‘Boogie Nights’ Turns 20! Looking Back on Mark Wahlberg and the Ensemble Cast’s Breakthrough Performances

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Dirk Diggler has great manners.

Every character in Boogie Nights has small details like this that encapsulate everything about them. Some of these qualities, such as Diggler's obsessive politeness whenever he's pulled away from a conversation, are written on the page. Others appear to be specific choices made by actors, like the way Philip Seymour Hoffman's Scotty J. nervously holds his arm during Jack and Dirk's confrontation.

As the film turns 20, ET is reexamining the breakthrough performances in Boogie Nights and Paul Thomas Anderson's showcase of incredible character actors.

Set in the late '70s, Boogie Nights chronicles 17-year-old busboy Eddie Adams’ (Mark Wahlberg) journey as he’s taken under the wing of pornography auteur Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and into a world where he could finally become the bright shining star he always felt destined to be. Adams quickly transforms into the neon sign dynamite that is Dirk Diggler and takes the industry by storm.

“The germ for the idea came from when I was 17 years old. I made a movie called The Dirk Diggler Story, which was a short film about Dirk Diggler,” Anderson told ET at the movie’s New York premiere in 1997. The young filmmaker was an alumnus of the prestigious Sundance Film Laboratory, where he developed his debut feature film Sydney, which was retitled Hard Eight upon its release. The movie starred Gwyneth Paltrow and future Boogie Nights actors John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, and Hoffman.

“I sort of wanted to play a guy who really believed in film; that thought he was the John Ford of adult movies,” Reynolds said at the premiere about his role as Jack, which earned him a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Despite reports of on-set tension throughout the shoot, Reynolds had some positive accolades for his fellow actors. “They were very respectful and they were all talented, and Mark Wahlberg is amazing.”

Co-star Julianne Moore had similar feelings regarding Wahlberg’s performance, saying, “He's a very genuine actor. I mean, there's not a false note that comes out of Mark.”

“I had always done specific things and didn't really have too much of a chance to go out and show a lot of things I felt I could do, and this was the perfect opportunity,” Wahlberg said at the time. After intense performances in The Basketball Diaries and Fear, Wahlberg was ready to officially break up with his image as Marky Mark (of the Funky Bunch) and Calvin Klein underwear model.

Upon reading the script, Wahlberg had doubts he could leave his past behind that almost prevented him from sitting down with Anderson. “I felt kind of reluctant at that point even meeting him, but I said, ‘Maybe he does think I can pull off the emotional side of this,’” he recalled. 

But Anderson wasn’t distracted by Wahlberg’s past. “[Mark] said to me, ‘Do you want me because I'm, like, the guy who will get in his underwear and you'll know I'll do that?’” he recalled. “And I said, ‘No. I don't know really anything about the whole underwear thing or Marky Mark thing. I just want you because you're a good actor.’”

As his career rises in the movie, so do the spirits of the other characters who are obsessed with Diggler in their own way. His stardom within the fading era provides one last feeling of euphoria for the community that initially came to the industry for help in some way, only to have it produce multiple cocaine addictions and failed business ventures.

Boogie Nights
(From left) Jack Wallace, Ricky Jay, Nicole Ari Parker, Burt Reynolds, William H. Macy, Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'Boogie Nights.'
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“Here are these people living in this kind of extraordinary world in a very sort of marginal way, but they're really pursuing things that are important to them for one reason or another,” said Moore, who played Jack’s wife, porn star Amber Waves. The role garnered numerous praises from critics, earning Moore her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Her loss to Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential has become one of the most talked about Oscar snubs in years since, but after five nominations -- including two in the same year! -- Moore won for Still Alice in 2015.

“It's great to be able to have a character who runs the whole course and to be with a bunch of characters who run the whole course,” Don Cheadle said at the time. His role as Buck Swope displayed an internal restlessness that manifested in his ever-changing wardrobe inspirations, which ranged from cowboys to Rick James. “And Paul is such a good director and he's such a good writer. There's all of those peaks and valleys in a lot of scenes.”

The movie excelled at giving these tremendous character actors just enough material to stand out in the densely populated ensemble. It’s a testament to Anderson’s writing and direction that your favorite aspect of the film can easily change upon each viewing. Just when you’ve settled on Alfred Molina’s manic drug dealer (and mixtape fan) as your favorite character, you’re forced to start from scratch after discovering William H. Macy’s brilliant delivery in a simple line like “Good name.”

As Dirk Diggler begins his ill-fated attempt at a singing career, Reed Rothchild (Reilly) can be seen dancing in the recording studio. It’s a dance that says this guy wants to support his friend’s artistic pursuits, and in hindsight, it’s also an omen that audiences have decades of physical comedy from the actor to look forward to. The residual impact from Boogie Nights on cinema continued to be seen for other actors, with Cheadle being nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in 2005 for Hotel Rwanda and the late Hoffman winning the Oscar in 2006 for Capote.

ET recently caught up with Heather Graham, who reflected on how the film impacted her career at the time. "Boogie Nights was amazing and really helped me a lot,” said Graham, who won the MTV Movie Award for Breakthrough Performance for the part of Rollergirl. “I'm really grateful to have been in Boogie Nights. That felt like a special moment. I wasn't getting offered jobs, so that made a big difference in helping me get more work, which was a really great thing. I felt inspired [and] creatively fulfilled."

Even 20 years later, the movie remains a reflection of what Anderson told ET he’s always found to be equal parts fascinating and perplexing about pornography. “Just watching it you're kind of alternately confused and incredibly turned on. It's incredibly funny. It's incredibly depressing. And that's kind of a weird, cool thing to think about.”