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Porn in the U.S.A.

Lovelace doesn't go quite deep enough

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I was worried during the first third of Lovelace that it was going to skim over the reality of Linda Lovelace's life. The first part of the movie tells the story of how the young girl-next-door starred in perhaps the most infamous porno ever, 1972's Deep Throat, about a woman whose clitoris is in the back of her throat.

Lovelace revels in '70s kitsch, groovy tunes, big hair, tacky jokes and tackier mustaches. Amanda Seyfried is wide-eyed and precious as Linda, the freckled, smiling blowjob ingenue propelled into stardom. She absorbs attention from the men around her like a sponge. Her hair is fabulous throughout.

Then, Lovelace goes back and fills in the dark places. Linda was all smiles on the outside, but in reality she'd been pressured into sex work by her domineering, abusive husband, Chuck Traynor, played by Peter Sarsgaard.

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  • The great 1970s hair-off.

Early on in their marriage, Chuck asks Linda to prostitute herself to raise money to cover his debts. Linda, horrified, shows up on her mother's doorstep in the middle of the night, asking for refuge and saying, "He hits me, ma." Her hard-faced mother, played by a barely recognizable Sharon Stone, asks, "Well, what did you do?" and tells Linda to go back to her husband and obey him. It's sickening, and it only gets worse.

I'd warn anyone who's sensitive to depictions of violence that, even though the scenes aren't overtly graphic, Lovelace is still very unsettling. The camera zooms away from the worst of the abuse, and to the film's credit it doesn't eroticize the violence done to Linda. Seyfried bares a lot here, emotionally and physically, but for the most part shots of her topless or in skimpy underwear serve to visually highlight how exposed and vulnerable she is. The cinematography is graceful; in one shot, we see Lovelace twirling in a gorgeous white gown, lit from behind so we can see her delicate legs and platform heels through the lacy fabric. It's a poignant visual metaphor for how innocent she still is, despite what she's been through.

Sarsgaard is perfect and terrifying as the controlling husband who pushed Linda into prostitution and porn. He's a classic abuser: extraordinarily charming and polite at first, swooping in on the naïve, neglected Linda, and then slowly escalating the harm—but apologizing and kissing her after every new torment.

Some histories of Deep Throat tend to downplay or dismiss what seems like the real triumph of Linda's life—that she was able to escape her abuser, and went on to speak out against domestic violence and pornography. Lovelace has fun with the inherently cheesy legacy of Deep Throat, but makes Linda's struggles very real. It also offers us cartharsis. We see Chuck get a beating he richly deserves (from a character played by Chris Noth, actually, which will elicit a cheer from Mr. Big fans) while Linda goes on to remarry, have kids and reconcile with her parents.

Lovelace, like any biopic, doesn't tell us much we don't know. The brief 90 minutes or so of running time provide an interesting enough telling of part of Linda's life, but as the credits rolled, I thought about how Linda's story is, sadly, not unusual. There's still plenty of women like Linda in the sex industry, women who are used and abused and don't know how to escape. It's satisfying to watch a movie set in the '70s and imagine that treating women's bodies like disposable property is as old-fashioned as polyester leisure suits. But it's clear, if you even watch a snippet of the evening news about Rihanna and Chris Brown, pre-teen girls getting gang-raped or legislative attempts to take away reproductive autonomy, that our culture isn't really better now.

I subscribe to sex-positive feminism, which emphasizes that porn and sex work can be fulfilling and validating if it's done by choice. But I can't do that without acknowledging that mainstream porn culture can be damaging to men and women's psyches. Just look at how Deep Throat perpetuates the male fantasy, however unrealistic, that a woman could just absolutely love giving blowjobs with no reciprocation. And Deep Throat seems quaint compared to a lot of porn out there today.

I'd suggest two documentaries (both on Netflix) as bookends for Lovelace. First, see Inside Deep Throat, which recounts the making of the film and its intriguing back story, like the ensuing censorship controversy and the filmmakers' ties to the mob. After watching Lovelace, if you could use a pick-me-up, check out Mutantes: Punk Porn Feminism, about the ways that people are transforming porn and sex work into positive, affirming things. (It's also got some quite graphic scenes of bizarre art-bondage porn, so be prepared for that.)

The latest news about Lovelace is that its box-office debut has been "limp," as one Hollywood blog headline put it. That's a shame. This is one of the better movies to come out during a summer full of mindless blockbuster explosion-fests. Lovelace is enjoyable enough for the simple story it tells; it's up to the viewer to get what they want out of it.

Lovelace continues at the Wilma Theatre.

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