Perhaps the most recognizable still from Boogie Nights — particularly if you’re a self-respecting young woman with a Tumblr — is Heather Graham’s Rollergirl at a San Fernando Valley backyard party. Kidney-shaped pool in the background, she’s leaning over a Polaroid mid-snap, yellow heart-shaped sunglasses on. Simultaneously, the band War is telling us to “Spill the wine, take that pearl” as its song plays in the background.
It usually takes me a few years of smiling blankly and nodding at a film reference before I watch said film. Such was the case with Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s fun, mostly dark dive into 1970s porn culture. With the recent release of Inherent Vice, another Paul Thomas Anderson voyeuristic look into the seventies, and Grantland’s oral history of Boogie Nights (check it: “Livin’ Thing”), I figured now was as good a time as any to watch it. There’s no great reason I waited for so long, because it has the necessary ingredients for my own personal good time: sex, satin, decadent nostalgia, a coked-out Alfred Molina.
Heather Graham’s inimitable Rollergirl is arguably the best character in the film, and Heartbreak incarnate, her character is both powerless and strong. This dichotomy resonates with me because I feel both of these things in equal measure most of the time. Never without her skates, even while naked on top of Mark Wahlberg, she doesn’t have many lines yet emanates the essence of the movie.
Crafted by Mark Bridges, PTA’s go-to guy for evocative seventies costuming, Rollergirl’s wardrobe, both sexy and fully functional on wheels, creates her persona without essentializing or overshadowing her character. Constantly in motion, she lives in easily removable silk rompers, tube socks, and an assortment of deep V-neck polos and khaki shorts.
One of the few background glimpses we get into Rollergirl’s life is when she’s sitting, tangibly on edge, in a high school classroom, looking around at the students taking a test. Some loser bro turns around and makes an impressively coordinated blow job gesture, and Rollergirl makes an immediate escape via her skates. It’s understood she doesn’t go back after that. In this scene, she’s dressed more like a savvy teenager with a weekend drive-in job than a young porn actress.
Rollergirl’s look is an only slightly more retro version of the outfits sitting in our closets today. We’ve seen seventies influences since American Hustle with Amy Adam’s deep-V neck gowns and Jennifer Lawrence’s raccoon fur coat. In a Style.com interview, designer Mark Bridges was asked why people were still enthralled with seventies styles. “It’s always with us because clothes were interesting, colorful, and sexy but still a little naive,” he said. “It’s a very fun period without being jokey or hilarious. There was a buoyancy and beauty.”
Along with a bunch of water beds and floor-to-ceiling mirrors, shiny pink rompers are what my dreams are made of. Rollergirl makes good and practical use of them throughout the movie, particularly when she strips one off with lightning-speed sleight of hand and fucks Dirk for the first time.
Rollergirl comes close (but not quite) to her most heartbreaking moment when she’s doing a supreme amount of coke with Julianne Moore. Her shirt with faded, airbrushed pink hearts and rumpled shorts reminds us for the first time since the high school classroom escape that she is, in fact, barely 18. “I need you to be my mom. Are you my mom?” she shrieks to a slightly unnerved, low-ponytailed Julianne Moore.
This tender, strung out moment is a precursor to Rollergirl’s breaking point. The sucker punch scene in the movie — the very best one, in my opinion — is when she goes from trying halfheartedly to woo a frat boy at the request of porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) to SMASHING HIS FUCKING FACE IN. This is Rollergirl at her saddest and most unhinged, but it’s also a victorious moment because we finally see her angry with her situation. Not that I would ever, ever encourage such a heinous thing, but if I were to smash someone’s cheekbones with my roller skates, there would absolutely have to be crimped hair and a fur coat involved.
Julianne Moore is a sad cocaine angel, Alfred Molina creates a feeling of sweaty terror while singing “Jessie’s Girl,” and Mark Wahlberg just generally looks fantastic, even in his downfall. It is, however, Rollergirl that will always steal my heart. And the fact that her last scene is in a fringed bikini body shirt as she jams out to something on her Walkman? We can only hope this means she ends up being the lead singer of some badass girl group.