There’s a central question at the heart of Lovelace, and no I don’t mean does Amanda Seyfried get naked in it (the answer is yes, but you should feel bad for asking). I mean the question people have been asking for years: who was Linda Lovelace anyway? Lovelace doesn’t exactly offer a satisfactory answer. The question I face in my review is, should we expect a fact-based movie to provide a satisfactory answer if one doesn’t exist*?
Joe Bob Briggs wrote about Linda Lovelace for United Press International after her death in 2002 (in a piece much nicer than Al Goldstein’s, who said “I want to do a final load, so that when she goes to hell my sperm goes with her.”):
Lovelace may be the only American celebrity to publish four best-selling autobiographies. The first two celebrate free uninhibited sex as the most liberating form of human expression since man learned to speak. The last two describe pornography as a felony assault against women, a menace to the future of civilization and the very essence of evil. In this one desperately unhappy woman we have both the yin and the yang of the sexual revolution played out before our eyes. [UPI]
This gets to the crux of the difficulty in making a movie about Linda Lovelace. She seems to have been three or four completely different people. Is she an uninhibited sexpot, or a rape victim/sex slave who only did porn at gunpoint? I suspect something in between, but director Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film, from writer Andy Bellin, goes a different route. Though Linda Lovelace was something of an unreliable narrator in real life, Lovelace avoids the potential minefield of victim-blaming that would come with delving deeper or scrutinizing her view of herself, and instead, gives us both of Lovelace’s personas, the liberated sex goddess in the first half and the intimidated slave in the second. That’s either admirable, and fair to Lovelace - I mean, no one else who was around at the time is any more reliable than she was – or a bit of artistic cowardice, depending on your perspective.
Linda Lovelace, as depicted by the film, starts out as a shy 21-year-old named Linda Boreman living with her parents in Davie, Florida. Her mafioso accent doesn’t make sense until we find out she moved there from Yonkers after getting pregnant (her mom tricked her into giving up the baby for adoption). Freckle-faced Linda, who with Amanda Seyfried playing her looks much more Mormon than Catholic, starts out so bashful that she’s positively scandalized by her friend Patsy’s (Juno Temple) use of the phrase “blowjob” (oh the irony). Meanwhile, her battleaxe mom (played by the perfectly typecast Sharon Stone) slaps her around just for hanging around a bikini in the backyard like some trollop. Okay, we get it, she was very innocent. It seems a bit much, but the real Linda Lovelace was reportedly voted “Miss Holy Holy” in high school, so it’s not as if it was coming out of nowhere.
Everything changes when Linda meets Jaguar Q. Chest Hair outside a roller rink. Colonel cool guy turns out to be Chuck Traynor, played by Peter Sarsgaard, who ushers Linda into a world of groovy talk, marijuana cigarettes and sinful delight. You know, the seventies. Suddenly the girl who could scarcely stand to hear the word “blowjob” is up on a kitchen counter receiving oral pleasures under a mini skirt with her crazy parents in the next room. “Linda? How’s that coffee coming?” Sharon Stone asks. “I’m almost there!” Linda pants, in a double entendre joke better suited to Wedding Crashers or a Katherine Heigl movie.
How does Traynor accomplish this? Partly through hypnosis – no joke, Traynor supposedly helped Lovelace discover her hall-of-fame fellaish skills through hypnosis. From there, her story feels like it’s moving in fast foward. She’s reading a nursery rhyme at a porno audition that she doesn’t seem to know is a porno audition. Then she’s on the set of Deep Throat, having sex in front of strangers as if she’d been dying to all along. “We’re gonna win an Oscar for this,” producer Bobby Cannavale tells director Hank Azaria (brilliant casting). In quick succession, she’s bashful, then reluctant, then a big star, then she’s basking in the attention and seemingly loving it. Soon she’s meeting Hugh Hefner-played-by-James-Franco, still steadfast in his complete refusal to act (in a strangely endearing, Norm MacDonald sort of way).
Though there’s an ominous air to Traynor and it feels like we’ve skipped a step in the gradual uninhibiting of Linda Lovelace, it seem a bit like an empowering, small-town-girl-makes-good-on-the-strength-of-her-epic-fellaish-skills story. You know, that old story. (If not, ask your mom. BOOM.).
But before long, we’ve zoomed forward to 1980, with Linda taking a polygraph test to prove the allegations in her book Ordeal, going on Donahue, and being interviewed by Chloe Sevigny (the latter in a meta-symbolic passing of the landmark cinematic blowjob torch). We flashback to some of the events covered earlier in the movie, but now including the parts where Chuck Traynor was threatening Linda with a gun, raping her, forcing her into gangbangs, and generally being awful, all pretty hard to watch. She goes from hero to victim, where you’re forced to examine your own culpability in your previous enjoyment of watching her act all snake-jawed and uninhibited. As Lovelace said in 1986, “‘When you see the movie Deep Throat, you are watching me being raped.”
Deepthroat basically gives us the literal depiction of that. But now we have Linda-as-sexpot and Linda-as-victim, and nary have the twain met. Both scenarios deny her agency, painting her as a victim of outside forces. In the movie, she goes straight from innocent prude to star of Deepthroat, glossing over the part of the story where she was starring for Chuck in smut loops like “Dogf*cker.” How did she go from Miss Holy Holy to Dogf*cker? The easy answer, the movie answer, the Ordeal answer, is “she was doing it because Chuck said he would kill her.”
Even if we take that at face value (and Linda famously passed her polygraph), I still have to wonder how she ended up with that psychopath in the first place (not to place blame, simply because it’s hard to make sense of it). At one point, Linda shows up tearful and desperate on her mom’s doorstep, wanting to stay for a few days to get away from Chuck. Her mom sends her right back to him, telling her that she was raised to obey her husband. That’s an explanation, of sorts, but “because patriarchy” seems a little reductive.
How Linda Boreman went from Miss Holy Holy to Dogf*cker is the kind of question we’re constantly asking of sex workers and porn stars, undaunted by past experience telling us it never has a satisfying answer. How you feel about Lovelace largely depends on whether you think the filmmakers owe us an attempt to answer that, or if they simply owe Linda Lovelace a retelling of her story in her own words, flawed as it may be.
*You can read about this and other review dilemmas in my autobiography, Ordeal.