Oct 152021

The Story of Joanna (IMDB) is a 1975 X-rated drama directed and written by Gerard Damiano and starring Terri Hall in the title role and Jamie Gillis as Jason.

Joanna comes from the “Golden Age of porn” in the 70s and early 80s when some hardcore adult films were made with higher production values for release with X-ratings in mainstream theatres, trying to reach a broader audience. This was also the heyday of mainstream softcore erotica films like Just Jaeckin’s Histoire D’O (1975) and the original Emmanuelle (1974), and edgier material like Nazisploitation classics The Night Porter (1974), Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS (1975) and Salon Kitty (1976). (I’ve heard that Damiano wanted to film Story of O but couldn’t get the rights, and made his own knock-off.)

The story covers familiar territory: the sexual education of a naive young woman by a decadent aristocratic man in a Gothic setting. It’s a story that goes back at least to Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa and the anonymous Therese Philosophe in the 18th century and is as recent as Fifty Shades of Grey and 365 Days

Most of the film takes place in Jason’s mansion in the country, shot on location in Winfield Hall on the Woolworth Estate on Long Island, according to the complicated story from Rialto Report. It was also the location for another Golden Age classic, Jonas Middleton’s Through the Looking Glass (1976).

The framing device is Jason (Gillis) writing a letter to Joanna, explaining what he has done with her in a condescending tone. The film flashes back to when Jason met Joanna (Hall) in a fancy restaurant. He takes her back to his estate where he does his moody edgelord schtick, remaining distant while Joanna begs for him to let her love him. Her education in sexual matters plays out through various scenes. 

Story features full frontal male and female nudity (with abundant pubic hair), genital closeups and penetration, and visible semen (though no actual ejaculation). It follows the “variety show” format described by Linda Williams in Hard Core with multiple “numbers” of particular sexual acts: hetero anal, lesbian, group, bondage and flagellation, gay, etc.

Consent, to say the least, is not a strong value in this process. There’s a blatant scene of Jason overcoming Joanna’s resistance, turning her “no” into a “yes”. 

Jason (Gillis) and Joanna (Hall)

Jason bait-and-switches Joanna’s desired emotional consummation for physical consummation with others. In one scene, he sends his butler, Griffin, in place of himself to Joanna’s bedroom, and Joanna is desperate enough for physical affection that she accepts him. No matter what Joanna does, be it service three men simultaneously, accept a whipping from the maid, etc, Jason remains withholding. 

One scene has Jason watch as Joanna serves three men liquor and cigars, and then sexually services all three of them simultaneously. In another, shot in a hall-of-mirrors room, has Joanna bound to a chair while Jason and Gena, the maid, take turns whipping her thighs. 

Jason: “This isn’t punishment for infidelity. This is another lesson in pleasure.”  

Gena uses the whip’s handle to pleasure Joanna, then they shift to another room for aftercare. 

Near the end of the film, Jason and Griffin have a scene together in a conservatory. Griffin massages Jason and makes sure he takes his medicine, which he grumbles about. We learn that Jason is dying. “I’d like to die by the hand of someone that loves me.” His project with Joanna is to get her to the point at which she loves him but is willing to kill him. 

Griffin offers to “relax” Jason, and performs fellatio on him. This is an unusual scene for a pornographic film, especially for one primarily intended for a heterosexual audience. Jason is set up as the typical Sadean aristocrat, a “master of the universe” if you will, but here we see him naked, vulnerable, and passive. Griffin’s treatment of his master is tender, almost parental, and Jason is clearly the bottom in their scene of fellatio. It doesn’t exactly redeem Jason from his abusive treatment of Joanna, but it does humanize him. 

For the finale, Griffin grooms Joanna in her bedroom by shaving her pubic hair with a straight razor (unusual for 70s porn), and cutting her hair, which until now has been a major beauty feature. In a black dress, Joanna walks through the house to Jason’s study, where he gives her the letter he has been writing, an antique key, and his final gift, a loaded antique pistol. She starts to turn it on herself, but he stops her and gets her to use it on him. 

Griffin comes in, sees Jason dead on the floor, and asks what happened. Joanna says it was “an accident” and tells him to dispose of the body. She is now the ruler of this estate, and Griffin acquiesces. 

The Story of Joanna definitely has higher production values, and some “arty” moments, such as the interpretive ballet dance Joanna does with a male dancer (uncredited) while Jason watches. It follows the belief that to make hardcore acceptable to the mainstream, you have to dress it up with signifiers of wealth (lavish interiors, servants) and upper-class taste (classical music, philosophical dialog). This is the same aesthetic as the 90s softcore erotica boom. 

Compared to a major softcore erotica film like Just Jaeckin’s Story of O (1975), Joanna doesn’t have the budget or the European locations. That it includes hardcore sex gives it the virtue of honesty, unlike the softcore timidity of O. It does stick with the old idea that BDSM is done by decadent elites in rarefied surroundings, not regular people in regular places.

  One Response to “The Story of Joanna (1975): The Celluloid Dungeon”

  1. […] definitely a higher-budget production than the hardcore The Story of Joanna (1975), Story of O feels timid by comparison. It stays within the bounds of commercial softcore: […]

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