Having read an autobiography of Linda Lovelace years ago, initially, I was uninterested in the film. I was not sure if the screenplay or direction would qualify the content beyond sappy hype or cagy prurience. I was pleasantly surprised; the film is thought provoking. Far from my assumptions, the acting, direction, and flat, documentary-like cinematography create an insightful portrait of a time and film of cultural influence and provide a cautionary tale that is mindful for us today.
Lovelace shadows the period in Linda Lovelace’s life between 1972 to 1980. It focuses on how she became involved making the iconic porn film Deep Throat. With its humor, production values, and attempt to outsmart its predecessors, Deep Throat was one of a handful of early 1970s sex films to raise pornography to the level of chic and propel it into the mainstream pop culture. Amidst the sexual revolution and widespread drug and marijuana use, Deep Throat reflected the looseness of the hippie generation and reinforced the mantra that “sexual freedom is where it’s at.” This was pre STDs, AIDS, and all the attendant horrors that followed in the wake of the “free love and sexual indulgence” decade. It’s quirky “tongue in cheek” quasi-ridicule of itself appealed to both men and women, encouraging them to be “hep.” It became the favorite subject of comedians’ jokes and was used by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as the covert nickname for the infamous whistleblower who helped the journalists implicate former President Nixon’s cabinet in the Watergate scandal. For a cross section of the public, Deep Throat was lighthearted, sensual fun, and Linda Lovelace was porn queen extraordinaire.
The first segment of Lovelace directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman glamorizes the public persona of this internationally famous woman, brilliantly played by Amanda Seyfried. Seyfried’s Lovelace is a freckle-faced sex kitten, appealing, wide-eyed, innocent. She is beloved of her husband, promoter, sexpert and mentor, Chuck Traynor, a likable, dynamic Peter Sarsgaard. Their’s is a near fairy tale marriage which rescues her from her restrictive, emotionally cold, religious mother (wonderfully played by a scary and nearly unrecognizable Sharon Stone) and sterile home life with her parents (her father, the sympathetic Robert Patrick). Who wouldn’t want to be catapulted into a luxurious lifestyle and celebrity status, hobnobbing with the likes of Hugh Hefner (played with slick smarminess by James Franco) and Sammy Davis Jr.?
Andy Bellin’s script and the clever direction lead us to enjoy watching Seyfried journey down a solid path guided by humor and safety into what would otherwise be the dark forest of sexploitation. We are carried along with Seyfried’s Little Red Riding Hood, who unquestioningly rolls with her husband’s free-wheeling style, as he unwraps her sexuality like a flower bud under his caressing, soft tutelage.
The Lovelace flower metaphor is brilliantly symbolized in a photo shoot when to relax her, the still photographer (in a great bit by Wes Bentley) asks her to describe the character she plays in Deep Throat. The audience is drawn in by Seyfried’s sweetness and charm; she describes how her character gains the freedom to “be herself,” equating sexual openness with empowerment. We hear in her proclamation the future cant of sexual politics and sex-positive feminism. Her description makes us understand how the audience of the time might long for the absence of all sexual constraints. Seyfried convinces us that childlike Lovelace enjoys the pleasure she experiences and brings to men, her husband, her director, and those present during the filming of the famous fellatio scene (Hank Azaria, Chris Noth and Bobby Cannavale are well cast as humorously benign porn makers.).
Then the worm turns and the lies are stripped to reveal the darker side beyond “Lovelace” to the personal hell of “Linda Susan Boreman.” It is six years later. Lovelace-Boreman looks ratty and tired, sitting before a clinical-looking Eric Roberts in a white coat. Roberts is conducting a polygraph of Lovelace, contracted by a publishing house which needs a guarantee she is telling the truth if they are to publish her story. Boreman is the antithesis of the sweet, lovely sex-kitten innocent presented in the first segment. She is world weary, drained. This second sequence flashes back six years prior. The filmmakers present a dark, presumably true version of how the film Deep Throat and Lovelace came to be.
The flashback fills in details. We retrace a now unhappy Boreman loading suitcases into Traynor’s car as they leave her parent’s house. This is no rescue. We watch a teary-eyed Boreman beg her mother to let her come back home after Traynor uses physical and emotional violence to intimidate her to have sex with casual pick ups in bars. Saarsgard in this segment is frightening and incredibly real as the abusive Traynor. In response to her plea, her mother gives the requisite “stay and obey your husband” speech. We realize her fairy tale marriage never existed; instead, we see a grim parade of beatings, bullyings, sex sellings and violence.
The second sequence of Lovelace, suggests the underlying irony that Deep Throat is an iconic example of porn sham and human slavery. Traynor didn’t teasingly coax Boreman into her phenomenal fellatio talent and then lovingly promote her to be a star as the public was duped to believe, and as Epstein and Friedman lull us into thinking in the first film sequence. This segment shows him beating then threatening her at gunpoint to perform sex in Deep Throat (As a spokesperson against pornography, she later claimed she was being raped in the sex scenes.)
The difference between fantasy and nightmare sequences and what they might convey is represented in a scene when the crew overhear sounds coming from Traynor’s and Lovelace’s hotel bedroom. In the first segment a crew member comments admiringly on their prodigious lovemaking. In the reality version, a crew member comments upon Traynor’s sadistic abuse as we hear loud thuds and Lovelace’s cries. Do the filmmakers include this scene to reinforce the soulessness of the culture’s laisse faire attitude toward abused women? Is it included to strengthen Boreman‘s account of abuse?
Epstein, Friedman, and Bellin have elected to tie in the fairy tale sequence and the nightmare sequence by showing a clip of Seyfried having a bubble bath, smoking and contemplating her identity while asking, “Who is Linda Lovelace?” This banal sequence might be viewed by some as the filmmakers cop out. Over the years those who knew Boreman have conjectured that, like those suffering from PTSD, she was ambivalent about sex and couldn’t accurately give a reliable account about her life with Traynor in Ordeal. Nevertheless, by unraveling the two sequences in this way, the filmmakers force us to “get” the themes: 1.Some porn actors might be victims of coercion as Borman was, their “pleasure” demonstrated for fear of losing their lives; 2.It is an irony that Deep Throat was an imprimatur of sexual empowerment and sexual freedom, considering the circumstances under which Lovelace was forced to make it.
One might argue that the film was edited to spare starkness in the second segment which makes it more opaque and subtle, a possible fault. Will audiences understand the themes or just be deadened and turned off in the transfer to the film’s “reality” section? Is the choice to present the public and private image of Linda Lovelace in this way too heavy-handed in its intent? Was it the best way to present the contradictions of Boreman’s life and her unreliability as a victim of abuse?
Epstein’s, Friedman’s, and Bellin’s choices lead us to an overarching conclusion. While the public was duped into seeing Deep Throat’s sexuality as fun, frolic, and fantastic pleasure, this ruse was engendered for the profit of its filmmakers at the humiliation, degradation and suffering of its victim. Though many may be loath to admit it, this is the underbelly of porn and the suggestion is that the sexual pleasure viewed and titillation received may be nothing more than sickness, abuse and violence. How cool is it to see women strong armed for sex to encourage their empowerment? Aren’t men the ones being empowered?
Lovelace ends on a final note of duality. Even if porns’ delights are a myth in Deep Throat, the profits are very real. To date the film has made over $600 million.Susan Boreman received $1250 of that. Lovelace shouldn’t be missed for its performances, themes, and reminder about the perniciousness of sex slavery.
Lovelace directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Hank Azaria, Wes Bentley, Adam Brody, Bobby Cannavale, James Franco, Debi Mazar, Chris Noth, Robert Patrick, Eric Roberts, Chloe Sevigny, Sharon Stone, Juno Temple
Lovelace will be in theaters and ON DEMAND August 9, 2013.