One of the most exciting movies of the 1990s, Boogie Nights may be slightly controversial, but there’s no denying the impact it had. A visual delight from start to finish, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film left us all amazed, heralding the breakthrough work of a visionary director and brilliant performances from a great ensemble cast.
The 1997 drama established Anderson as one of the most important filmmakers of his generation, and helped launch much of its cast – most notably leading man Mark Wahlberg – to Hollywood superstardom. And all of this was done exploring the thorny subject of the adult entertainment industry in the late 70s and early 80s.
Below are some things you might not have realised about this classic movie.
20. It’s based on the story of a real adult film star
While the characters of Dirk Diggler, Jack Horner and co. are fictitious, they were broadly modelled on real-life figures from the adult film industry.
Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler is based on John Holmes, the most celebrated male performer in adult films in the 70s.
Likewise, Burt Reynolds’ Jack Horner is an embellishment of Bob Chinn, who wrote and directed the bulk of Holmes’ biggest movies – which included, as in Boogie Nights, a series in which the star portrayed a detective.
Boogie Nights originated in a mockumentary short film called The Dirk Diggler Story, which Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed when he was still in school.
Scenes along these lines feature in Boogie Nights, when Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) directs a documentary about her co-star.
The mockumentary film itself was based on a documentary from 1981 called Exhausted: John C. Holmes, The Real Story, which was all about Holmes.
19. It could have starred Leonardo DiCaprio or Joaquin Phoenix instead of Wahlberg
Mark Wahlberg kills it in the role of Eddie Adams/Dirk Diggler, but did you know that Paul Thomas Anderson originally wanted to cast Leonardo DiCaprio in the role?
Apparently, DiCaprio really liked the script and would have signed up for the film, if it wasn’t for the fact that he’d already signed on the dotted line to star in a little project called Titanic.
Reportedly, it was DiCaprio himself who suggested Anderson should instead consider Mark Wahlberg for the part, as the two actors had recently worked together on The Basketball Diaries.
This proved to be a major career turning point for Wahlberg, who at the time only had a few acting roles to his name and was best known for his pop career as Marky Mark, and for his work as a Calvin Klein underwear model.
Before Wahlberg signed on, Joaquin Phoenix was also offered the role, but he turned it down because he didn’t feel comfortable with the subject matter.
Of course, Phoenix made up for it years later by collaborating with Anderson, twice, in 2012’s The Master and 2014’s Inherent Vice.
18. Paul Thomas Anderson originally wanted to make a hardcore three-hour epic
At 155 minutes in length, Boogie Nights is a pretty lengthy and in-depth look into the culture behind the adult film industry in the late 70s and early 80s.
However, if writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson had had his way, it would have been an even longer and more explicit movie.
Anderson’s original vision was for a film that would run for a full three hours and would carry the NC-17 rating.
Introduced by the MPAA in 1990, the NC-17 had been originally intended as a more commercially acceptable take on the X certificate – but this quickly proved not to be the case, as many mainstream cinemas refused to screen NC-17 movies.
After a number of high profile NC-17s became box office disasters (the most notorious being 1995’s Showgirls), studios were very wary of going there – and this included New Line Cinema, to whom Anderson sold Boogie Nights.
At the insistence of producer Michael De Luca, Anderson agreed to tone things down a little for an R-rating, and trimmed 25 minutes’ worth of material from the script.
17. Mark Wahlberg almost turned the film down, worried it would be another Showgirls
Erotic thrillers had become big business in the early 90s thanks to the massive success of director Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, but this trend was killed stone dead in 1995 by another Verhoeven movie, Showgirls.
Critically reviled and commercially disastrous, Showgirls set back the careers of everyone involved – particularly its unfortunate leading lady, Elizabeth Berkley.
When Boogie Nights was first offered to Mark Wahlberg, the rapper and underwear model was still fairly green as an actor, and he feared the role could do for him what Showgirls did for Berkley.
Wahlberg recalls, “I was like, ‘Ehh, I don’t want to do this.’ But there was just so much hype around the script. So finally I started reading it.”
“I got 35 pages into it, I put it down, I said, ‘I’ve got to meet the director.’ I said, ‘This guy either finally wants me to take the Calvin Kleins off, or he wants to make a really serious movie.’”
Once Paul Thomas Anderson assured Wahlberg it was his acting skills and not the contents of his Calvins that were of interest, the actor was in.
16. Burt Reynolds was the sixth choice to play Jack Horner
As well as giving a major career breakthrough role to Mark Wahlberg, Boogie Nights also proved a huge comeback for Burt Reynolds.
In the 70s and early 80s Reynolds had been one of the biggest box office draws around, off the back of such hits as Deliverance and Smokey and the Bandit.
However, Reynolds’ career had stalled significantly by the 90s; before Boogie Nights, his last major role was in 1996’s high profile flop Striptease (another movie which, along with the previous year’s Showgirls, killed off the 90s erotic thriller wave).
However, while Reynolds may now seem like the ideal man to play jaded adult film director Jack Horner, he wasn’t exactly top of the wish list.
At least five other big name actors were considered for the part before Reynolds was approached.
Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Albert Brooks, Sydney Pollack and Warren Beatty all either turned the part down or were unavailable.
15. Drew Barrymore was offered Rollergirl before Heather Graham
Boogie Nights gave Heather Graham the role she arguably remains most closely associated with, the perpetually skate-clad Rollergirl.
However, the first actresses seriously considered for the role were Drew Barrymore and Tatum O’Neal.
Barrymore was famed at the time for playing ‘bad girl’ roles (and had not long since turned down the lead role in Showgirls).
According to casting director Christine Sheaks, Tatum O’Neal gave “a terrific audition… she may have done something really brave with Paul.”
Heather Graham wasn’t on the production’s radar at first, mainly because she wasn’t an actor known for doing nudity at the time.
However, when Graham came in to read for the part Anderson and team knew they’d found their Rollergirl – and she wound up shooting her nude scene on her first day of filming.
14. Ron Jeremy was a consultant on the film
Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas was keen for his cast and crew to get a feel for the realities of working in the adult film industry.
To this end, Anderson enlisted the help of Ron Jeremy, probably the industry’s most famous and prolific male performer since John Holmes.
Anderson befriended Jeremy whilst still a relatively unknown filmmaker, and the adult star took the future Oscar-nominee under his wing.
Anderson spent a year hanging out with Jeremy, who reportedly “immersed” the director in the business. As a result, Jeremy was officially credited as a consultant on the 70s-set drama.
Jeremy later told The Independent that Boogie Nights is “a very accurate depiction – of a select few. It was not my crowd. I was not involved in murders or drugs.”
Jeremy even invited cast members to the set of one of his films, although Burt Reynolds refused to go, insisting he knew all he needed to know about that business already.
13. A real adult film actress plays the wife of William H Macy’s character
While Ron Jeremy helped out in an off-camera capacity, another adult film performer has a small but key acting role in the film.
For the unnamed cuckolding wife of William H. Macy’s ‘Little’ Bill Thompson, Anderson cast Nina Hartley.
Casting an adult film professional in this role was a logical move, as the character is having sex in all her scenes.
Hartley says there was some tension between herself and some of the regular actors in the movie, likely down to an ‘us and them’ mindset.
However, Hartley insists that William H. Macy himself “treated me with respect and professionalism. And I really appreciated that.”
After finishing her role, Hartley presented her co-stars with gifts – in the form of her own VHS tapes.
12. Samuel L. Jackson turned down the role that went to Don Cheadle
As Boogie Nights was the film on which Paul Thomas Anderson really made his name, it’s easy to forget it wasn’t the writer-director’s debut.
In fact, Anderson actually made his directorial debut a year earlier, with a crime drama entitled Hard Eight.
This film boasted an illustrious cast including John C. Reilly (who would return for Boogie Nights), Gwyneth Paltrow (who would decline the part of Rollergirl) and Samuel L. Jackson.
Anderson was so keen to work with Jackson again after Hard Eight that he offered him the part of Boogie Nights’ Buck Swope.
However, on being presented with the script, Jackson – who’s not known for turning roles down too often – reportedly responded, “What the hell is this?”
As a result, the part was instead offered to Don Cheadle, who happily accepted. The film would help to make Cheadle’s name.
11. Burt Reynolds tried to punch Paul Thomas Anderson
The late Burt Reynolds made no secret about his disdain for Boogie Nights – and part of the problem was his relationship with the writer-director.
By all accounts, Reynolds and then-relative newcomer Paul Thomas Anderson did not get along at all during shooting.
Tensions between the two got so bad that witnesses state the seasoned actor physically attacked the director at one point.
Assistant director John Wildermuth recalls, “Burt got so frustrated he pulled Paul outside into the backyard and started yelling at him, like a father, you know? ‘You f***in’ little punk kid, don’t tell me what to do.'”
Actor Tom Lenk agrees: “We saw some fists flying from Burt Reynolds… he was trying to punch our director in the face.”
Despite these tensions, Anderson still offered Reynolds a part in his follow-up film Magnolia – but Reynolds declined.
10. Dirk’s song is from The Transformers: The Movie
One of the most hilariously cringe-worthy moments in Boogie Nights comes when Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk and John C. Reilly’s Reed Rothchild attempt to start a new career as rock stars.
Dirk goes into the studio to sing a painfully out of tune rendition of a none-more-80s power ballad entitled The Touch.
Chances are that the song will sound very familiar to many children of the 80s, as it was originally featured in 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie.
The air-punching anthem was composed and performed by rocker Stan Bush, and in 2014 he was inducted into the Transformers Hall of Fame for it.
The scene could be considered a little prophetic, as Mark Wahlberg would go on to be closely associated with the Transformers, taking the (human) lead in 2014’s Transformers: Age of Extinction and 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight.
However, Boogie Nights plays a bit loose with history there, as the film shows Dirk singing the song in 1983 – three years before Stan Bush actually wrote it.
9. The studio initially wanted to open the film on the same day as The Lost World: Jurassic Park
If New Line Cinema had stuck to their original plan, Julianne Moore fans would have been spoilt for choice on 23rd May 1997.
This was the date on which Universal Pictures released Steven Spielberg’s eagerly anticipated blockbuster sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which stars Moore alongside Jeff Goldblum.
It was also the date on which New Line Cinema was originally intending to release Boogie Nights, in which Moore also appears.
Paul Thomas Anderson explains in the Boogie Nights DVD commentary that the executives at New Line felt their more mature, cerebral film would be interesting ‘counter-programming’ to Spielberg’s big budget, FX-driven monster movie.
However, considering that 1993’s original Jurassic Park was the highest-grossing box office hit ever at the time, New Line eventually realised opening Boogie Nights on the same day might not be the brightest move.
Instead, New Line released Boogie Nights in peak awards film season on 10th October 1997; it went on to make $43.1 million at the box office (a far cry from The Lost World: Jurassic Park’s $618.6 million).
8. Julianne Moore hardly needed any direction
Julianne Moore was already a respected actress before landing the part of Amber Waves in Boogie Nights.
Her career reached new heights thanks to the role, which had been offered to Marisa Tomei beforehand.
In the film’s DVD commentary, the director recalls he only ever had to give Moore specific direction on one occasion.
The director simply told Moore to say “too many things” during a scene in which her character is on drugs.
The performance would land Moore her first Oscar nomination, in the Best Supporting Actress category.
Moore would be Oscar-nominated a further three times before finally taking home the gold for Still Alice in 2015.
7. The murder-suicide scene was originally more graphic
Boogie Nights may have toned down its content enough to avoid the NC-17 rating, but it’s still very much adults-only viewing.
In the first cut of the film, the most shocking moment of violence was a lot more graphic and disturbing.
This scene comes midway, when William H. Macy’s Bill, driven mad by his wife’s constant infidelity and belittlement of him, shoots her dead along with her lover, then turns the gun on himself.
Originally, the bloody deaths of Nina Hartley’s wife character and her male partner were shown on screen.
However, after test screenings, Anderson and the Boogie Nights producers agreed that the scene was too gruesome.
Instead, the film cuts away to the action at the party when the gun is fired, and features only a brief shot of Macy’s Bill shooting himself.
6. Dirk Diggler’s ‘talent’ was a prosthetic
Without going into too much detail, if you’ve seen Boogie Nights, then you will likely remember the film’s final shot.
This climactic moment is the only time that Dirk Diggler’s most renowned body part is actually shown on camera.
However, in case you’ve ever wondered – no, the appendage in question isn’t actually part of Mark Wahlberg’s anatomy, but a prosthetic he wore for the scene.
Boogie Nights’ director of photography, Robert Elswit, would later say: “what Mark Wahlberg did in that movie was all sorts of things that he had to absolutely commit to.”
Elswit explains, “He had to put a prosthetic c*** on his own c***, you know what I mean? That’s asking an awful lot of an actor, honestly.”
Wahlberg told talk show host Seth Meyers in 2016 that he got to keep the prosthetic, and says “maybe at some point I can sell it at auction for charity.”
5. The final scene is also an homage to Raging Bull
Viewers who manage not to be totally distracted by the reveal of that body part might notice something else about the final scene of Boogie Nights.
The movie ends with Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler preparing to go back on set, reciting his lines directly to the mirror.
If this seems vaguely reminiscent of the last scene of another classic movie, that’s not a mere coincidence.
The scene is an homage to the ending of Raging Bull, which sees Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta reciting dialogue to a dressing room mirror.
In an extra twist, this makes the last scene of Boogie Nights an homage to an homage, as Raging Bull’s climax pays tribute to another classic from years gone by.
The ending of Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film shows De Niro’s character reciting the most famous speech delivered by Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan’s Oscar-winning 1954 film On the Waterfront.
4. Reynolds fired his agent because he hated the film so much
In terms of critical kudos, Boogie Nights proved to be the best thing to happen to Burt Reynolds since Deliverance.
The seasoned star, who had not always been taken seriously by critics, was widely praised for his performance.
Reynolds wound up winning a Golden Globe for his performance and also received an Oscar nomination, amongst other accolades.
However, Reynolds had taken a lot of convincing to sign on for the film, and had an uneasy relationship with it throughout production.
After he saw a rough cut of the film, Reynolds actually fired his agent for even recommending he star in it.
Nor did the Golden Globe win do much to change his feelings on the matter; Reynolds, who would sadly fall on hard times in his later years, sold the award in 2014.
3. Wahlberg has since distanced himself from the film
You might think that, if anyone would be grateful for having made Boogie Nights, it would be Mark Wahlberg.
The Basketball Diaries notwithstanding, Wahlberg didn’t have much of an acting career to speak of before playing Dirk Diggler, and the film established him as a credible leading man almost overnight.
However, Wahlberg has said he regrets starring in his breakout film, and that it was high on his list of poor career choices.
It seems that Wahlberg’s anxiety on the subject is rooted in his devotion to the Roman Catholic faith.
The actor publicly remarked in 2017, “I just always hope that God is a movie fan and also forgiving, because I’ve made some poor choices in my past. ‘Boogie Nights’ is up there at the top of the list.”
The actor later clarified that he “was just saying that I just hope He has a sense of humor because I may have made some decisions that may not be okay with Him.”
2. There will never be a sequel
An independent-spirited film like Boogie Nights from an auteur director like Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t necessarily something that screams “franchise.”
However, this hasn’t stopped some devoted fans of the movie hoping that we might at some point get a follow-up.
Sadly for them, Anderson has ruled out any chance of there ever being a sequel to Boogie Nights.
The writer-director explains he wouldn’t want to attempt a follow-up catching up with the characters years later as “I fear that most of them might be dead.”
“I doubt Dirk Digger (would still be) alive. He’d be probably gone. I couldn’t see him making it.”
Indeed, John Holmes – on whom Diggler was modelled – died at age 43 in March 1988, from AIDS.
1. It’s deliberate that the characters never change
Boogie Nights firmly established Paul Thomas Anderson as a writer-director with a singular talent for crafting textured, believable characters.
A big part of how this comes across in the movie is the near-total lack of conventional character development.
Anderson has explained he made a deliberate point of not giving the Boogie Nights characters the standard character arcs expected in Hollywood productions, where the characters learn and grow from the lessons life teaches them throughout the story.
Anderson explained to Indiewire, “usually what you see in a movie is that [the characters] become smarter at the end of the movie, somehow. That doesn’t really happen here. Everybody is the same.”
“Maybe if there’s a change, it’s like one degree. Normally you see a 90-degree change in a movie. To me, they’re all pretty much the exact same people as they were at the beginning of the movie.”