No Diggling: Charting Mark Wahlberg’s Transformation From Crotch-Centric Underwear Model to Sexless Movie StarElias Stein
Unless you count the title character, the inanimate object destined to get the biggest laughs in Seth MacFarlane’s Ted 2 is a penis-shaped bong with fully articulated glans and testicles. The bong belongs to Ted’s lawyer, played by Amanda Seyfried, and at first she’s the only character willing to put her mouth on it. Eventually Ted (voiced by the movie’s co-writer and director Seth MacFarlane) does, too, but his human buddy John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) doesn’t. If you’re familiar with the Ted mythos, you know that John’s not one to turn down an opportunity to smoke pot any more than Ted is. But you have to draw the line somewhere. Ted 2 is obsessed with that line, and constantly teases the audience with the possibility that someone will cross it. Gay panic is the biggest glob of color on its palette; future anthropologists will view it and conclude that 21st-century males held themselves to almost no behavioral standards but lived in near-pathological fear of accidental homosexual activity.
The fact that the movie is also an undisguised and unequivocal parable about marriage equality — a theme MacFarlane subtly weaves through the narrative by having Ted say, “I’m standing up for myself and I’m standing up for the homos” after the government rescinds his personhood — is supposed to make up for the Axe-mist of “chicks with dicks” jokes it sprays our way. MacFarlane clearly believes what he’s saying about Prop 8 being total bullshit. He also clearly believes that building his movie around that bro-gressive message functions as a hundred-dollar bill tucked in the gay-slur swear jar.
In the original Ted, Wahlberg’s John was the protagonist, and Ted was a symbolic foil — the externalized avatar of the naughty widdle boy inside every man. The weirdest thing about Ted 2 — apart from its attempt to deliver a message about tolerance using a snickering dick-joke semaphore — is that it’s now Ted who’s on a hero’s journey, with John along for the ride. It’s been a complicated June for Wahlberg, who began the month watching the Entourage movie (which he produced, as he did the TV show) debut to howlingly vituperative reviews, charges of retrograde misogyny, and so-so box office, and will end it playing second fiddle to a foulmouthed stuffed animal in a movie whose critical reception could well make Entourage’s look like Fury Road’s.
Wahlberg began his career as a sex symbol — a rapper turned underwear model with comic-book abs you could juice a lemon on. Nearly every story anyone’s written about him in the ensuing years contains some reference to his brief stint as the face and torso of Calvin Klein, usually as an ignominious origin story he’s managed to live down (along with a teenage history of cocaine abuse and violence) through professional accomplishment. But what’s interesting and a little bit sad about Wahlberg’s post-underpants career arc is the degree to which he seems to have overcorrected this image problem, particularly during the last 10 years. He’s more buff than ever — in Transformers: Age of Extinction, he’s like the third-biggest truck onscreen — but he has also become a weirdly closed-off, almost asexual performer. He’s 44, but his screen persona seems more than ever like a young boy’s idea of a man.
It’s hard not to feel like there’s something missing — and increasingly difficult to remember that when he first hit billboards in the ’90s, Wahlberg was a symbol of evolving ideas about masculinity, sexual display, and even race. “Good Vibrations,” his first (and last) no. 1 single as “Marky Mark” of the Funky Bunch, is considered a white-rap landmark on par with Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” from a year earlier, but to 2015 ears it just sounds like house music, complete with a soaring vocal by disco diva Loleatta Holloway. In the beginning, Wahlberg played both straight and gay clubs, but he took a carefully managed approach to capitalizing on that kind of attention. “One club he planned to play even asked him to sign an agreement promising to take off his shirt,” the Chicago Tribune reported in 1993, before adding, “(He didn’t; you can’t plan stuff like that.)” Ironically, the next great leap of his career wouldn’t have been possible without the involvement of two (or maybe three) of the most culturally influential gay men of the late 20th century — photographer Herb Ritts and designer Calvin Klein, who’s rumored to have cast Wahlberg on the recommendation of David Geffen.
Klein had pioneered male objectification as a sales pitch a few years earlier with an ad shot by Bruce Weber that featured straight Olympic pole-vaulter Tom Hintnaus reclining against a stone wall in gleaming tighty-whities. But whereas Hintnaus looked like any number of other chiseled, Blue Steel–faced male models you’d find in the pages of an ’80s issue of GQ, Wahlberg was something fashion advertising hadn’t really seen before — an actual street kid from Dorchester whose look was a basically irresistible mingling of hip-hop swagger and teenage bashfulness, an Adonis in a backward baseball cap. Like young Eddie Adams at the beginning of Boogie Nights, the Calvin Klein–ad version of Wahlberg knows he’s got something special but isn’t quite sure of its implications. The ads quickly boosted sales of Calvin Klein underwear — particularly a new invention called the boxer brief, created by John Varvatos, then a rising star in the company’s menswear division — by 34 percent, and transformed Wahlberg from a one-hit wonder into an icon. His appeal was so broad that draping a topless Kate Moss over him in a 1992 TV ad and having him talk about “hitting skins” while snapping his elastic reads today like a corrective measure meant to quiet speculation about his sexuality. But when he whispers, “Do you have Calvin Klein underwear on?” over a black screen at the end of the ad, he’s not talking to Moss — he’s talking to you, whoever you are. His open-ended and guileless delivery would echo in the movies three years later, in the voice of Leo Fitzpatrick’s Telly, the predatory deflowerer in Larry Clark’s hipster horror show Kids — “I like you, I think you’re beautiful, and I think if we fucked you would love it.”
“He was this young homeboy,” Moss told i-D in 1993, “like really young, and he likes girls with big butts and big tits and shit and I don’t really fit into that category.” That same year, he published a memoir, Marky Mark, and dedicated it to “my dick.” (He was really young.) As he grew more famous, stories came to light. At 15, he was accused of pelting African American children with rocks while shouting racial epithets, a case Wahlberg settled without admitting guilt; he was arrested in 1988 for assaulting two Vietnamese men, one of whom he addressed as “Vietnam fucking shit” while beating him with a wooden club. He was high on angel dust at the time; his arrest report notes that he made “numerous unsolicited racial statements about ‘gooks’ and ‘slant-eyed gooks'” when discussing the incident with police. He was charged with attempted murder, pleaded guilty to assault, and served 90 days of a 21-month suspended sentence at Deer Island Prison in Boston Harbor.
In the ensuing years he’d express remorse for these things, and in 2014 he’d petition the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for a full pardon of the 1988 crime. But back in the ’90s, there were signs that he hadn’t quite left violence or bigotry behind. In 1992, he and dancehall star Shabba Ranks were guests on the same episode of the British TV series The Word. After Ranks answered a question about fellow dancehall artist Buju Banton by stating calmly that gays “deserve crucifixion,” Wahlberg joined him onstage to deliver a scattershot freestyle and a seeming endorsement of his views: “Shout out to Shabba Ranks — speaks his mind, speaks his opinion. All y’all can’t deal with it, step the fuck off.” The following year, he was involved in an altercation at a party after allegedly calling a member of Madonna’s posse a “homo.” Wahlberg has denied this accusation.
After reading the first 30 pages of the script for Paul Thomas Anderson’s porn-industry epic Boogie Nights, he famously called the director on the phone and told him, “I just want to make sure before I really fall in love with this and want to do it, that you don’t want me because I’m the guy who will get in his underwear.” Anderson assured him that this wasn’t the case, which may well have been true, but sort of understates the degree to which Boogie Nights ultimately made use of Wahlberg’s own past as an object of broad-spectrum desire. Anderson’s movie postulates the San Fernando Valley porn biz as a shadow Hollywood that replicates the original’s hierarchies and pretensions; the fact that Wahlberg was still a quasi movie star only a few years removed from a full-time career as a piece of meat made him the perfect actor to play Dirk Diggler, who moves through this world like a horse-cocked Candide.
In The Dirk Diggler Story — the mockumentary rough draft of Boogie Nights that a 17-year-old P.T. Anderson shot in the late ’80s with friends from the neighborhood — Dirk is bisexual, and Reed Rothchild (the character played by John C. Reilly in the 1997 version) is more than just his co-star and coke buddy. When Anderson rewrote the movie as a feature, that detail fell by the wayside, and one of the big emotional beats of the bravura goodbye-to-the-’70s party sequence involves Dirk angrily rebuffing a sexual advance from the hapless Scotty J, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. But even though he’s (literally as well as symbolically) the biggest, swingingest dick in every room, Wahlberg’s Dirk is an oddly soft and passive presence — a blank screen for projected desire. Once he’s a porn star, he acquires a Corvette, an ostentatious new home, a drug habit, and a wardrobe of real Italian nylon, but never replaces the girlfriend he left behind in Torrance. The sex Dirk has onscreen is either performative or — as in his scenes with Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves — driven by longings more profound than lust. We don’t see him behave in a traditionally macho way except when he’s playing Brock Landers, who as an alter ego concocted by Eddie Adams’s alter ego Dirk Diggler is a mask on top of a mask.
There’s a porousness to Wahlberg’s presence in this movie, like his edges are undefined. It’s a quality that would reappear only sporadically in the work he did going forward. It’s there in 2001’s Rock Star, when Wahlberg accepts a pill from a strange woman at a party and he and Jennifer Aniston let the erotic undertow of the moment carry them into what the movie suggests is an evening of not-strictly-hetero experimentation; there’s a flash of it in Wahlberg’s offhandedly shirtless cameo in Date Night. It’s very much not there in Planet of the Apes, where Wahlberg is arguably the least-queer male protagonist of any Tim Burton movie ever; unless you count Jonathan Demme’s misbegotten Charade remake The Truth About Charlie or the get-a-room sexual tension between Wahlberg and Denzel Washington in 2 Guns, it’s been largely absent from then on. He’s still an incredibly watchable actor. He’s great in great movies, and even in terrible ones he finds a way to do something you’ll never forget. He’s not a joke — he’s a meme that can cut glass. But these days the one thing Wahlberg’s good films have in common with his bad ones is the absence of sex and its complications, which is a huge part of the adult world to ignore in your work. It’s as if the body that made him famous is a superpower he’s afraid to use; if Mark Ruffalo hadn’t come along, Wahlberg could have made a credible Hulk.
None of this is inexplicable. Around the 20th anniversary of the Calvin Klein ads, Kate Moss told Vanity Fair she’d suffered a “nervous breakdown” after the shoot; while taking those photos doesn’t seem to have been quite as traumatic for Wahlberg, he’s expressed embarrassment about them, and it’s not a huge leap to imagine the experience instilling in him an impulse toward modesty. Maybe more importantly, Wahlberg eventually recommitted to Catholicism; in a 2001 interview with Leslie Bennetts, he expressed “real guilt about his robust sex life,” telling Bennetts, “That’s one of my weaknesses — I’ve had sex out of wedlock … I’m 30; I wish I was already married and starting to have a family.”
He’s married now, with four children, all of whom were baptized by Wahlberg’s former pastor and lifelong confidant, Father Jim Flavin, who’s also said to be one of the people Wahlberg consults when deciding whether or not to take a role. But maybe it’s simpler than that — maybe Wahlberg just really wants to make movies about working-class, jeans-and-T-shirt guys whose energy goes into fighting wars or boxing or rebuilding robots or (soon, in Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon) drilling for oil. Every actor has the right to choose parts in accordance with his or her principles, of course. But in this case, it has the effect of making Wahlberg seem like he’s a generation (rather than a decade) older than an actor like Channing Tatum. Instead of running from his roofer-turned-stripper past, Tatum has owned and gleefully remixed it in the Magic Mike films, and he’s apparently comfortable enough with his own sexuality to make a cameo in This Is the End as Danny McBride’s bitch.
Even in a movie where his body is the subject, like Michael Bay’s 2013 schlock masterpiece Pain & Gain, Wahlberg refuses to let it be sexualized. It’s a machine. This is a movie in which Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie play mega-swole gym trainers who at one point kidnap a rich guy and torture him in a warehouse full of sex toys that the Rock refers to as “homo stuff.” It begins with Wahlberg screaming, “I’m hot! I’m big!” while doing sit-ups in what’s basically a giant glory hole. There is a cameo by a forearm-size dildo called the Great American Challenge. All of this, on paper, should be wildly homoerotic — and yet Wahlberg’s somehow able to deliver a line like “I break guys for a living” as if he’s vacuum-sealed from its implications. He doesn’t seem particularly straight or gay — he’s become a fully post-sexual movie star. In the movie’s big (and, as it turns out, premature) “We made it” montage, Mackie’s character has exuberant intercourse with Rebel Wilson and Johnson snarfs blow out of his girlfriend’s butt crack. Wahlberg, celebrating the cigarette boat he’s just stolen from Tony Shalhoub, humps a boat dock and then passes out on a couch. The movie does contain one split-second acknowledgment of Wahlberg’s past — at one point, late in the film, he strips down to a pair of underpants with a certain designer’s name on the waistband. Then he dismembers a corpse.