A Woman Pushed into Fame, Pulling Herself Out
Biopics about celebrities: artists, musicians, and, in the case of Lovelace, porn stars, can usually go in two directions. One usually nestles into a specific moment of its protagonist’s life, hoping to use its limited timeframe as a way to extrapolate and explain the eventual arc of a career. The other largely attempts a full retrospective, spanning mostly the entire life of the star, making its longest pit stop in the height or bottom of one’s fame.
Lovelace, written and directed by Jeff Friedman and Rob Epstein (The Celluloid Closet), leans towards the latter formula, but it probably would have been better if it narrowed its focus. There are so many movies inside of here packed into just over an hour and a half that you can’t find nearly the delight or the immense suffering of this infamous titular character whose stardom peaked in the beginning of the 1970s. Its main goal is examining that age-old dichotomy between outside perception and inside reality, allowing us to bear witness to both perspectives. To that effect, it succeeds in sponging out the dirty details of a hidden life, loosely answering, but beckoning even more questions.
One of those, which helps start the film, is “Who is the real Linda Lovelace?” It’s a cloud that hovers over Linda Boreman (Amanda Seyfried), her original last name and the first of several to come. The second name is adopted after marrying Chuck Traynor (hauntingly played by Peter Sarsgaard), a warm and inviting figure whom once he realizes Linda’s untapped oral talent gradually spirals into an abusive and sadistic locomotive force. Its only proverbial destination with Linda is towards the pornography industry, which elicits dollar-bill signs that blind any moral guidance. Linda Traynor became Linda Lovelace.
Deepthroat became a cult hit for the mostly male masses. Similar to a viral video but with longer shelf life than today’s instant internet turnover, the film was panned by critics. “If you have to work this hard at sexual freedom, maybe it isn’t worth the effort,” wrote Roger Ebert. Yet it became a cultural myth: to some an inspiring display, to others a gross mystery, to two men, a heralded and iconic Watergate source. But Linda, for all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding her unique gift (or curse) depending on whom you ask, was a porn star for just 17 days.
The narrative caters to these split perceptions of Linda. We see the first half of the film one way, and then see it again, this time with a heaping of unhappiness and physical pain. Linda’s family background, though underdeveloped, is the film’s deepest excavation into her emotional foundation. Raised by a domineering working class mother (a striking Sharon Stone), Linda’s liberal tendencies, spurred on by her friend (Juno Temple) shake the mother-daughter relationship. Breaking curfew warrants a slap of the cheek while later breaking into pornography warrants shame, the late night television jokes adding salt to the sliced open maternal wounds.
The more physical lacerations that billow black and blue spell the dark side of the industry and movement many today still find paradoxical. Along with the frizzy hair dos, folk music, and patterned wallpaper that all effectively recreate the evolving youth country, the sexual revolution had begun to bud and Linda could now be considered a poster child. Hank Azaria, Bobby Cannavale, and Chris Noth add levity but also an authentic spin as Deepthroat’s executives and filmmakers. They schmooze, they boast, they introduce Linda to Hugh Hefner (James Franco, surprise!) and it all feels like a whirl. It’s the brave face we see Linda give to her applauding theater audiences that spell the taxing burden of carrying a sexual movement, a proposed film sequel, and appeasing a psychopathic husband.
What we are left with though is a sour aftertaste- one similar to Tina Turner’s experience in What’s Love Got To Do With It– that feels like we have witnessed but not quite engaged with a woman who campaigned fervently against porn near the end of her life. The added complexity -that Linda Boreman returned to the industry when she fell on hard financial times- is the left-out detail that could have added another layer to this story. That question, “Who is the real Linda Lovelace?” prompted in the beginning, feels like it’s answered in a few sentences, with some white writing space still left available.