Cry For Cindy (1976)

While the grittier and more violent films are what both many fans and reverently referential filmmakers tend to cite in regard to grindhouse cinema, sin was just as vital a component of the exploitation landscape as splatter. Sex always sells, but skin flicks were also a major driver in changing cultural attitudes and legal precedents regarding what could be shown on screen in the United States, both inside and outside of the mainstream.

From nudie cuties, to roughies, to Russ Meyer’s jazzy, jiggly sexploitation films, each censorship battle and court proceeding forced further debate. Where was the line between art and obscenity? Redeeming social value and mere prurient interest? What right did government have to determine the available viewing choices of adults?

The loopholes shifted as time progressed. There were documentaries of various levels of seriousness, from the flimsy dodge of the boatloads of nudist and naturalist films, to the more reputable academic credentials of something like 1969’s Pornography in Denmark. When the veneer of educational value became less of a solid platform, canny filmmakers and distributors relied on American tendencies to assign a Continental arthouse gloss to international imports ( 1965 Danish drama I, A Woman, 1967’s oft parodied Swedish entry I Am Curious: Yellow).

With the mounting precedent of legal challenges and the various strictures of content restrictions starting to weaken, even American filmmakers began to get bolder in their provocations. Andy Warhol’s 1969 Blue Movie used an arthouse, slice of life structure and the celebrity of its creator to be one of the first sexually explicit films to open to a wide release. In between mundane activities like meals and free flowing conversation about social issues of the period, Viva and her costar have leisurely afternoon sex.

1970’s Mona the Virgin Nymph followed shortly after. Perhaps in response to the obscenity charges leveled against Blue Movie, it left its entire cast and crew uncredited. Rather than the gloss of experimental aesthetics, Mona relied on the fact that its explicit sequences were in service to a larger narrative plot, about the loopholes a young woman creates to satisfy her sexual urges while still remaining a virgin. Surprising no one who has ever spent any time amongst those raised in more puritanical backgrounds, her solution involves a lot of fellatio.

The New York Times Discovers Porno Chic 01/28/1973

The US had been playing a decades long game of just the tip, with softcore inching ever closer to the unsimulated content that had primarily been relegated to back rooms, under the counter sales, and illicit loops at stag parties. While Blue Movie and Mona both predate it, the film that finally got hardcore content to fully penetrate the mainstream was unquestionably 1972’s Deep Throat. The tale of a woman with an unusually placed clitoris broke box office records, and suddenly an erotic film became the stuff of date nights, talk show jokes, and serious reviews in mainstream publications. Perhaps because pornography had been an unspoken taboo for so long, people couldn’t stop talking about it.

Porno chic was in full swing, and everyone from fans to critics to festival programmers were excited for the new possibilities of eroticism in cinema, perhaps even the eventual disintegration of the line between hardcore and other more traditionally “acceptable” elements of mainstream films. With the hindsight of almost five decades, this idea might seem overly optimistic or unduly pretentious. Considering contemporaneous context of everyday people taking a sudden open interest in erotica, the fact that the X rated Midnight Cowboy had won the 1970 Oscar for Best Picture, or how many of the early porn directors and performers had previous mainstream aspirations……the idea seems far more plausible. Pornographers became boldly experimental in both aesthetic and structure, abandoning the sex exclusive gonzo construction of loops for more cinematic aspirations.

Cry For Cindy (1976) Title Card

Director Anthony Spinelli was one of the many talents of the golden age of porn that had had a brush with the conventional film industry, spending his youth as a character actor and bit player on television, as well as producing some minor B movies. After seeing the fare playing in a local adult theater, he decided to try his hand as a director of skin flicks, finding greater success in porn than he ever had in the mainstream. For old times’ sake, he often appeared in non sexual roles in his own films.

While Spinelli was not as avant-garde as some of his contemporaries, his films showed a brilliant knack for adapting familiar commercial genres to sex film friendly formats, with some of the most high end production values of the period. Over the course of his long career in porn, he turned out sex fueled sci-fi (Sexworld), steamy period piece porno noir (Dixie Ray, Hollywood Star/ It’s Called Murder, Baby), to tender takes tailor made for the couples’ erotica market ( AVN christened classic Nothing To Hide). 1976’s Cry For Cindy is his spin on an Old Hollywood vice fueled melodrama.

Newspaper Ad For Cry For Cindy 1976

Cindy (Hustler centerfold Amber Hunt) seems to have it all. Blonde, beautiful, and glamorous, she zips around town in a brand new car, and flies her own small engine plane back to her swanky apartment. Unfortunately, all of these lavish spoils don’t ease the pain of her living a double life. Cindy was formerly a mild mannered hairdresser named Anna, who has been secretly supplementing her income via prostitution. She returns home from a trick only to find Ben (Jack Wright, Sexworld), her pimp, waiting on her doorstep. He steals both her fee and her tips, then coerces Cindy into having sex with him.

As none of the luxury goods are in her name, and her pimp controls her cash, she can’t just walk away. Cindy’s pleas for Ben to let her return to her old life fall on deaf ears. Bad becomes worse when Cindy’s boyfriend Dennis (Spender Travis, On White Satin) arrives at the apartment unannounced. Previously unaware of her occupation, he gets a violent crash course via a savage beating from Ben. Despondent, Cindy commits suicide by leaping from her apartment window.

As the film basically opens at her funeral, Cindy’s journey from salon to sex work are told in flashbacks from the various mourners. Ben has the unmitigated gall to show up and complain about his financial loss. Dennis is present for more genuine reasons, as are Nora and Yvonne. The women were former clients of Anna/Cindy at the beauty shop and befriended her. She had long known they were call girls, and they were the ones who introduced her to sex work. As for Dennis, he now has to live with the knowledge that Cindy aligned herself with Ben so she would be a high class enough call girl to pay his way through medical school.

Cry For Cindy Still 1

The decidedly downbeat opener certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, and Amber Hunt isn’t the most dynamic of performers, either physically or dramatically. However, she does look fantastic both in and out of a glorious array of disco queen fashions, gracefully gliding through locations that look believably higher end. The sex scenes are almost exclusively straight, and keep things fairly simple in terms of positions, with most of the money shots centered around oral. They are more than a touch lacking in variation, but they’re frequent and competent enough to have satisfied the simpler subsets of the raincoat crowd.

Cindy’s first trick is a triple date with Yvonne (Maryanne Fisher) and Nora (Mitzi Fraser), but all of the women’s scenes are shot individually. Fisher and Frazier offer more enthusiastic and vocal performances in their brief scenes, while Amber Hunt is left to carry a more reluctant sort of seduction. As the terrified Cindy is still acclimating to the practical reality of sex work, her general hesitance as a performer (as opposed to her more seasoned co-workers) makes narrative sense.

Cindy becomes increasingly busy, her schedule dominated by a constant stream of clients waiting to see her. There’s precious little to distinguish them other than the increasing amounts they are willing to pay. Amber Hunt displays a bit of physical flexibility here, there’s a brief moment of anal there (for which Cindy rightfully charges extra), but art imitates life in that the majority of her clientele are generic middle aged businessman types, with predictably pedestrian tastes. A kinky nobleman with a fondness for being told fantasy stories of non consent and humiliation over glasses of sherry provides a welcome break from the strictly vanilla. This scene also provides the joy that is the film’s star in a sexy sheer jumpsuit accented with a deliciously diva-ish oversized hat, looking like a fabulous ghost haunting the dance floor at Studio 54.

What perhaps is most interesting about Cry For Cindy is that amongst all of the required tragic beats required by a tale of a “good” girl turned to vice, there’s a surprisingly pragmatic portrait of sex work lurking around the edges. Initially terrified of the taboo of prostitution, Cindy slowly finds herself enjoying the job, which everyone in the film seems to realize she’s well suited for. Yvonne and Nora, when Cindy emerges from her first trick with $500, affirm and celebrate her having a good night without rancor, jealousy, or mockery.

Cindy is eventually shown to be very distressed and guilty about her lack of guilt. Not only does she enjoy her work, she prefers it to spending time with the increasingly needy Dennis. Considering that she’s paying his way through medical school and he still has the hubris to demand her time and emotional labor be geared toward his personal convenience……she seems eminently rational in feeling increasingly disconnected and distant from him. Had Dennis gotten off his lazy ass and paid more of his own way, perhaps Cindy would have been able to keep working safely with her friends, rather than joining the stable of the well connected but exploitative Ben.

Porn performers aren’t always thrilled with their assigned scene partners, and escorts sometimes deal with difficult, demanding or toxic clients. Yet, because the performance of desire and excitement is part of both jobs, this simple truth is rarely stated plain. Should a sex worker of any stripe complain about their clients, working conditions, or personal pet peeves, they often get shouted down.

Even worse, mention of even the most minor annoyances are often framed as proof that ALL sex work is exploitative and coercive or that all workers are somehow incapable of “normal” relationships, among countless other harmful stereotypes. Bad faith assumptions rule the day, rather than actively listening to the needs of those doing the work.

Cry for Cindy‘s last two sex scenes are in terms of performance and naturalism, its strongest. In the first case, Cindy ends up having a lesbian tryst with Yvonne after an emotionally charged conversation leads to Yvonne confessing a long held crush. In the other, Dennis is reminiscing over his erotic romps with Cindy during the happier phases of their relationship.

Both scenes are allowed to be a touch softer and less overtly performative in terms of technique. Cindy seems to be more plausibly enjoying herself, less awkward and more relaxed. It’s interesting that the most intense erotic heat the film generates are the scenes where Cindy’s sexual partners are those of her own personal choosing, rather than the slight remove with which she handles her professional assignations. Cry For Cindy makes no value judgements in regard to that divide, never painting Cindy/Anna as disingenuous or damaged.

Cry For Cindy is far from perfect as a pornographic film, and fails to entirely divest itself from the conventions of the melodramas it models itself after. Even the most “regular” jobs have tradeoffs, and workers of any stripe do a careful calculation of occupational hazards and stressors versus renumeration. Most people act differently around their bosses, co-workers and clients than they do around their family and close friends. Yet sex workers as characters are rarely given the dimension of these common sense subtleties.

In using the bulk of the scant amount of runtime devoted to character development to openly establish some nuance, the movie firmly places itself in the all too slim canon of films that acknowledges that in the case of sex work, the operative word is the second one. This point is underlined from the very first frame, in the lyrics of the original pop ballad that serves as the film’s title theme ( “the life I lived was one of love, never one of shame”). Sex work is work, and it’s unfortunate that that sentiment still remains a notable outlier in cinema, pornographic or otherwise, four and a half decades after Cry For Cindy‘s release.

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