Lovelace: Sundance Review
UPDATED: Amanda Seyfried and Peter Sarsgaard lead the cast of co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's film about Linda Lovelace, the first porn star.
PARK CITY -- The lurid celebrity and sordid aftermath of the brief career of the world’s first porn star is vividly, if not explicitly, etched in Lovelace. Given all the ways a project like this could have gone wrong, the result is surprisingly good on several fronts, beginning with a shrewd structure that fosters an intelligent dual perspective on the public and private aspects of the Deep Throat phenomenon. Leaving behind the overly academic approach they brought to an earlier cultural and censorship landmark in Howl three years ago, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have made a real movie here that Radius-Weinstein, which picked it up from Millennium right after its Sundance world premiere, should be able to muscle to potent returns in fairly wide specialized release.
Linda Lovelace was the nom de porn bestowed upon Florida girl Linda Boreman when she starred in her one and only hardcore feature, the 1972 film that became the adult film industry’s first crossover smash, launched “porno chic” and went on to gross anywhere from $100 million to $600 million on an initial expenditure of less than $50,000. Lovelace only ever collected her salary of $1,250.
Lurking behind the entire enterprise was not only the mob but, more intimately, Lovelace’s husband and manager Chuck Traynor. By her own account, he threatened, beat and controlled her; kept her money; forced her into prostitution; and essentially kept her prisoner until she finally got away. Lovelace went on to write an account of her experiences entitled Ordeal and promoted anti-pornography and women’s causes until her 2002 death in a car accident.
Her story is a sad, depressing and degrading one, so grim at times that one wonders if there’s any edification to be had from it. To say that Lovelace provides uplift by the end would be an exaggeration, but the fact that the one-time victim did not succumb but, rather, stabilized her life and eventually fought back in every way she could provides a sense of vindication.
The early going is a bit choppy as young Linda (Amanda Seyfried), who lives with her parents (Robert Patrick and an unrecognizable Sharon Stone, both excellent) in working-class Davie, Fla., is escorted from the innocuous world of roller rink go-go dancing to the heavy-duty drugs-and-porn scene by the barely charming, bottom-feeding hustler Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard). A 19, Linda did bear an out-of-wedlock child who was put up for adoption, but she’s barely educated and far from worldly, putty in the hands of the domineering would-be entrepreneur.
When Chuck takes Linda up to New York to push his discovery on porn director Gerard Damiano (Hank Azaria) and producer Butchie Peraino (Bobby Cannavale), she objects that, “I don’t have any skills.” Chuck protests that she does have one, a specialty she has perfected that will give the movie its title, lure audience upscale audiences to porn for the first time and make its star notorious, sought after for a command performance by Hugh Hefner and the butt of jokes from Johnny Carson on late-night TV.
For whatever reason, the film avoids directly stating that Deep Throat was financed by the mob, specifically by Butchie’s father Anthony Peraino, a longtime New York big boss who used the proceeds from this film to build a huge adult film empire, among other things. (Director Damiano contractually owned one-third of the profits from Deep Throat, but the elder Peraino soon made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: a $25,000 buyout.) But the mere physical appearance of the vaguely menacing fictional moneyman, Anthony Romano (a smooth Chris Noth), leaves little doubt that he’s not to be messed with. So annoyed is he with Chuck that he arranges for him to be absent when Linda films her big scenes near the end of the six-day shoot.
After the Deep Throat frenzy has hit its peak, the film abruptly jumps ahead six years, with Linda taking a polygraph test to authenticate her accusations against her vile Svengali. And thus do the horrors of the past few years begin to pour out: the beatings, the forced gang rapes, the pressure from Anthony to make three sequels, the virtual slavery enforced by Chuck, the humiliating news that her father has seen Deep Throat. Through it all, she becomes determined not to make another hardcore film: “I just can’t do it anymore.”
Another six years later, Ordeal has come out, Linda is raising two kids and is appearing on The Phil Donahue Show saying, “Linda Lovelace was a fictitious character.” She’s transitioned from the ultimate sex puppet and practitioner of male fantasies to a feminist hero of sorts.
Making a huge swing from the sweet, innocent Cosette in Les Miserables to the queen of porn, Seyfried has been decked out in curly black hair and freckles and otherwise deprettified to an extent to approximate the look of her real-life character. She gives a strong, credible performance that catches Linda’s insecurities and exacts sympathy and regret for all that happened to her, even as she might not seem to completely inhabit the role at all times.
Similarly, Sarsgaard convincingly expresses all manner of manipulative behavior and venal motives as Chuck, but perhaps the actor is simply too genial to be as scary as, say, James Woods would have been in this role in his prime or like John Hawkes was in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Supporting roles are very well filled by the likes of Cannavale, Azaria, Wes Bentley, Eric Roberts and Adam Brody as Linda’s fun-loving co-star Harry Reems.
Period re-creation is pretty decent on a budget, and both Stephen Trask’s score and the selection of evocative vintage songs add greatly to the mood.
Another theatrical feature on the same subject, Inferno: A Linda Lovelace Story, is in development. Directed by Matthew Wilder, it stars Malin Akerman as Linda and Matt Dillon as Chuck.