Reviewed by Justin Izbinski
“…one of the greatest in gay porn, if not all of cinema.”
William E. Jones on Fred Halsted
Halsted Plays Himself is the chronicle of Fred Halsted, queer pioneer, porn star, film director and according to his biographer, auteur. Halsted’s best known for his first and most artistic effort, L.A. Plays Itself, which in its opening scene, a sylvan gay sex idyll gets interrupted by a bulldozer clearing away nature for a subdivision.
Halsted’s story is told here by artist and filmmaker, William E. Jones who weaves an illuminating yet tragic narrative of a man who was artistically ahead of his time. Jones, had his own stint working as a producer at VCA Pictures, a porn film production and distribution company that was eventually absorbed by Larry Flynt. His job there was to compile footage from “all-male” porn videos for bargain bin DVD compilations. Since these auspicious early years, Jones emerged into a significant career through international screenings and exhibitions, becoming one of L.A.’s most significant experimental filmmakers, a path that was arguably closed to Halsted.
Born in Long Beach, California and raised throughout the state, Halsted never strayed too far from Los Angeles. More than familiar with the ins-and-outs of the city, the iconic scenery and the hustlers’ corners, Halsted used the city as the focal point of his magnum opus. Never formally trained in filmmaking, Halsted studied botany in college, owned a nursery, and worked as a gardener on the estates of Joey Heatherton and Vincent Price until one rainy spring in 1969 Halsted took a break from gardening to create, in his own words, an “autobiographical homosexual story,” ultimately taking shape as L.A. Plays Itself.
Beginning with an iconic shot of the sign marking the Los Angeles city limits, L.A. Plays Itself stars its autodidactic film director and his future business and sexual partner, Joey Yale. Halsted’s naïveté as a filmmaker freed him from convention. Other than its artistry, the film is also known for its infamous fisting scene between Halsted and Yale, a dramatization (perhaps?) of their real life love affair and by some lights the first on-camera fellow-to-fellow fisting.
At the New York premiere of L.A. Plays Itself, Halsted was taken back by the negative response he received by the primarily gay audience, who booed and hissed the film for its sadism. In about ten minutes, Halsted, who was known for his charm, was able to disarm the audience whom he suspected had grown to complacently expect “love and kisses and beautiful flowers” on screen. The second, more subdued preview screening was attended by artists, critics, and curators, and most famously, Salvador Dali, who commented that the film was “new information for me.”
In 1974, Halsted was invited to present his work at a screening series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, appropriately titled Cineprobe, and defend himself against his detractors. Halsted’s presentation had the important result that prints of L.A. Plays Itself and his subsequent films, Sex Garage and Sextool were acquired by MOMA. As Jones points out, very few gay porn films still exist from this time, so if it wasn’t for the action taken by MOMA to realize the importance of Halsted’s films, the few copies of these films that do exist would have disappeared. Upon the commercial video release of L.A. Plays Itself and Sex Garage, boxes bore the words “Part of the permanent film collection of the Museum of Modern Art,” unique in the annals of gay, perhaps of all porn.
Riding the success of L.A. Plays Itself, Halsted produced two other films: Sex Garage, often shown along with L.A. Plays Itself, and Sextool, a commercial failure. To cope with the failure of the latter film, Halsted set about writing and publishing opinion pieces and erotic writing in magazines such as Drummer and the magazine he founded, Package. During the 80s, he starred in productions other than his own while continuing to direct, eventually venturing to opening his own “stand-up fuck club” at the intersection of Glendale and Silverlake Boulevard, which only lasted a year or so.
After the AIDS death of his partner Yale, Halsted became an alcoholic. “Financially and creatively destitute,” he was forced to live with his brother. Halsted wrote an autobiography titled Why I Did It. Jones tried to obtain a reading copy but few if any still remain, as it was never commercially published and rejected by every publisher Halsted submitted it to. He committed suicide in 1989.
Following Jones’ biography, a large selection of Halsted Plays Himself is devoted to oral histories by friends and ex-lovers, many of whom withheld their actual names, a persistent custom of a nearly disappeared, semi-anonymous queer underground, a world which Halsted captured with uncommon artistry, before he too disappeared.