[10 February 2005]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
While no one, not even its makers, suggests that Deep Throat is a good movie, many people have lots to say about it. This much is clear from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s Inside Deep Throat, which is less interested in the film’s making than in its multivalent cultural and political fallouts.
Narrated by the appropriately worn-out-sounding Dennis Hopper, the documentary includes commentary from the folks who were “there,” as it were, such as John Waters, Xaviera Hollander (appearing in an aptly luxurious boudoir setting), Gore Vidal, Erica Jong, Dick Cavett, Helen Gurley Brown (who reminds Cosmo readers who may watching the film that ejaculate is a protein compound that is good for the complexion), and Hugh Hefner, most claiming for Deep Throat a kind of eruptive force. It was conceived as cheesy joke of a movie—star Linda Lovelace has her clitoris in her throat, finding her métier in servicing doctor Harry Reems, among others. Interviewee Dr. Ruth notes the glaring problem at the film’s center, noting of the director, “He should have been sitting in my classes… Sex is not only for penises.”
Still, the film—dubbed “porno chic” by the New York Times’ Ralph Blumenthal—attracted a celebrity audience and then a mainstream one, as soon as the government tried to shut it down. Emboldened by a sense of mission, the newly re-elected Nixon administration went after Deep Throat, which open near Times Square in 1972. Inside Deep Throat notes the lesson in this, which authorities and self-proclaimed moral arbiters have not yet learned, namely, that the more noise you make about an object, the more attention you draw to it. (Recent cases in point: Janet Jackson’s breast, Spongebob Squarepants’ friendship with Patrick.)
The original film was directed by former Queens hairdresser and self-styled swinger Gerard Damiano, who appears as his younger self, alternately sleezy and valiantly defending his right to free speech) and as he lives now, a Florida retiree, hallo-ing his neighbor as he walks to get his mail in high-waisted polyester pants, his tan as seasoned as his stories. His production manager Ron Wertheim reports that Damiano made the film “to get laid,” as was the custom back in that day. As Damiano recalls, he made the film on something of a lark and with mob money (just $22,000, shot in a Miami motel room). As the movie went on to make some $600 million, it became “the most profitable film in motion picture history,” as the documentary reminds you, though the director saw none of this majestic return.
Two other personal-made-gargantuanly-public stories ground Inside Deep Throat. One is that of Harry Reems, the porno star extraordinaire, who would reportedly get an erection “at the sound of the camera motor.” Now a born-again Christian selling real estate in Park City, Utah, Reems appears in clips from his heyday, as well as currently, white-haired and sober, recalling the repercussions not only of his notoriety following the movie and the many that followed, but also his conviction by for obscenity (overthrown on appeal, once Nixon was out of office), the talk show campaign he waged in his self-defense (including a now-surreal-seeming debate with Roy Cohn, and a party-event where he’s flanked by supporters Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson), and the alcoholism and drug addiction that plagued him until he was literally, as he tells it, “panhandling on Sunset Strip.”
The second story is equally famous and even more tragic. Linda Lovelace, born Boreman, died in 2002, following a car accident. At the time of her death, Inside Deep Throat recounts, she was still struggling to make a living. Having rejected the film and her porn career in an autobiography that made her an anti-porn crusade project for Gloria Steinem and others, Boreman felt forced in later years to go back to “the life,” after she was fired from regular office jobs once her former exploits were revealed. Before this, the film reports, she was married to the bully Chuck Traynor; according to her book, Ordeal, he drugged and hypnotized her to induce her participation in pornos, and in particular, her capacity for performing the deep throat maneuver that made her famous (Damiano reports, “When I saw what she could do, I said, ‘Stop the cameras’”). As Linda’s sister Barbara Boreman says, the story now reframe as a joke or a free-speech victory was for her sibling a singular tragedy from which she never recovered.
While the documentary chooses not to dwell on this aspect of Deep Throat‘s legacy, it does raise some questions concerning its proper legacy. While Al Goldstein or Larry Flynt remembers it as a turning point in the way that porn might be marketed to a broader audience (thus leading to today’s industry, including the Adult Video News Awards, where silicon-enhanced, almost painfully vivacious interview subjects have no idea who Lovelace was), academics such as Jon Lewis (who wrote Hollywood v. Hard Core), addresses the political valences of the moment; free speech and repression were significant issues, still unresolved. At the same time, Linda Williams, author of Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”, suggests that the film presented a specific “problem,” namely, women’s sexual pleasure, not previously a concern for porn movies. That it came up with an answer that catered to phallic power is hardly surprising, but even the evocation of the problem marked a difference in focus that became more pronounced in some later porn and erotica.
Still, the primary influence of Deep Throat was industrial, in the sense that porn did not infiltrate the mainstream Hollywood business as Damiano once imagined, but it did initiate the huge business of porn per se. And, it gave various administrations—from Reagan’s to the current Bush’s—a legal and moralized target. As Federal prosecutor Larry Parrish, who brought Reems to trial, puts it in a film-ending (and frankly show-stopping) interview, the righteous work of government might go forward “If we could just get those terrorists to go away and stop taking up so much time at the Department of Justice.” It appears that for all the concern for artistic free speech and libratory sexual activity hoped from in the ‘70s, the result in 2005 is still a focus on power and regulation, and indeed, sex for penises.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/inside-deep-throat/