"I feel like I'm ready for my close-up," Leonard says, laughing.
More than 30 years after her breakthrough performance in "The Opening of Misty Beethoven," Radley Metzger's pornographic remake of "Pygmalion," and one of the landmarks of adult filmmaking, Leonard hopes to get that chance with a book deal. Although she doesn't have a publishing company lined up just yet, she has the title, "Star Is a Four Letter Word," plus the incentive to write it on spec.
"If I don't write and I die, my daughter might come out with a 'Mommie Weirdest,'" Leonard says, letting out another laugh.
Joking aside, Leonard credits her daughter with helping her launch a career that, thanks to online info sites such as Wikipedia and Internet Movie Database, still echoes in the online universe of adult content fandom.
A single mom in the 1970s, Leonard says she struggled to make ends meet until one day, through a friend, she landed an on-set job with a New York City production company. Earning more in a day than she did in a week with her previous job, she soon gravitated into doing more production work in a young industry and then riding off the breakthrough success of Gerard Damiano's "Deep Throat."
That work soon put her in touch with Radley Metzger, a movie director best known for shooting softcore films in Europe under the nom de cine Henry Paris and then importing them back in the states to show on the art house circuit.
Although Leonard says she was only looking for a production job in "Misty," Metzger, a man Leonard describes as "quite the charmer," decided otherwise.
"Instead of being on the film, I was in the film," Leonard says, noting her onscreen appearance alongside fellow adult icons Constance Money and Jamie Gillis. According to the onscreen review site Mondo- Digital.com, those who purchase the recent DVD re-release can watch Leonard and Gills dish dirt about Money, Metzger and the whole 1970s era porn scene on a commentary track.
Before Leonard could accept the new role, however, she had to run the offer by her 12-year-old daughter. Taking into account her daughter's street-wise New York City upbringing, Leonard says she decided to play it straight: The money would be good enough to move the family into a newer, bigger apartment; the production company was respectable enough to ensure more work; and the sex was simply a part of the story-line.
"I told her that there were films with comedy and films with adventure and there are films with sex, and that I had been offered a part in a film with sex, and that I would be required to have sex," Leonard recalls. "And that's the way I really viewed it."
Leonard says her daughter accepted the move with one proviso. "She basically said, 'You need to do what's best for you and us and just remember to give me the same latitude when I get older."'
Leonard lets out another laugh. "It's hard arguing with that."
Labeled by one IMDb viewer as hands down the best porn movie ever made, "Misty Beethoven," like many films of its era, took advantage of the crumbling barrier between mainstream and adult films. In addition to featuring a relatively solid screenplay and a director schooled in European cinema, the film boasted a union crew happy to get the extra work. Robert Rochester, the film's cinematographer, would even go on to win an Oscar under his given name.
"There was a lot of talent showing up on those sets," Leonard says. "A lot of the union people loved to do adult as a way to keep their chops up."
Such crossover is a major reason Leonard, an actress who claims to have done only 30 films — even though the magic of re-edited footage has drastically magnified that number — still merits mention in an industry that has long abandoned its film school roots. Two years ago, at the opening of the Hustler Hollywood store, Leonard was invited to memorialize her legendary status via a set of Graumann's-style cement handprints.
Icon of Her Era
For Leonard, her adult legacy all boils down to the intangible power of the cinema setting. True, the porn business is many times bigger than it was in 1975, but the migration from the theater to the home entertainment center and from celluloid to plastic has diminished the genre's power to build instant icons. As Norma Desmond herself would agree: The female talents of the 1970s remain big; it's the pictures that got small.
"The thing about film is that it was film," Leonard says. "You had to go out and see these things in a theater. Your name would be up in lights on a big friggin' marquee. Some of the movies actually had screenings for all the magazine critics. It was a different world back then."
For that very reason, Leonard finds it hard to see much overlap between her work and the current adult content pumping out on DVDs and over the Internet. The woman who once quipped that the only difference between porn and erotica was the lighting sees more commonality between President Carter-era adult filmmaking and the Eisenhower-era B-movie system.
"We sort of replaced the Diana Doors, Jayne Mansfields and Jane Russells," says Leonard, noting cinema predecessors who, while abstaining from onscreen sex, did their best to assure a certain sense of sexual availability to Eisenhower-era movie fans.
The latter stages of Leonard's career, however, reflect the transition from an industry modeled on Hollywood's second tier to an industry that today dramatically outpaces Hollywood in terms of marketing finesse. Born and raised in the Bronx, Leonard put her New York verbal skills to use as the first president of the Adult Film Association of America, an industry-defending organization that would eventually change its name to the Adult Film and Video Association and, finally, the Adult Video Association.
"I was president when the Traci Lords shit hit the fan," she says, noting one major damage-control campaign. "That was fun."
Although Leonard put up with the name changes, she eventually parted with the organization after it became the Free Speech Coalition. By that time, she had accepted a job as publisher of High Society, a magazine known for its flashes of "celebrity skin," including one photo of Barbara Streisand that the star's legal team managed to quash. Surprisingly, Leonard, a woman who had always aspired to be an actress, says she found the return to business life more rewarding. Her duties ranged from sales calls to writing short copy and, while High Society would be another job that would leave her with nothing in the way of residuals or retirement benefits, it left her with a sense that the adult entertainment industry was and remains one of the few industries that dares to let a woman approach any significant level of power or responsibility.
"The most fun I had working in the industry was as a publisher," she says. "I got to travel all around the U.S. and Canada and even all around England once we started up a magazine there. All those places, plus the variety of people, plus the thousands of interviews I got to do make it a special memory for me."
Balancing out that memory, however, is the memory of $200-a-day shoots on "crummy" sets and with "funky smelling" partners that still somehow show up on cable and digital video with nary a residual to ease the pain.
"By the 1980s, the industry had moved from New York to California," she says, noting the sudden inconvenience of flying six hours to participate in a trio of scenes that would barely pay for the plane ticket.
Leonard doesn't blame porn producers for making the migration — "I think the weather started to appeal to a certain age group of guys, and there were a lot of babes out there getting off the bus each day," she says. But the overall chilliness of an industry that had once operated like an edgy Manhattan repertory ensemble began to grate. "That was during the heavy-duty cocaine days," she notes. "The whole business took a switcheroo."
Such memories are one reason Leonard, looking at the current industry with its broad range of niches and Internet distribution channels, issues a terse "no way" when asked if she could see herself as onscreen talent nowadays.
Even with the 37-year-old body she possessed at the time of her "Misty Beethoven" debut, it would be hard to justify what, to a 1970s actress, would have looked more like the 9-to-5 job that she just left.
"It's like when Prohibition finally ended, and you could drink everywhere," Leonard says. "It was a unique thing to be making those films when we did. We were really crossing a line. We were daring. We were pioneers taking huge risks. There was a certain excitement about doing that sort of thing that you just don't see anymore."