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The Porn Identity

America’s first XXX actress gets the biopic treatment in "Lovelace," a film that raises as many questions as it answers

There’s no sensible reason that movies can’t be about sex. All other manner of behavior is found in movies, including much that causes people misery, and sex—when we can get around to having it—makes more people intensely happy than any other form of human activity. That we’re unsettled by people having sex and diverted by watching them maim or kill one another is part of our conditioning; several millennia have taught us that getting it on is human, which is to say flawed, while laying waste to civilization is the pastime of gods superior enough to unleash a flood or two. I suspect that this philosophical paradox wasn’t uppermost in the mind of Linda Lovelace, the star of 1972’s Deep Throat, the pornographic picture we might call seminal if that way didn’t lie entendre-madness. And if the same conundrum was apparent to those behind the new biopic (of sorts) about Lovelace, there’s no evidence of that, either. 

The directors of Lovelace, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, are attracted to figures on the fringe of the culture, and like their previous feature, Howl, about beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Lovelace is audacious and provocative, often well done and worth seeing. But it isn’t deep (entendre-madness!), portraying Lovelace, née Linda Boreman, less as someone of complexity than as a victim, which she almost certainly was if the facts are as the film depicts them. Lovelace tells its story twice. The first time, Linda’s rise to stardom—as the most famous porn star in the most famous porn film ever—is presented as a satire of a wild period when sexual exploration felt to many like an obligation. In Lovelace we see how Deep Throat not only had people who never had gone to a porn film lining up around the block at legitimate movie houses, but crept into prime-time news reports and late-night monologues, its title becoming the nickname of an FBI agent who helped bring down a president during the Watergate scandal. Played by Amanda Seyfried, Linda is a shy girl trying to slip the domination of her overbearing mother (an unrecognizable Sharon Stone) and emasculated father (Robert Patrick); swooped up by a topless bar owner and charming bad boy (inevitable film stealer Peter Sarsgaard), she marries him and learns the sexual talents that will be parlayed into a fortune for everyone but her. Halfway through, the movie returns to the beginning and starts over, telling the shadow story behind the story we’ve seen, filling in what we’ve missed, particularly the wedding-night rape, vicious assaults, and threats at the end of a gun barrel by the husband who beat and pimped her out.

Porn has become a lot more ubiquitous 40 years later, not entirely acceptable socially or culturally but taking on some of the outlaw chic that rock and roll used to have. Presumably, however, those PORN STAR T-shirts—and the cachet they suggest—worn by girls on Melrose Avenue would have dismayed Linda: In the film’s epilogue we learn that she became a crusader “against pornography and domestic violence” before she died at 53 from injuries related to a car crash, and if this cause-and-effect linkage between porn and everything Linda suffered in connection with it isn’t the point of the movie, I’m not sure what is. Lovelace is a cautionary tale, and even in the more sympathetic view of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, also about 1970s porn, the women are as wounded as the men are ridiculous. If you’ve ever watched porn, you’ve seen a deadness in the eyes of some of the actors that’s unmistakable. But there’s also no getting around the fact that more and more of the better-known porn actresses of recent times (Jesse Jane, Sasha Grey, Tera Patrick) appear to be operating as free agents, not pulled into the business but owning their decisions to be part of it, and that in its view of porn Lovelace may be somewhat outdated if not irrelevant. On an assignment for another magazine, I attended Boogie Nights in 1998 with Jenna Jameson, who was then the most famous porn star since Lovelace and had gone into the business intending to be nothing less; when I asked after the picture if she related more to Julianne Moore’s character or Heather Graham’s, she answered Mark Wahlberg’s, the film’s hero. Talking about her career, she said, “You know, it’s not all lights and glamour and rad sex,” and I realized that for Jameson the sex wasn’t self-exploitation but one of the perks of the job (and perhaps one of the reasons she caught so many male imaginations).

Unless you’re of the mind that pornography is simply indefensible on moral grounds—a valid enough view but one finally too subjective to argue about—a political or sociological take on whether Jameson should be making her living some other way involves the condescension that concludes the rest of us know better. Lines of work from heroin dealer to contract killer legitimately warrant our condemnation, but aside from the more sweeping proposition that porn hurts society and without it the dynamic between genders would be better or even different, the contemporary porn actress hurts only herself if she hurts anyone. None of this contradicts the horrors Lovelace suffered at the designs of the porn industry and the men in it, or that she was a casualty of a sexist society that half a century ago denied women the opportunity of a vocation unless it was determinedly supportive of men or about fulfilling men’s sexual fantasies. By all evidence Lovelace didn’t have Jameson’s clarity of purpose or toughness. You didn’t have to spend five minutes with Jameson to sense her wariness and the walls that already had gone up, and sad as it is to say, Lovelace might have been better served by a similar skepticism—all of which may only confirm how soul killing adult films can be, assuming that in comparison to porn actresses, everyone else having anything to do with movies, including magazine critics, are paragons of psychological stability.

Over the last decade, as the explicitness of Michael Winterbottom’s mainstream 9 Songs was striving to meet in some middle ground the artistic pretensions of Michael Ninn’s avant-porn Catherine, the film industry’s powers that be have preserved an order that regards sex more dubiously than violence. No cogent argument exists, morally or aesthetically, for why the likes of Hostel and Saw get R ratings (which means wide release and promotion), while 2007’s Lust, Caution by two-time Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee gets an NC-17. But if Deep Throat—with its humor, the semblance of a conceit, marginally elevated production values, and Lovelace’s star appeal—proved that the rest of us are more ready for sex in movies than the Motion Picture Association of America can bring itself to acknowledge, it’s also true that in a digital age when individuals can watch porn at home anytime they want, we the communal audience do seem more comfortable with mayhem on the screen. We don’t imagine ourselves as capable of the violence that we see in movies even when the movies invite us to imagine it; we retain our detachment from what we’re experiencing vicariously, whereas by its very nature, the intimacy of sex doesn’t allow that distance. Not only does sex take us out of any unfolding narrative (with which most porn dispenses) and put us back in our own heads (from where the movie offered us an escape in the first place), but watching strangers be intimate onscreen feels more like a violation because we can’t help taking what they’re doing personally. They’re never strangers at all; they’re always us.