, Gregory Peck, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, and countless other celebrities saw Deep Throat as their Martin Niemoller moment: it was dangerous to say nothing, because prosecutors could come for them next. Celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who represented Reems, claimed, "It's no exaggeration to say today Harry Reems, tomorrow Marlon Brando or Jack Nicholson." (Last Tango in Paris, starring Brando, was in fact banned in Canada, South Korea, Portugal, Italy, and Chile after the intercession of both conservative and feminist activists. …