I became aware of porn in the early ’70s. I had changed schools, and my new morning commute to junior high included a trip on New York City’s 104 bus. This zig-zaggy route went down Broadway from the Upper West Side to midtown, and turned east on 42nd Street. I got off at Lexington. The return trip crossed 42nd again and went back uptown via Eighth Avenue. This was known as “the Minnesota Strip,” so-named because of the runaways who ended up walking the street there. Times Square was decidedly “adult” back then. (No Disney, no Starbucks, no Toys R Us.) Besides the underage girls in hot pants and the XXX “All Nude” peep shows there were dozens of movie theaters. The biggest, brightest, seemingly most legit of them played the same double feature for years: Behind the Green Door and Deep Throat.
In 1972, Deep Throat changed the nature of adult entertainment. It had a story and a script and humor. It was reviewed by Roger Ebert, and Ralph Blumenthal of The New York Times called it “porno chic.” Perhaps most significant, Deep Throat attracted a new, more mainstream audience. The film’s title was so familiar that The Washington Post chose it as the code name for its Watergate informant.
The movie was a phenomenon like nothing the pornography industry had seen before. And Linda Lovelace, its star, became an overnight sensation.
Born Linda Susan Boreman, Lovelace is a conundrum. She was simultaneously “the poster girl for the sexual revolution” and, as we all learned later, a woman victimized and exploited. There has always been some controversy surrounding her story; in fact, her own accounts varied over the years. Although Lovelace is based on her 1980 autobiography Ordeal, the actress wrote two earlier books, Inside Linda Lovelace and The Intimate Diary of Linda Lovelace, that told a decidedly different story.
The new biopic Lovelace, starring Amanda Seyfried, addresses this in an interesting way. The first half of the movie supports the public story. The second half takes us behind closed doors. So while we might see Linda smiling through a star-filled premiere early on, we later see her being forced at gunpoint to go, being coerced into a sexual act while there, and being soundly punished afterward.
Amanda Seyfried is an interesting choice to play Linda. Seyfried can be incandescently lovely, with her wide-set eyes, pale skin, blonde hair (I’ve long imagined her playing Michele Pfeiffer’s daughter). She can also look a bit odd—almost plain. Several years ago, I was struck by her work as the teenage daughter in HBO’s polygamy drama Big Love, but I’ve been perpetually disappointed with her on the big screen. Although she is lovely to look at and has a sweet, natural voice, her work in Mamma Mia!—and even Les Misérables—was pretty lightweight. With Lovelace, she has finally stepped into an A-list leading role.
The film’s flaws aside (and there are several), Seyfried as Linda Lovelace is excellent. She is compelling and believable through so many shades of gray: rebelling teen, naïve newlywed, porn pop star, traumatized victim, and, finally, resilient survivor. The performance is fearless and naked (often literally so). It wouldn’t surprise me to see her on a list of Oscar contenders this year.
As Chuck Traynor, Linda’s pimp of a husband, Peter Sarsgaard is convincingly despicable. He smoothly seduces her, enabling her to escape her suffocating family, then exploits her in every conceivable way. But the movie strikes the right balance between threat and actual violence; we don’t have to see it to believe it. Like Linda, we know that Traynor just might kill her the next time. (Sarsgaard deserves consideration this award season too.)
The supporting cast is also strong. Sharon Stone turns in a solid (and practically unrecognizable) performance as Linda’s stern religious mother. Robert Patrick, as her father, is torn between his love for his little girl and his disgust with her newfound fame. Other standout cast members include Juno Temple as the younger Linda’s friend and Debi Mazar as knowing fellow actress Dolly Sharp.
At one point, Dolly advises Linda to put some makeup on her bruises before the cameras start rolling.
“I’m so clumsy,” apologetically mutters Linda.
“Honey, we’re all clumsy,” Dolly answers.
There is an odd lot of other familiar faces in Lovelace. A weak James Franco (why does Hollywood continue to dote on this unreliable egomanic?) phones in his performance as Hugh Hefner. Two actors appear in tiny cameos that seem to be there to remind us of our fascination with (and complicity in?) the porn industry: Eric Roberts (from Star 80) and Chloë Sevigny (of Brown Bunny, with its protracted blow-job scene).
Despite its (mainly) strong cast and obviously titillating material, Lovelace feels a little too simple and a little too familiar.
First, we get the kinder, gentler inside look at the porn industry. We’ve seen this before (and better executed) in Boogie Nights. In the new movie, Adam Brody is goofy and sweet as endowed star Harry Reems, while Hank Azaria and Bobby Cannavale are Deep Throat’s well-meaning, paternalistic creative team. It’s like “the Three Stooges make a porno,” and it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. (The someone, sadly, is always Linda.) We finally see a bit of the violence behind these films when “investor” Chris Noth (Sex and the City’s infamous Mr. Big) steps in to teach Traynor a lesson.
Then there’s the celebrity woman with a strong man behind her, beating the crap out of her. We’ve seen this before, too—most memorably in What’s Love Got to Do With It, with Angela Bassett as Tina Turner and Laurence Fishburne as Ike, and in Star 80, with Eric Roberts and Mariel Hemingway. Unfortunately, these movies weren’t just earlier than Lovelace; they were stronger. At times, Lovelace feels a little too much like a Lifetime movie, a cinematic soap opera. This by no means implies that you won’t feel for Linda as much as you did for Turner or Dorothy Stratten. You will.
Lovelace has two heart-wrenching scenes that will resonate with any woman. In the first, Linda leaves her husband and begs her mother to take her in. “He hits me,” she explains. Her mother’s immediate response? “What did you do?” In the other scene, Linda has run away from Traynor after he sold her to a group of men in a motel. She is bruised and bloodied. A police car pulls up and, for a minute, Linda and the audience think she’s safe. “Step away from the woman,” an officer warns. “She’s my wife,” explains Traynor. Not only do the cops encourage him to take her home, they recognize her and ask for an autograph. Her hopelessness is complete.
Despite many junior high mornings and afternoons busing by it, I’ve never seen Deep Throat. And now, even if I were given the opportunity, I don’t think I ever would. Because no matter how groundbreaking the movie may have been, it didn’t have a happy ending.