Hollywood has mostly depicted the porn biz as tawdry at best, and positively hazardous to one’s health at worst. “Lovelace,” debuting in theaters and via video-on-demand on Aug. 9, with Amanda Seyfried in the eponymous role of “Deep Throat” star Linda Lovelace, captures the early-to-mid-’70s era when porn chic was at its height.
“Deep Throat” also figured heavily in the culture wars of those days, as both a lightning rod for free speech and tacky textbook example of porn’s malicious influence on society. But “Lovelace” directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman view their film as a love story. “It’s about the relationship between Linda and Chuck (Traynor) — how she got into it and how she got out of it, which coincided, happily for us, with how she got into porn and how she got out of it.”
The R-rated film is less explicit than the exploits of the star whose life it examines. Peter Sarsgaard portrays Traynor not unlike Eric Roberts’ Paul Snider in “Star 80,” as a manipulative, abusive monster who pimps out his wife for personal gain. And like “Wonderland,” in which Val Kilmer plays porn king John Holmes, “Lovelace” uses a “Rashomon”-like narrative to accommodate conflicting points of view.
In real life, Lovelace acted as both a spokesperson for sexual liberation and, later, as an anti-porn crusader. While Andy Bellin’s script relied mostly on interviews and testimony that Lovelace gave to the media and in front of the Meese Commission on Pornography, the filmmakers could not ignore the divergent viewpoints she gave early on in the 1974 memoir “Inside Linda Lovelace,” allegedly ghost-written by Traynor, and a later book, “Ordeal,” a harrowing account of the cruel subjugation she suffered under Traynor’s ever-watchful eye.
“The books influenced the movie tonally, and our take on it,” says Epstein. “She told the story one way when she was living it and experiencing it, and another way 10 years later.”
Filmmakers usually paint the circumstances by which people end up in porn in broad psychoanalytic brushstrokes. In “Lovelace,” the title character escapes a religious, repressive family to experience the freedoms associated with adulthood, much like the daughter of George C. Scott’s Calvinist widower in Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore.” Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 porn drama “Boogie Nights” suggests an Oedipal relationship between Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and a disapproving mother to whom he’s determined to prove his worth.
But as morals have changed, and skin is seen as less of a sin, Hollywood has become less judgemental of the adult industry. In the bonus DVD material for “Boogie Nights,” Anderson underscores an approach to his subject that doesn’t linger on motivations. “Everybody just kind of goes about their business being porn stars in this movie and not thinking too much of it,” he says.
“Boogie Nights” is considered the gold standard of porn sagas. The $15 million production was a breakthrough film for virtually all the principals involved, and the movie grossed $43 million worldwide, earning three Oscar noms. The ambitions of the Weinstein Co.’s distribution label Radius for “Lovelace” are less grand; the film, made for less than $10 million, goes out on 125 screens, day-and-date with VOD.
Glenn Kenny, longtime film critic of now-defunct Premiere magazine (who had a cameo in Steven Soderbergh’s Sasha Grey-starring escort drama “The Girlfriend Experience”), sees “Boogie Nights” as sensitive to the realities of the porn industry: “There were filmmakers in the (adult) industry who really believed they could integrate hardcore sex into romantic comedies and whatnot. It’s a kind of chimerical ambition, and ‘Boogie Nights’ captures that disconnect.”
Although Hollywood has aimed to titillate dating back to the pre-Hays Code era of the ’20s and ’30s, Schrader, for one, doesn’t think the worlds of porn and narrative storytelling will ever merge, despite films like John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” (2006) and other explicit arthouse imports such as Michael Winterbottom’s “9 Songs” (2004), recent Palme d’Or winner “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and the upcoming “Nymphomaniac” from Lars von Trier.
“The part of our brain that responds to sexual stimulation and the part that responds to narrative don’t overlap,” says Schrader, whose upcoming “The Canyons,” about so-called hook-up culture, represents a cluster-bomb of polarizing talents, from the director himself to writer Bret Easton Ellis, Lindsay Lohan and her co-star, porn stud James Deen.
Deen, like Grey before him, is the latest adult film star to attempt crossover success in a narrative feature. Others, like Marilyn Chambers (David Cronenberg’s “Rabid”) and Traci Lords (John Waters’ “Cry-Baby”), have tried, but never achieved the level of stardom they enjoyed as adult film stars.
“As disreputable as (Hollywood’s) own players might be,” says Kenny, “the porn industry is a red-headed step child of theirs that they’d rather not have.”
Mostly, though, when hardcore stars end up in mainstream movies, they end up in supporting roles playing mirror images of themselves.
Kenny feels there’s always a certain amount of commercial calculation involved in these casting decisions. “I haven’t seen ‘The Canyons’; I don’t know how Deen is in it, but whenever you cast a porn star, there’s always this thing where it smacks of novelty.”
Yet the once novel talents of Lovelace, if not the physical assets of Holmes, are getting to be commonplace. Explicit sex can be seen on premium cable shows; and, as Schrader points out, “girls are raised knowing Paris Hilton became a star by performing oral sex onscreen.” With hardcore sex also ubiquitous and free on the Internet, it’s clear that media is in a post-porn age — and the company towns represented by Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley have, as Kenny puts it, “arrived at this kind of detente.”
As part of their research for “Lovelace,” Epstein and Friedman visited a porn set where the director was a woman and the female performer “was pretty much calling the shots” — so much for porn as the exclusive domain of fantasy created by and for men. “It was pretty much like any other film set,” says Friedman, “except people had their clothes off.”