Sundance: 'Lovelace' is a porn biopic that gets under your skin

Lovelace

Image Credit: Dale Robinette

There have now been any number of movies, whether documentary or fiction or docudrama, about the pornographic-film industry, including a couple of great ones (like Boogie Nights). Yet Deep Throat, the 1972 film that launched the porn revolution (and helped to kick the sexual revolution into 11th gear), marked such a seismic change in American life that it’s startling, and often quite funny, to watch Lovelace, the nimble and haunting new biopic of that film’s star, Linda Lovelace, that premiered to a very buzzy response at Sundance last night, and to realize how small-scale the whole saga really was. Or, at least, how small it was at the beginning.

When the whole thing happens, Linda Boreman, played by Amanda Seyfried under a nimbus of dark curls, with goldfish eyes and a sweet smile, but also with a tremulous, people-pleasing insecurity that makes her performance as touching as it is transformative, is just a petite, freckled, giggly 21-year-old Catholic girl living with her folks in suburban Florida. Then she meets Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), one of those charming/sleazo/violent/reptile sociopaths that the movies have always loved. He’s like Paul Snider in Star 80 — a tinpot hustler who’s dangerous when stung. She’s scared of him, but seduced as well, and before long she’s moved in with him and married him. He’s soon in trouble with the law, and they need money, so he takes her to an audition in New York run by three very Mobbed-up-looking chumps, one of them with a tarpit of hair and a bad sweater (that’s Gerard Damiano, the future director of Deep Throat, played with pinpoint hilarity by Hank Azaria). They think that she’s way too nice a girl for this business, and Linda aces the audition only after Chuck shows them a home movie of her performing the…you know, special talent that he taught her.

The entire shoot of Deep Throat, with Linda cast as “Linda Lovelace” (Damiano makes her stage name the same as her character name, to encourage the idea that this is really, you know, her), takes exactly one week, and though everyone keeps talking about how Linda will be a “star,” the joke is that no one has any idea of how big this movie is going to be. It’s a momentously perverse twist of fate: a porn film that turns into box office gold, and also into a middle-class cause célèbre. Lovelace was co-directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the veteran documentarians who made The Celluloid Closet (and also the Beat biopic Howl), and they borrow a lot from Boogie Nights in portraying the ’70s — in this case, the very early ’70s — as a scrappy exuberant time of bad clothes and blender margaritas and fading Nixonite morality. They get a few things wrong (the song “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” also used in Boogie Nights, didn’t come out until 1975, and why does Adam Brody, the actor playing Harry Reems, have a mustache that’s approximately four sizes too small?). Mostly, though, they nail this period when the hippie youth culture was falling apart and no one knew what was going to replace it. And, as it turns out, they have a major twist to spring on the audience.

Deep Throat is a movie that launched two mythologies into orbit. Beneath its grainy, one-sordid-act-after-another humdrum explicitness, it was selling a radical new image of female insatiability. It wasn’t just the acts on display that were the turn-on. It was the attitude behind them — or, rather, the fantasy of an attitude, the notion that women could dissociate desire from everything else, and could do it as totally, as ravenously, as doggedly as men. In acting out that fantasy, Linda Lovelace was depicted as a freakish projection of feminine desire fused, in essence, with a man’s sexual ego. And that’s how women have been depicted in more or less every porn film since.

But Deep Throat gave rise to another mythology too — the one that Lovelace herself, claiming victim status, propogated in her 1980 autobiography, Ordeal. According to that version, she’d been abused beyond despair by Chuck Traynor, her slave driver of a manager-husband (who went on to marry Marilyn Chambers), and was essentially forced to make Deep Throat and other films, even at gunpoint. And regardless of whether that was an absolute truth, an angry piece of hyperbole, or — as I’ve always believed — something in between, it was embraced, and brandished, by the feminist establishment as a kind of countermyth to the image of women being marketed by the porn revolution. Women, according to the Linda Lovelace version of the Lovelace saga, were not what they appeared to be in porn films. They were flesh puppets pretending, out of desperation, to be vixens of erotic license. Deep Throat, the most famous and important porn film ever made, may have looked like a garish libertine document of the sexed-out ’60s morphing into the orgiastic ’70s, but it was, in fact, according to Lovelace (and her feminist supporters), the record of a sex crime. And on some basic level of exploitation logic, so, by their implication, was every porn film that came after it.

Lovelace doesn’t deal with Linda Lovelace’s years as an anti-pornography crusader, when she hooked up with the punitive anti-First Amendment zealots Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. Instead, it does something far more audacious: It shows us a version of her years of infamy that is sordidly fun and lusty and star-spangled and (relatively) harmless. Then it pushes the rewind button and replays those same events, only this time with different, darker scenes that don’t contradict the first version so much as they ominously fill it in. The result — the “official” version of the Deep Throat saga and Linda’s version, dancing in tandem — gets inside your head. The film lures us into the swirling days of porno chic, then pulls the wool off of our eyes. But in a funny way, it ends up saying that both versions are true.

There’s some sensational acting in Lovelace. Chris Noth, cast against type, plays the mobster who is Deep Throat‘s principal backer, and he’s fiercely convincing. And Sharon Stone, who you literally won’t recognize (a lot of people after the movie said that they didn’t know it was her until the closing credits rolled), plays Linda’s uptight, domineering Catholic silent-majority mother, who is so petrified of divorce that she keeps ordering Linda to stand by her man, even though that man is ruining her life. Stone burrows so deep into what might have been a stock parent-as-villain role that she gives you a chill. I wish I could say that Peter Sarsgaard is dangerously great as Traynor. He does a creditable job, but I felt a little like he was coasting on the great performances we’ve seen — notably Eric Roberts’s landmark role in Star 80 — as these sorts of loathsome, short-fused parasites. He demonstrates that Chuck, beneath the vile behavior, really loves Linda, but not where his abusiveness comes from. Amanda Seyfried, on the other hand, does something memorable: She brings Linda Lovelace to life as a human being, and shows you her light as well as her sadness. Lovelace spent all of 17 days in the sex-film industry, and was just an ordinary girl who tumbled into a tacky, insane version of celebrity. She was never meant to be a porn star. But Lovelace leaves you with the question: Who really is?

* * * *

It’s always nice to see a male film director who not only respects women but vibrates sympathetically with their most intense, and even extreme, emotions. In the moody-minimalist, dazzlingly shot Mother of George, the director, Andrew Dosunmu, synchs you right up to the yearning, wounded heart of Adenike (Danai Gurira, a Nigerian emigré in Brooklyn, who’s caught between a rock, a hard place, and maybe someplace even worse. Newly married to Ayodele (Isaach De Bankolé), who runs a hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurant, she longs to have a child, and everyone around her — a demimonde of in-laws and fellow immigrants — expects her to. But the two can’t conceive, and Ayodele, probably out of fear that he’s the reason, refuses to see a doctor. So Adenike, even though she’s an honorable woman, gets pushed toward a more and more outlandish (and unseemly) solution to the problem, which tears her apart. Danai Gurira, from The Walking Dead, inhabits this role with a fire and pride, a devotion, and, at times, a despair bordering on instability that made me think she might finally be the actress who could play the great Nina Simone.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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