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Hollywood brothers play porn brothers
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2000
The minute he saw the script, Emilio Estevez knew it was a concept that would sell itself.
The idea? A film about Jim and Artie Mitchell -- two conflicted brothers who became pornography moguls in '70s San Francisco by making one of the most successful X-rated movies of all time, Behind the Green Door.
Mired in a world of drug abuse and casual sex, the brothers grow apart. Eventually, older brother Jim kills Artie with a shotgun -- possibly in an intervention gone horribly wrong.
And, oh yeah, it would star Estevez and his real-life brother Charlie Sheen -- themselves no strangers to divorce, courtrooms or rehab centers.
"There were two scripts floating around town and at one point, (Robert) De Niro and Sean (Penn) were attached and then (Matthew) McConaughey and (Woody) Harrelson were attached," says Estevez, who plays Jim Mitchell in Rated X, which he also directed. "But because of the -- How do I say this in a palatable way? -- the drama we'd been through as a family, we felt we could do this thing right."
Like Jim and Artie, Emilio and Charlie had spells of sibling rivalry -- culminating in a 10-year estrangement that thawed during the making of the film.
Sheen's problems are well-documented, from his regular use of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss' escort service (he admitted spending more than $50,000) to a six-month marriage and near death from a drug overdose in 1998.
And don't forget his two-year probation in 1997 for assaulting girlfriend Brittany Ashland. Her profession? Making porn films.
Tagged as the smart, non-destructive one, Estevez nevertheless saw his marriage to R&B singer Paula Abdul dissolve in 1994 after two years. Roles in three Mighty Ducks movies and stints directing the forgettable Men at Work (with brother Charlie), Wisdom and War At Home have tagged him as a filmmaker and actor whose ambitions often outstrip his ability.
And just like Jim and Artie, Sheen and Estevez have struggled in the shadow of a strong father -- in their case, The West Wing's Martin Sheen, whose portrayal of fictional president Josiah Bartlet has earned some of his best reviews in four decades of acting.
So it's only one of many ironies that both Sheen and Estevez would see their current collaboration as a way of liberating themselves from the past.
"I did the third Mighty Ducks movie for free in exchange for Disney giving me the dough to do War At Home, and about 10 people saw it," says Estevez of the 1996 film, which he directed and starred in as a traumatized Vietnam War veteran. "After that . . . I was artistically bankrupt.
"I think it was sequel-itis . . . I was needing to do something that would stretch me as an actor and director . . . and this seemed like the project."
Based on the book X Rated: The Mitchell Brothers, A True Story of Sex Money and Death, Rated X opens with scenes from the Mitchells' boyhood, in which they are dominated by their brutal but loving father, J.R. (played to crafty, psychotic perfection by former Millennium co-star Terry O'Quinn).
Shaped by a dad who once handed the teenagers a rifle and sent them to collect a gambling debt, the Mitchells fall into pornography when Jim, a radical filmmaker, decides to start his own company by doing cheap sex flicks. Artie gets the idea for an ambitious, surreal x-rated film, Behind the Green Door -- but when he proves an inept director, Jim takes over.
As it turns out, Green Door star Marilyn Chambers had already appeared as a spokesmodel on boxes of Ivory Snow detergent, turning the movie into a bona-fide cultural watershed. Along the way, the brothers face rip offs from the mob and arrests from city authorities, especially once they begin presenting live sex shows at their O'Farrell Theater.
Eventually, the runaway drugs-and-sex scene convinces Jim to kick his substance-abuse habits. But Artie sinks deeper into his addictions, threatening the lives of his brother, his ex-wife and his family after he realizes Jim plans to sell their business.
Jim takes the same rifle his dad handed him so many years before and uses it to kill Artie. Claiming that he acted in self defense while trying to get his brother into rehab, Jim served three years of a six-year sentence, according to the film.
Through his attorney, Jim Mitchell -- who still runs the O'Farrell Theater -- declined to comment.
Rated X is a trip through the sordid world of '70s porn that Boogie Nights handled much better. But Estevez and Sheen get points for effort, even shaving their heads to emulate the Mitchells' balding pates.
More terrifying than the baldness was the action. Estevez had to kill his brother in the film's climax. Sheen, notorious for falling off the sobriety wagon, was snorting fake drugs and drinking fake alcohol less than a year after entering court-ordered drug rehabilitation.
"The day he got his one-year (sobriety celebration) cake, he was playing a scene with a fake bottle of whisky, a fake joint and a woman on his lap," says Estevez. "It was exactly what my father was afraid of . . . that I would lead him back to this darkness he'd just escaped from."
And father Martin Sheen wasn't the only one who thought Rated X was a bad idea.
Derided for glorifying pornography and the sleazy life of the Mitchells, Rated X has faced criticism even from Jim Mitchell, who Estevez says asked him not to make the film. Though accepted for showing at Sundance, no major film distributors picked it up, leaving Showtime the arena of last resort.
And the film ratings board demanded that Estevez cut several seconds from the film to keep it from getting an NC-17 rating (Showtime doesn't air theatrical movies rated more extreme than R).
"What I find curious, is that cable series are not subject to the ratings board," says the director/actor, noting that The Sopranos has shown sex scenes more graphic than what was originally included in Rated X. "But I'll do what needs to be done. At the end of the day, I want people to see my film."
Regardless of viewer reaction, he has already won over his most important critic: his father, who Estevez says gave the movie rave reviews after screening it two weeks ago.
"I feel vindicated and let off the hook," he says. "He felt it was an important film for people in recovery, or even still using. And that means a lot, especially coming from the president of the United States."
-- Material from St. Petersburg Times files and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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