Deep Throat, the first pornographic feature film to be a mainstream success, was an international sensation in 1972 and made its star, Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried), a media darling. Years later the 'poster girl for the sexual revolution' revealed a darker side to her story.
this neutered re-telling feels evasive at best, actively dishonest at worst
It’s no small achievement, I suppose, to make a film about one of the world’s most notorious porn stars, a woman whose very name is synonymous with an entire era of badly-lit smut, and leave the viewer more titillated by its conceptual daring than by its content. Whether it’s an especially worthwhile one, however, is open to debate. One thing is certain: those looking for a sleazy thrill would do better to return to the source, those scratchy 16mm copies of Deep Throat (almost touchingly quaint, these days), and see, or try to imagine, what all the fuss was about.
Linda Lovelace was born Linda Boreman in the Bronx, the daughter of a domineering, deeply Catholic mother and a mostly absent dad, a New York City cop. Her early life was strict and joyless; she was taught from an early age to be ashamed of her body, and frightened of sexuality. Upon meeting future husband, Chuck Traynor, however, her horizons broadened considerably. Older and vastly more experienced, the bartender and would-be entrepreneur not only took her virginity, but introduced her to the LA swingers’ scene, where she soon garnered fame for her skills as a fellatrix. He even wound up making her a kind of star, in the nascent alternative-Hollywood that was the 1970s porn biz. Suddenly there were photo shoots, red carpets, chat-show appearances, and bouts of enthusiastic copulation with a number of willing men. (And at least one animal—but we’ll get to that later.)
Such, anyway, is the first half of this film, bathed for the most part in a kind of golden light: a series of happy awakenings for the pretty young ingénue, who (as played by Amanda Seyfried) responds to each new stroke of fortune with the same dazed-but-grateful smile. What’s most important to her, she keeps saying, is that she’s satisfactory; she doesn’t want to disappoint anybody. She’s so sweet, so guileless, so willing to please... It’s adorable, really.
Then we pause, and return to the beginning—
In this telling, Traynor (played in both versions, frighteningly well, by Peter Sarsgaard) is a monster from the outset: a creature of ruthless ambition and not-inconsiderable violence, who exploits his wife’s innocence as casually as he first beats and then sells her body. The effect is certainly arresting, like noticing rust on a surface we had previously thought pristine; suddenly we’re plunged into the squalid truth of this tale. The dismal motel rooms and anonymous, makeshift offices. The lecherous producers and 'investors’, all wanting their piece of ass. The drug abuse, compulsive now rather than recreational—and increasingly, a way of dulling the awful reality of her circumstances. This time, Seyfried’s default expression is a kind of wide-eyed terror, and her descent is swift and inexorable.
The first half is the public face: the image of pornography that the industry (at the time, little more than a loose collection of gangsters and perverts) were desperate to sell to suburban America: happy, sexually uninhibited young women performing on-camera as a kind of romp, a hangover from the Free Love ethos of the 1960s.
The second is a meta-critique of the first, a neat little display of Saussurean-style structuralism that brings the picture considerably closer to the historical record. Because while it’s fair to say there are a number of women in the adult industry today who genuinely enjoy their work—porn has become mainstream, after all, as well as a legitimate (if abbreviated) career choice—it’s also undeniable that these were in rather short supply in the 1970s, when the skin trade occupied a zone somewhere between prostitution and slavery, and girls usually worked at the insistence of creepy boyfriend-pimps with coke habits to support, gambling debts to repay, or simple kinks to satisfy.
And make no mistake, Lovelace was definitely among the exploited. Not bad enough that for Deep Throat (which wound up earning in excess of $600m worldwide) she was paid a little over a grand; years later, she claimed to have been forced to perform on-camera at the point of an M-16 rifle. 'When you see that movie," she said, "you are watching me being raped."
(As you might expect, such statements proved contentious among her former associates—though it’s telling, I think, that their responses split along gender lines: woodsman Eric Edwards branded Lovelace 'a pathological liar", while Andrea True, another former co-star, supported her claims, describing Traynor as a sadist and a bully.)
Still, weapon or no, the signs of abuse were clear. No sooner had Deep Throat become a public sensation, than Traynor was attempting to cash in on her newfound celebrity. Ever the opportunist, he began renting the starlet out to her fans; the first such encounter saw her gang-raped by five men in a California motel room. Horrifying, yes—but who could be surprised? Just months before her feature debut, he’d convinced his new bride to shoot a series of 16mm stag reels, in at least one of which, the charmingly (if accurately) titled Dogfucker, she was penetrated by a German Shepherd.
There’s a sequence depicting the former incident in this film, but no hint of the latter—a concession to audience sensibilities that actually proves more problematic than its inclusion. No one, after all, is exactly crying out for a PG version of this particular story, and this neutered re-telling feels evasive at best, actively dishonest at worst. It’s not helped by a radically over-qualified supporting cast—with everyone from Hank Azaria to Chloë Sevigny to Sharon Stone (excellent, as Linda’s coldly authoritarian mother) popping up to lend distraction—or by production design which seems more fascinated by period-kitsch (musical as well as sartorial) than actual storytelling.
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are documentarists, and betray a slight unease with dialogue, staging scenes, the entire business of fiction. Their previous film, Howl—a sort of story-collage constructed around the writing and publication of Alan Ginsberg’s famous poem, evinced a similar discomfort—and this is before you pause to consider the extraordinary mis-casting of James Franco as the young poet, perhaps the greatest disparity between actor and subject since Cary Grant played Cole Porter. This time, the cast do their best with what they have—Sarsgaard, in particular, remains one of the most distinctive and fascinating of modern screen actors—but you occasionally sense them foundering for lack of clear direction.
And as Linda, Amanda Seyfried is somewhat less than ideal—not just prettier than the real Lovelace (that Franco/Ginsberg thing again), but innately more wholesome: even at her most broken, here, she retains something of the winsome quality of the film’s first half, and so mitigates the worst of its horrors.
Eventually Lovelace/Boreman escaped Traynor’s clutches, and tried in vain to start a mainstream career. But no one would take her seriously; her name, she realised, was little more than a punchline. Disillusioned, she began drinking to excess, and soon developed a drug habit. Finally, some would say inevitably, she turned to Christ, and stormed off the set of a softcore flick meant to represent her comeback when the producer would not remove a statue of the Venus de Milo.
Her health had never been good: she’d had a bad car accident at twenty, upon first moving back to New York, and a subsequent blood transfusion reportedly left her with hepatitis, requiring her to undergo a liver transplant in 1987. In April 2002 there was another automobile accident, in which she suffered massive internal injuries; she died in hospital four days later. In all, her career in the porn industry had amounted to just seventeen days of work. Just enough to deform an entire life.
Though unpopular with US critics, the film is no disaster. Rather, it’s something worse: an eminently tasteful film about degradation. And as such, it completely misses the point, since whatever lesson you might take from the unhappy life of Linda Lovelace—in either its fairytale or sordid iterations—an excess of modest good taste is not it.