Lovelace may be a movie about a porn star, but it’s not pornographic. At least, not sexually. If not for the frequent toplessness of the movie’s star, Amanda Seyfried, you could easily mistake Lovelace at first for one of those Behind the Music dramas, which take a cult celebrity figure, show her origin story in boring nowheresville, her meteoric rise after being “discovered,” and the ensuing decadence, booze, drugs and domestic violence that serves as a cautionary tale for any Icarus who flies too close to the public’s sun. Think Boogie Nights. Or Dreamgirls.
For the first half of the film, Lovelace follows the formula. We first see the young, supple Linda Boreman as a “good girl” still living with her overbearing Catholic mother (Sharon Stone, looking like a house fell on her sister) and her war vet/ex-cop father (Robert Patrick, for whom the term “typecast” doesn’t quite cover it). Though her innocence isn’t an act, Linda has a secret. Her parents had to move to the Florida Keys from New York in shame after their daughter became pregnant; according to young Linda, her mother tricked her into signing the adoption papers by saying they were circumcision forms.
So when she meets nudie-bar owner Chuck Traynor, it’s a quick-marriage-to-manager tale, a story so old that you might not think it necessary to know the details of the allegations of abuse leveled by Lovelace in her ’80s tell-all memoir Ordeal. As Lovelace’s Svengali, Peter Sarsgaard is brilliant, pure coiled malevolence and bad news, the dark blotch staining an otherwise simple rags-to-riches story, as the human Linda Boreman becomes the sex goddess Linda Lovelace.
Despite Traynor’s dark shadow, Linda’s life seems fun and glamorous (occasional bruises and all). She’s surrounded by loveable lunks, like Deep Throat director Jerry Damiano (Hank Azaria), producers Butchie Peraino (Bobby Cannavale) and Anthony Romano (Chris Noth), and her goofy leading man Harry Reems (a ridiculous Adam Brody), as well as the sugar daddy of them all, Hugh Hefner. As Hef, James Franco seems oddly asexual—more beatnik than Don Draper—but even
that fits with the opening premise of Lovelace: porn can be fun! And funny! Empowering, even, as Linda finds during a soul-awakening photo shoot with Wes Bentley, essentially reprising his role in American Beauty. She cries when she sees the Polaroids: “You made me look … beautiful.” A special screening at the Playboy penthouse, and Linda Lovelace is the biggest star in America. She’s on top of the world. What could go wrong?
And here’s where Lovelace truly distinguishes itself as a piece of moviemaking (and makes us understand why it was snapped up in record time by Weinstein subsidiary Radius TWC after its premiere at Sundance). Instead of following a star’s downward descent, the film goes back to the beginning and shows us how things are already wrong, too wrong, and what’s more, that they’ve been wrong this entire time. As a meditation on domestic abuse, victimhood and survivor martyrdom, the making of Deep Throat—the catalyst for middle America’s sexual revolution, remember—might strike some as too on the nose, an analogy in which sex and evil are inexorably linked. But to leave Lovelace with that impression is to miss the point completely.
It’s in this re-retelling that we see Traynor from Boreman’s perspective: not just an overly jealous criminal with a temper, but a sadist who forced his wife into prostitution, gang rape and a (thankfully unmentioned) bestiality porn film. The abuse is far deeper, and more intimate, than the surface glimpses given in the movie’s first half.
Lovelace’s brilliance comes from its ability to make its audience feel exactly as America must have in 1980 (the year Ordeal was first published), during the famous Donahue interview in which Linda made the explosive claim that she had been a prisoner of her husband for years and had been forced to perform in Deep Throat at gunpoint. That people watching her film—couples attended Deep Throat on dates at real theaters and giggled at Mr. Reems’s “balls in ear” joke—were watching her being raped. The figurehead of giving head was now making the lecture circuit as part of the anti-pornography movement. It almost felt like a betrayal: here was an icon who had stood for sexually liberated chicks everywhere, who had made one of the world’s highest-grossing films—now claiming she had been forced to perform Deep Throat while staring down the barrel of an M-16.
Despite a stellar performance by Ms. Seyfried—who plays Boreman like Monroe, at once sweet and pitiful, desperate and with a perpetual guarded flinch—it’s still much easier to swallow (so to speak) the first version of events. To think, sure, Traynor was a coke-addled, co-
dependent bastard husband. But a monster? Easier to disbelieve Boreman, to choose instead to believe in Linda Lovelace and Deep Throat and their contribution to tearing down the walls of puritanical American values. To say that Boreman was exaggerating, that things weren’t that bad, that everyone was having a good time. More or less.
What’s amazing about Lovelace, and what will undoubtedly win it many awards, is its ability to show both realities as valid interpretations of events. In one scene, Deep Throat’s producers throw a party in their hotel room. Hearing noises next door, they hush their guests and turn off the music so they can better hear Boreman and Traynor getting it on. Later in the film, we see the same scene, this time with the shot extending out to a balcony, where a man and his friend stand smoking and noting that those screams and crashes don’t exactly sound like sex noises, but more like abuse. Thus making the revelers—and by extension, the audience—voyeurs of something much more heinous than lovemaking.
Now that’s a reason to feel dirty.
Written by: Andy Bellin
Directed by: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard and Juno Temple
Running time: 92 min.