You might call Tiger Orange the debut feature of Frankie Valenti, a 37-year-old actor with a sly grin and scruff to spare. But if we’re being honest, many of us have appreciated his work for some time now. Valenti is perhaps better known as Johnny Hazzard, an adult-film actor who spent years grunting his way into our hearts with titles like What Men Do and When Bears Attack. He was the kind of old-school marquee star that the porn industry rarely produces anymore—was because he retired, forced out less by his age than by Internet-choked revenues that no longer pay out like they used to.
Pointing out Valenti’s provenance has proved a necessary business when talking about Tiger Orange, the funny, gentle new drama that brings the actor to the (relative) mainstream. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Valenti does spend much of the movie undressed—the gay-themed video-on-demand market has its own commercial imperatives, after all—but otherwise this careful and nuanced film deserves to be approached with fresh, unassuming eyes.
Directed by Wade Gasque from a script he wrote with Mark Strano, Tiger Orange follows two gay brothers, Chet (played by Strano) and Todd (Valenti), who reconnect in the small town where they grew up sometime after their gruff father has died. Chet stayed behind in the town, running dad’s hardware shop, while Todd has volleyed around Los Angeles, most recently kicked out by a couple for whom he had been a temporary third. When Todd turns up back at home, Chet is rightfully dubious, especially when Todd mentions he’s been living out of his truck. As the brothers settle in together, familiar rituals of the past reveal some raw emotions. (The movie has made the festival rounds for the past year, but it’s now on DVD and video on demand.)
Tiger Orange’s yin-yang setup relies on a somewhat predictable tension. One brother embraced a certain kind of gay life at the expense of stability and any sense of his past; the other, rather than really coming out of the closet, appears to have organized it nicely and cracked the shutters. Their reunion does not go well—and not a single thing that happens next is particularly novel. But as it unfolds, Tiger Orange proves to be a finely observed drama that feels relevant to our current moment of indeterminable gay identity. The brothers have made their lives at two ends of a particular gay male spectrum, and neither finds much satisfaction. The movie’s title refers to a slightly too fabulous shade of paint sold at the hardware store, which becomes a metaphor for Chet’s struggles to come out for real.
I asked Valenti, who said he never wanted to be an actor, if he thought the movie’s arrival this year was fortuitous. We spoke a couple weeks before the Supreme Court passed down its decision on same-sex marriage, and Valenti told me how he, like his character, had once immersed himself in gay culture. (He was christened with his porn name by legendary drag queen Chi Chi LaRue because she thought “Johnny” was an “East Coast, Italian-sounding name.”) Though he sees Tiger Orange on more personal terms, he agreed it arrived at a moment where some of the culture he knew is slipping away.
“We stuck out for so long, and we got used to that and celebrated it. And now we’re being assimilated, and it’s not that colorful anymore,” he told me over the phone. “We should try to preserve what we have left that’s still ours.” He called from Provincetown, Massachusetts, the traditionally gay hamlet where he’s spending the summer. (It’s straighter now than he remembered.)
As for Tiger Orange’s Todd, who wears cutoff overalls and prances with impunity, Valenti said he had a natural connection to the character. “I was just drawing off my real-life experience growing up with a father and a sibling and living in a small town-ish,” he said. “Luckily, he and I have a lot of similarities.” He also shares his character’s impatience, which I stumbled upon when I asked him about porn versus a conventional movie set. “One doesn’t really have anything to do with the other,” he said brusquely.
Fair enough. And if Valenti’s past acrobatics draw fans old and new to Tiger Orange, so be it. Gasque’s sturdy, resonant movie deserves to find an audience, even if they come to see if a porn star can act. As it turns out, this one can.