By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2014)
In their engrossing 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat, co-directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato examined (with the benefit of 30+ years of hindsight) the surprisingly profound socio-political impact of the first (and arguably only) “adult film” to become a true mainstream cultural phenomenon. The most compelling element of the documentary was the personal journey of Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace, who was paid $1250 for her starring role in the no-budget 1972 porno (said to have been made for about $50,000) that has since raked in an estimated $600 million in profit.
In 1980, Lovelace wrote an autobiography called Ordeal, in which she alleged that she had essentially been bullied into her career as a porno actress by her then-husband Chuck Traynor (who later married Marilyn Chambers). She claimed that Traynor not only physically and sexually abused her throughout their marriage, but pimped her out; even forcing her to perform some of her movie scenes at gunpoint. After publishing the book and settling down in suburbia to start a family with her new husband, Lovelace became an anti-porn activist for a spell, finding herself feted by the likes of Gloria Steinem (she famously stated on the Phil Donahue show that “Whenever someone sees that film, they’re watching me being raped.”). However, in the years just prior to her 2002 death in a car accident, she had begun to cash in once again on her porn legacy, causing some to question her credibility. According to one interviewee in Baily and Barbato’s film, she was a person who “always needed someone to tell her what to do.” So was she a real-life Citizen Ruth, willing to be used as anyone’s cause celebre?
Now that might have been an interesting angle for a filmmaker to expand upon…but unfortunately, it is but one of many missed opportunities in the disappointingly rote biopic Lovelace, the latest by another directing tag team, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Epstein and Friedman pick up Linda’s story just before Chuck Traynor enters her life. Linda (Amanda Seyfried) is living with her parents (Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick) in Florida. At first, Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard) manages to exude charm (although Linda’s parents find his job as manager of a restaurant/exotic dance club a bit dubious) but he soon sweeps her off her feet, giving her a ring and whisking her off to New York.
Chuck introduces Linda to his mobbed-up pals (Chris Noth and Bobby Cannavale) who are always on the lookout for new “talent”. Chuck offers them a home movie that showcases a unique skill that he has “taught” Linda to perform. The obviously impressed hoods get Linda an audition with an adult film director named Gerry Damiano (Hank Azaria in the film’s most spirited performance), and the rest, as they say, is History (as tame reenactments of the making of Deep Throat ensue).
This takes up approximately half of the running time. Then, the filmmakers take a 180. Jumping ahead 6 years, we see Linda taking (and passing) a lie detector test regarding the claims of abuse that she had recounted in the 1980 autobiography. The story then abruptly jumps back to just after Chuck and Linda get married and move to New York, flashing forward over key events we have already seen…except this time, they insert the scenes of abuse that were purposely omitted for the first half of the film. While I understand the intention of this faux-Rashomon conceit, it’s clumsily executed and stalls the film out (making it feel much longer than its relatively short 92 minutes).
This is a surprisingly weak entry from a talented duo whose combined credits include the outstanding documentaries The Times of Harvey Milk (Epstein solo), Where Are We? Our Trip Through America and The Celluloid Closet (co-directors). Perhaps the problem is that by limiting their narrative to Lovelace’s version of events, the filmmakers box themselves in, leaving little room for fresh insights or perspectives. Or perhaps since this is only their second non-documentary effort, they’re still unsure what to do with newfound creative license. So I would recommend you skip this melodrama and opt for the aforementioned documentary.