"Lovelace": The troubled porn star who changed history

Amanda Seyfried and Peter Sarsgaard are terrific, but the soapy "Lovelace" tells only part of a fascinating story

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 7, 2013 11:29PM (EDT)

Amanda Seyfried, James Franco in "Lovelace"
Amanda Seyfried, James Franco in "Lovelace"

Pornography, in case you haven’t noticed, is everywhere. It’s one of the inescapable phenomena of contemporary existence, like global climate change, the explosion of pharmaceutical wonder drugs or the Kardashians. As with those things, there’s no stuffing the genie back into the bottle. We can sit around and argue about whether the overall effect of widespread porn consumption on human sexuality has been liberating or deadening, though I’m not sure there’s anybody left who would argue the former position with a straight face. But we can’t do much about it.

As a parent, I’m completely fine with default blocking of porn sites (as has been proposed in Britain), a position I might well have mocked a few years ago. But let’s get real: Any savvy 12-year-old with a yen to witness once-unimaginable sex acts performed by strangers will find a way. Unless you’re planning to live off the grid or move to Saudi Arabia, there’s no going back to a world without porn – and I have a feeling those solutions wouldn’t work either. This is the world Linda Lovelace made possible, apparently without ever wanting to or meaning to.

I’m old enough to hold dim memories of the furor surrounding the release of “Deep Throat” in 1972, although I had no idea what the movie was “about,” or what sex act was suggested by the title. (I suspect my parents went to see it, although they never confessed that to me.) If anything, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s biopic “Lovelace” underplays the cultural significance of “Deep Throat,” or the way in which Linda Lovelace’s ability to perform a version of fellatio then viewed as apocryphal -- or attributed to rare and expensive prostitutes -- was presented as a symbol of female sexual liberation. It all seems too ridiculous now, not to mention tragic. In some ways, all you really need to know is that “Deep Throat” made hundreds of millions for its producers, and Lovelace’s salary was $1,250.

Epstein and Friedman will always be best known as documentary filmmakers, and won Oscars for both the ground-breaking “Times of Harvey Milk” in 1985 and “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt” in 1990. “Lovelace” is a severely mixed bag, built around gutsy and terrific performances by Amanda Seyfried as the eponymous star and Peter Sarsgaard (always so good playing a heel) as her abusive manager and husband, Chuck Traynor. It gets about halfway to being a great movie about an ambiguous cultural icon, and then gets stuck between modes: Partly it’s a good-times-gone-wrong period fable in the vein of “Boogie Nights,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt” or “Goodfellas,” and partly it’s a classed-up Lifetime melodrama about a woman who’s victimized and prostituted by a powerful husband.

Despite the vibrant presence of Seyfried, who plays Lovelace as a compelling blend of curiosity, vulnerability and naiveté, Linda herself never seems like the subject of the film, either before, during or after her brief period of porn stardom. It’s a strange outcome: She lacked clear agency in her life, and remains an unreadable cipher in the fictional version of her life story.

There’s much to enjoy in “Lovelace,” from the period R&B hits to the outrageous furniture and fashions to hambone performances by Chris Noth, Bobby Cannavale and Hank Azaria (as the sleazeball trio who made “Deep Throat”) and bit parts for James Franco as Hugh Hefner and Adam Brody as Harry Reems, Lovelace’s impressively endowed costar. Only a few simulated scenes from “Deep Throat,” none of them explicit, are seen in “Lovelace,” which hasn't stopped the copyright holders of the original film from filing a $10 million lawsuit. (Among other things, they claim they hold all rights to the trademark "Linda Lovelace." What can you even say about that?) Given the brutal hypocrisy of the way Linda Lovelace was created, manipulated and marketed, it feels bizarre and wrong to shake your groove thing at this particular party.

According to this telling of the tale, smooth-talking Chuck used young Linda Boreman -- a New York transplant who'd had an illegitimate child as a teenager -- as his ticket out of running a second-rate strip club in Fort Lauderdale. Performing oral sex on camera almost certainly wasn’t the worst of it. (Linda’s controversial later testimony that she was forced to do “Deep Throat” at gunpoint is not mentioned here, and was likely hyperbolic or metaphorical.) He beat and raped her frequently and pimped her out throughout their marriage, even allegedly selling her to be gang-raped at Hollywood parties after "Deep Throat" had made her famous. Perhaps the movie’s most chilling ingredient is its clear suggestion that Linda’s devout Catholic mother (a powerful supporting role for Sharon Stone) aided and abetted Chuck, repeatedly telling Linda that a wife’s role is to obey her husband, and resisting any details about exactly what Chuck ordered her to do.

Screenwriter Andy Bellin first gives us the official version of Linda’s rise, the one sold to people in the ‘70s, in which the freckled girl-next-door with an unusual aptitude for sex becomes the wholesome face that brings porn to Mr. and Mrs. America. Then we see many of the same events again from Linda’s perspective, with Chuck morphing from a pot-smoking, sideburned swinger to a sadistic, controlling creep, Franco’s Hefner as a flesh-peddling predator and Linda herself as a virtual sex slave. We see her finally escape from Traynor and the porn industry, and then tell her story to Phil Donahue several years later, when she’s become a Long Island housewife with two kids. This turnabout is dramatically effective, but it actually avoids some of the most interesting and complicated aspects of the real Linda’s story.

There’s no way to cover an entire life in a 90-minute movie, especially a life as bewildering as that of Linda Boreman-Traynor-Lovelace-Marchiano-Boreman (and occasionally Lovelace again). But “Lovelace” never mentions Linda’s involvement with the anti-pornography crusade led by feminist intellectuals like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, or her subsequent rejection of that movement and claims that those activists had used her for financial advantage. While many of her colleagues in the porn industry have supported her charges against Traynor, others have questioned her credibility and accused her of not taking responsibility for her own actions. After divorcing her second husband (saying he, too, was abusive) Linda briefly returned to the sex industry, doing a nude pictorial for Leg Show magazine in 1995. She died at age 53 after a Colorado car accident in 2002, a cruel ending to a life that had more questions than answers.

I’m not suggesting that Linda Lovelace was a hypocrite or that I believe she was not exploited. If anything, her later history suggests how profoundly screwed up she was, whether by her family, by Chuck Traynor, by her work in porn and her unwanted and uncompensated celebrity or by all of the above. I’m saying that Epstein and Friedman make a brave effort to wrestle with the ambiguities of Linda Lovelace’s life but ultimately come up short, turning an immensely complex story about women, men, sex and the 20th century into an old-fashioned moral fable about innocence betrayed. They have noble intentions, I guess, and Seyfried's performance is worth the price of admission. But Linda Lovelace deserved something more.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Amanda Seyfried Jeffrey Friedman Lgbt Linda Lovelace Lovelace Movies Porn Pornography Rob Epstein Sex