Sex as a Weapon: ‘Lovelace’

[9 August 2013]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Apparently, there are only two words necessary to describe Linda Susan Boreman Marchiano’s import to the cultural conversation: Deep Throat. You could also argue her stage name - Linda Lovelace - but with only one major XXX credit to said moniker, it seems silly to hold her up for such a limited sex trade run. No, Deep Throat was a phenomenon in the 1970s, pornography’s shot at respectability built on the backs of the exploitation genre that spent decades defying convention and confronting commercial cinema. For some unfathomable reason, this oddball slice of smut came along at a time when the post-sexual revolution set were looking for a poster child to push them to the next level. Lovelace was it, and for a short while, she was the belle of the balled.

Then reality set in. The porn industry’s meat grinder approach to talent took its toll, Lovelace’s suitcase pimp of a husband, Chuck Traynor, became an uncontrollable collection of coke and cruel behavior (their relationship was fraught with physical, psychological, and sexual abuse right from the start), and the starry-eyed “actress” soon learned that, unless she was performing fellatio (either on or off screen), she was seen as valueless. In fact, calling her a fad would be wholly accurate, since nothing she did after her brief fling with notoriety made as big an impression as when she gave curious adults a reason to travel outside their entertainment comfort zones to witness raunch in all its 42nd Street glory.

In the new biopic, Lovelace, directors Robb Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman perhaps best known for their documentaries on famed San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, the aftermath of AIDS (Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt) and homosexuality in cinema (The Celluloid Closet) offer a seemingly unique approach to storytelling that ultimately undermines everything the film wants to say. For the first 45 minutes or so, Linda (a game Amanda Seyfried) is portrayed as a wide eyed innocent, wooed by Traynor (a compelling Peter Sarsgaard) into becoming his girlfriend, his wife, and finally, his meal ticket. The people she meets in porn - filmmaker Gerard Diamiano (Hank Azaria), producer Butchie Peraino (Bobby Cannavale), and mafia money man (Chris Noth) - are all viewed as supportive and surprised at how well adjusted this future sex superstar is.

After Throat becomes a headline, then a punchline on late night talk shows and the Nightly News, Linda longs to return to her mother (a very convincing and haggard Sharon Stone) and father (Robert Patrick), even though they do not support her lifestyle choices. Eventually, we come to the crossroads, a supposed sexual liaison with Hugh Hefner (James Franco) at a Playboy premiere of the film. This inspires Linda - and the movie - to face the darker aspects of the truth. Suddenly, it’s Star 80 minus Bob Fosse’s artistic eye and Eric Roberts’ creepshow turn as Paul Snider. We witness the reality of who Traynor really was and the fallout of being the world’s premiere blowjob queen. In essence, he was a horribly abusive asshole who sold Linda for sexual favors, beat her repeatedly, and even arranged a post-fame gangbang for some eager industry “fans.” As for her fame, it was more than fleeting.

It all wraps up with Linda’s famed appearance on Phil Donahue’s chat fest, promoting her book Ordeal and discussing how porn destroyed her life. It’s the same old story we’ve heard hundreds of time. For every successful adult movie star who’s made the transition to normalcy, there’s dozens of Janine Lindemulders and Jenna Jamisons who haven’t. It was all done before, with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights the best example of such (fictional) rises and falls. The real story here is how Deep Throat became a true worldwide happening, a piece of admitted filth that found acceptance in even the most conservative of country club societies. Epstein and Friedman never discuss this. It’s a mere montage before we’re treated to more Traynor aberrations and Linda’s wounded looks.

Nothing else resonates here. The actors all nail their performances but their parts are superficial and shallow. For example, we learn nothing about Diamiano and Peraino except they were fun loving guys who only hired Linda because of her unique oral skills. Simiarly, Noth’s character comes in to save the day at the end, but even as he’s measuring out some mob justice, his actions remain insular and remote. This is a film featuring ample nudity but no actual sex. Amanda Seyfried shows off her topless assets, but the whole notion of being a ‘lay for pay’ is left offscreen and suggested. Of course, Epstein and Friedman don’t want to be accused of doing to their lead what Traynor did to his female free ride, but without some harsh realities, Lovelace feels inauthentic.

Some of the supporting nods try to save the day and just can’t. You can see the determination in Sharon Stone’s eye. “If I just dress down, wear a permanent scowl, a black wig, and perfect the part of domineering mother, I’m a Best Support Actress shoe-in,” she appears to be saying to herself. But it’s Patrick that’s more sympathetic without resorting to such former starlet stuntwork. He’s real. Stone is a PR person’s idea of an Oscar campaign. Debi Mazar is also on hand, though her two scenes (and brief Throat sequence) suggest a backstory that was heavily edited in post. Juno Temple is Linda’s best pal, but her moments are mired in a kind of ripe blonde sexism that argues against the movie’s message. In fact, it says a lot that when the original Dr. Phil makes his last minute appearance, it’s via actual footage from his famed talk show, not some actor trying to outdo Donahue.

All throughout this otherwise ordinary movie are moments where a defter touch or more detail would have helped. Linda tells Traynor about her reasons for coming to Florida and while factually inaccurate, they also beg for more discussion. Similarly, when Linda is seen “performing” on film for Diamiano and Peraino, there is no mention made of her previous stint as a loop star. If all Epstein and Friedman wanted to do was turn Linda Lovelace’s hardcore horror into a slight, sagging, little girl lost experience, they’ve managed said stance brilliantly. Perhaps there was nothing more to this woman’s storied stardom. If that’s the case, maybe Lovelace didn’t need to be made at all.

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