The adult film industry is big business in the United States; it generates billions and billions of dollars a year. Though there is still somewhat of a stigma attached to the movies and the people that star in them, pornography is more mainstream today than ever. Leaking a sex tape in now a path to stardom; we wouldn’t have the Kardashians without society’s overall softening in judgment of adult films. While a lot of factors have contributed to these changing standards, a lot of credit (or blame) has to go to the unexpected success of the highest grossing adult film of all time, Deep Throat. One of the first adult films to feature an actual plot, the film enjoyed crossover success that no other film of the genre had previously enjoyed. Deep Throat took adult movies out of the dark corners and became something that people openly talked about. It inspired an article in The New York Times about “porno chic” and even became the code name for the informant in the Watergate scandal.
Lovelace, the new film starring Amanda Seyfried (Mean Girls, Les Misearable) and Peter Sarsgaard, looks at the woman who starred in Deep Throat, Linda Lovelace. Dubbed by some as the first porn star, the film chronicles the fame and pain that Lovelace suffers by using an interesting narrative formula: the first half of the film tells her story once from a more positive viewpoint and the second half re-tells the same story filling in the darker and more violent elements. This is partially necessity – Lovelace has given two wildly different versions of her life during this time. Lovelace has written four memoirs this era; two were very positive about the experience, while two chronicle a life of terror and abuse. Rather than trying to sort out the two versions, the film chooses to present both. It is a novel approach, but ultimately also limits the film and how the title character is portrayed. For a film that is about the woman behind the infamous role, I still don’t feel like I know Linda Lovelace at all. Even with the two different perspectives there still seems that there is more to the story.
When I heard that Seyfried was taking over the title role, I was skeptical; I really didn’t think that she had the chops to play this role. My fear was that her limitations as an actress would be a hindrance to the storytelling; I was very doubtful that she could disappear into the role and become Linda. However, I have to say that I really underestimated Seyfried as she did a fantastic job in the role. She took on Lovelace’s New York accent and was mostly able to make me forget that I was watching an actress pretending to be another real life person. The make-up department deserves some kudos as they were able to mostly obscure Seyfried’s attractiveness and make her look more like Lovelace. I was curious if Seyfried would shy away from doing any nudity in the film, but she fully commits to the role and does nude scenes when appropriate.
Sarsgaard is always good at playing a creepy guy, but he gets to be a full on villain in the second half of the film as Lovelace’s husband (and alleged pimp) Chuck Traynor. He does so convincingly, but he is also able to demonstrate some of the charm that may have attracted a young Lovelace to him in the first place during the first half of the film. The role really calls for him to mostly be monstrous and awful, Sarsgaard tries to bring a little nuance to the character that I’m sure wasn’t actually on the page.
The main hurdle that Seyfried and the rest of the cast cannot overcome, despite her best efforts, is the shallowness of the script. The second half of the movie focuses on the exploitation of Lovelace, but doesn’t give Seyfried much to do but cower in a corner and look sad. This is not to diminish her ordeal at all, but having the lead character be a victim for half the movie without any real depth of story is limiting for the actress and is not as interesting to watch. The tale is all very cursory and would have benefitted from trying to scratch the surface more. As Lovelace, Seyfried mostly reacts to what other people to do her, with very little insight into her character. Even in the first half of the film, there isn’t a lot of explanation as to how Lovelace goes from a relatively shy teenager to someone who has sex on film; abuse and fear clearly are contributing factors, but the narrative structure of telling the same story twice doesn’t allow much time to explore any of these developments in real depth. I think that most people know that the adult film industry can take advantage of women and isn’t all sunshine and roses; where Lovelace could have been really interesting was in telling us more about the woman at the center of all this or looking at the larger picture of why this particular film broke through into mainstream culture. I walked away from Lovelace feeling like this was a story that I heard many times before, as the movie failed to bring anything new to the table. It is ironic that a film partially about the making of Deep Throat isn’t a very deep film at all.
Some other thoughts:
- A much more interesting film about Deep Throat and its crossover success is the documentary Inside Deep Throat. It provides a better snapshot of the cultural impact and the legal ramifications. I was actually working on a paper on the legal issues with regulating obscenity and pornography right before I left graduate school, so I’ve seen this documentary a few times.
- There are lots of great actors in small part in the film (Chirs Noth, Hank Azaria and Bobby Cannavale for example) but I want to single out Sharon Stone as Linda’s mother. I didn’t recognize Stone at all in this role; I had a vague inclining that I had seen the actress before, but it wasn’t until I looked at IMBD for something else that I realized who it was. She is that unrecognizable and she does a nice job as Linda’s religious and cold mother who had very little empathy for her daughter.
- Sigh … James Franco also appears in the film, totally miscast as Hugh Hefner. I’m beginning to have a really complicated relationship with Franco, as I really like him in about 50% of his roles and think he is terrible in the other half. This is a case where he is really terrible, though thankfully he doesn’t get much screen time. He is only a distraction.
- It did freak me out to see Adam Brody (aka Seth Cohen from The O.C.) as porn actor Harry Reems. I don’t think Sandy Cohen would approve. Brody’s portrayal may seem a little over the top to some, but it is pretty accurate depiction of the real Reems, who is interviewed extensively in Inside Deep Throat as he was prosecuted for his participation in the making of the adult film.
- Lovelace marks the first time I ever shushed someone in a movie theater. This older woman just wouldn’t shut up and talked throughout the film, including asking her husband “Is that James Franco?” every time a new actor turned up on screen. After 45 minutes of this, I finally had to shush her. It had an effect for five minutes and then she went right back to discussing the film fairly loudly. I was not amused.
- The film does an excellent job stylistically of capturing the feel and look of the 70s, though I think they just stole the Boogie Nights soundtrack.
- The structure of the film does do an excellent job of making the viewers of Lovelace feel really guilty if they found one ounce of enjoyment in the first half of the film. It makes you feel complicit in the whole thing, which is an interesting path for the film to take. However, like everything else in the film, it doesn’t delve deeper into this concept.
- Not mentioned in the film, because it doesn’t fit the narrative, was that after Linda became an anti-porn crusade, she did a pictorial in the adult fetish magazine Leg Show. She was fully clothed, but it is an interesting wrinkle in the story that would have provided a better-rounded look at Lovelace that wasn’t so black and white. Her addiction issues were also glossed over.
- Lindsay Lohan was originally attached to play Lovelace and while I think Seyfried did a great job, I can’t help but wonder what the film would have been like with its original leading lady. Lohan is so unpredictable, but she can be a solid actress in the right circumstances. One has to wonder if this wouldn’t have been a better “comeback” role than some of her other choices.
Lovelace isn’t a bad film, but it is a very two dimensional depiction of what should have been a three dimensional story. The actors all almost universally solid (sorry Franco), but they can only do so much with the thin script. The narrative structure of the film is interesting and innovative, but falls apart in the actual execution. For a movie about the woman who became Linda Lovelace, I still have no better idea of who she was as a person as I did before the film. That’s a failing, in my eyes. By trying to tell both versions of her story, Lovelace fails to tell either with any real depth or nuance. There is the potential for a really interesting film here, but that potential is ultimately not realized. Worth seeing overall, but not a satisfactory character study. Lovelace is too superficial and wastes some great performances from its actors.