In true Hollywood tradition, this is one of two projects about the life and times of Linda Lovelace, the most famous porn actress of the industry’s early era (”Inferno” – starring Malin Akerman as Linda – is still in production).
At first the story looks like a fairly vanilla-flavoured biopic with an orderly structure and for awhile you wonder if filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are even going to address the abuse by her husband Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard) that she later spoke out about.
Young Linda (Amanda Seyfried) is a teenage girl in suburban New York trying to live her life under the yoke of her staunchly Christian mother (Sharon Stone) and loving but spineless father (Robert Patrick). She gets into minor trouble with tearaway best friend Patsy (Juno Temple), but when suave sleazebag Chuck Traynor and his hot car roars into her life, the essentially good but impressionable Linda is swept off her feet.
The film depicts Traynor as a shady character with an entrepreneurial spirit in all the wrong industries. After a quick assessment of the signature talent that would make Linda famous, he quickly grooms her to be the pornstar audiences the world over knew during the 1970s.
We see the jaw-dropping (excuse the pun) meeting between Traynor and Deep Throat director Gerry Damiano (Hank Azaria), the rough and ready shooting of the film in a Florida motel, the assembled cast and crew laughing at the sounds of Linda and Chuck’s passion from the room next door during the wrap party, and Linda’s ascent to fame and fortune. It culminates at a star-studded premiere of Deep Throat attended by Hugh Hefner (James Franco), who spirits Linda away for himself to a private box upstairs where she feels like a princess after bowing to adoring crowds.
Then, using quite seamless structural shifts, we see many of the same events from behind closed doors where Linda is a victim of Chuck’s terror. We see him literally pimping her out to a group of men for money against her will, then forcing her to accept the role in Damiano’s film. In one of the few slices of popular culture ever to depict Hugh Hefner in an unflattering light, the film suggests he expected nothing more than to get in Linda’s pants. The wall-shaking lovemaking everyone hears in the motel room next door is actually Chuck bashing Linda senseless and throwing her against the wall.
Far less money than expected comes in from Linda’s newfound fame (Chuck didn’t give Linda a cent of the $1,250 from her role) and he amps up the pressure and coercion for her to take part in the sequel and lend her name to everything from sex dolls to dildos to achieve the fortune he wants.
And all the while, a terrified Linda plans one exit strategy after another to get away from him – anything from showing up at her mother’s door in the middle of the night to literally running away from Traynor down the street of their Malibu home.
How much of it is true? Screenwriter Andy Bellin obviously had Linda’s book Ordeal (1980), which detailed her life of terror, sexual assault, domestic violence and forced prostitution at Traynor’s hands, but Linda herself is an enigma.
After she escaped from Traynor’s brutal captivity she famously turned anti-porn crusader, but as the steam ran out of anti-porn activism of the 1970s, Marchiano (her then-married name) spoke out against her former allies in the movement, saying they made lot of money and mileage out of her that she didn’t see very much of. Later still, she came out of obscurity to do a risque (though not nude) shoot for a magazine called Leg Show, which looked to many like a flouting of her former principles.
The filmmakers had two books by Marchiano herself (”Ordeal” and 1986’s “Out of Bondage”) to work with, but her post-Traynor life is hard to pin down. The 2004 documentary ”Inside Deep Throat” made her seem less than studied about the anti-censorship line she peddled while she was a porn star (probably at Traynor’s urging), but Damiano – by then an unassuming Florida retiree – said he always considered her the kind of person who needed to be told what do to and think, with little real sense of herself. We might never know – Damiano died in 2008, and Marchiano herself in 2002 aged 53 from injuries she sustained in a car crash.
Aside from the inventive structure that shows us Lovelace’s public and private life, everything else is delivered in a fairly procedural manner – even plodding, at times. The first problem is that you can feel a much bigger story wanting to be told because the woman was so connectd to the politics, particularly later (although it would be fair if the filmmakers countered by saying they only wanted to tell Linda’s story of escaping Traynor’s evil grasp). But the other problem is – considering the subject matter – it feels a little bit tame a little too much of the time.
You’ll be amazed at the big names that fill the unrecognisable cast, but all eyes will be on Seyfried in a naked (in more ways than one) performance. Lovelace probably won’t be Oscar bait because of the subject matter, but few of the performances warrant it anyway. It’s certainly good to see good girl Seyfried grow up, but she has a way to go before she stands statuette-in-hand before the Academy like contemporary Anne Hathaway has already done.
But just like movies from ”The Queen” to ”JFK”, ”Lovelace” gives what feels like a personal insight into a passing footnote from history, and it does it with period detail and just enough verve.