Lovelace (Jeffrey Friedman, Rob Epstein, USA, 2013)
With Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick, Juno Temple, Adam Brody, Wes Bentley, Eric Roberts, James Franco, Chris Noth, Bobby Cannavale, Hank Azaria, Debi Mazar, Chloe Sevigny
For about 7 years, one of my favourite themes to explore in cinema and TV has been the representation of sexuality and its evolution. It is not new for me to have inquisitive eyes and amused questions about that specific theme : “Why are you fascinated by this theme?”; that then diverge into crude statements. Yeah right… If you think about it, cinema has always been on the forefront of social transformations, has always signaled a definite shift in specific eras and contexts. And the most powerful film industries have always played on beauty and sexuality to create an addicting atmosphere to its viewers, full of escapist adventures and glamourous screen idols in lush settings. Censorship came in and judged what was obscene, what was promiscuous and how affecting such images could be to an audience. That was best exemplified by the Hays Code, which operated from the mid 1930s to the late 1960s in American cinema. One of my personal cinephile thrills is to watch those films and marvel at the immense creativity writers, directors and actors displayed to overturn the strict rules of the Code.
Subtext in dealing with sexuality progressively loosened throughout the Hays-Code years. But it was only in 1968 that the Code became obselete, as more graphic nudity, cursing and depiction of mature themes and issues were boldly portrayed on the silver screen. The next decade broke through as the most exciting decade in cinema history : new American auteurs came to prominence, influenced by European and Asian films they had studied at school (Spielberg, Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola), while films became more frontal with controversial topics. And with the explosion of sexual liberation, it became impossible for movies not to tap into that.
Another plus at studying sex in cinema is getting a direct understanding of society’s taboos, mores and freedom at a specific era. And this review of Lovelace validates that aspect. Therefore, it is impossible to review Lovelace“without the true story of the first porn-star icon back into context. The film aspires to tell the true story of Linda Lovelace (1949-2002), rapidly propelled to stardom after the massive success of porn film Deep Throat in 1972. Deep Throat grew into a global phenomenon and attracted diverse audiences (suburban Americans, the retired, executives, doctors, lawyers, middle-class workers) unfamiliar with porn cinema. Deep Throat heralded a new era in cinema when explicit and un-simulated sex was likely to become more present in commercial cinema.
Yet behind this success story lies the story of an abusive relationship between Linda Lovelace (née Linda Boreman) and husband-pimp Chuck Traynor, who “introduced” her to the deep-throat technique (a spectacular fellatio technique which prowess turned Lovelace into a star), and co-erced her into the porn film industry. After escaping from her husband’s violence, Linda Boreman now Marciano, recounted her experiences in her 1980 autobiography Ordeal, where she incarnated a new persona as the feminist-Gloria-Steinheim-trained porn-fighting activist.
Forty years after the film’s release, the story continues to fascinate as it presents a contradictory picture of 70s sexual freedom, through the lens of Linda Lovelace’s story. While sexual liberation empowered feminist movements to challenge patriarchy, bigotism and discrimination, it also strengthened sexist behaviours in popular culture, confusing female objectification and exploitation with female empowerment. Linda Lovelace’s ordeals validates that, as her liberated girl-next-door public image clashed with the abuse she experienced because of her husband.
I was most excited when I heard that not one, but two movies were about to uncover the true story of Linda Lovelace. Biopics always add a sort of cultural relevancy and legitimization to a personality, and even more so when they hit the big screen. Boy, was I HUGELY disappointed! Yet on paper, I was set to love this film!
Let’s just get this clear, dear directors. When you make a film with the icon’s name as eponymous title, you’d better stick to the protagonist’s point of view, and show some respect in treating this story! And that also applies to you, Sacha Gervasi (you slayed Hitchcock!)! Directors Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein add nothing new and original to this story. And instead of concentrating on the woman behind the multiple images she cultivated, instead of engaging the viewer on the protagonist’s complex psychology and mind, the directors never really capture her other than in the binary mode of porn star phenomenon and domestic victim. Linda Lovelace’s story is full of paradoxes : after her unhappy marriage and the backlash of Ordeal, she faced extreme poverty in the 80s and 90s, before ironically returning to the adult entertainment industry, the same industry she had blamed years before for raping her in her hey-day.
That omission demonstrates another problem of the movie : it doesn’t go beyond the Deep Throat and Ordeal eras. Not only that, but the film ends on a compromising way : a moralistic tale of success, abuse and redemption, a classical Hollywood convention that is in no way faithful nor realistic to the true story. Extended scenes set in the 80s and 90s would have enabled a more fleshed-out picture of Lovelace’s personal evolution : her doubts, struggles, traumas would have nourished her story arc so well. Not to mention showing more explicitly Lovelace’s introduction to the industry, which all looks rushed in the film.
While scandalously ignoring these additions, the directors set out instead to present an idealized representation of 1970s sexual freedom. Deep Throat film-makers wear impossibly tacky wigs, mustaches and flashy suits, are charismatic and literally chew up the scenery, next to an impossibly bland Lovelace. Their recreation of the Deep Throat shoot leans towards the grotesque, as the scenes are staged and acted out as a comedy. But stay tuned, as the second part wants to show the inside story by focusing on the other side of what seemed an idyllic post-Deep Throat moment for Lovelace : Traynor, in a two-dimensional portrayal by Peter Sarsgaard beats her up, as he orders her at gunpoint to prostitute herself. Further exploitation ensues, as she’s forever locked in her porn-star image, and used and abused by other men, including famous ones.
Added to the film’s other enormous flaws, the binary construction cancels itself completely out by its lackluster treatment. This is sadly the lack of serious and accurate treatment that gives this film a cheap Lifetime TV-film aspect. Now that hurts!
In the end, Lovelace is a fine example of how to make biopics the wrong way : lack of focus and characterization of the protagonist, poor construction, superficial recreations! Seriously, watch instead the excellent documentary Inside Deep Throat, which grounds the film within its social, cultural and political context. Another film that is close in its similarities to Lovelace is the Bob Fosse film Star 80, which story of an rising Playboy star ends tragically from the hands of her mentor/husband.