The new film Lovelace is terrible. It is, in fact, so terrible that its flaws are not even interesting. Briefly, it takes one of the great questions of the last few decades — what’s the role of porn in “sexual liberation”? — and runs it through a soft-filter, crappy Rashomon conceit. Then it shrugs somewhere around the end and peters out into silence. The story of Linda Lovelace is richer material than that framework seems capable of admitting. Since I don’t own a studio and can’t order a reshoot, and in all likelihood the film’s about to sail out in the universe and flop, all I can do is tell you what the Lovelace movie misses, which is just about everything.
Née Linda Boreman — and I’ll just call her Linda here, since she switched last names a couple of times — in the Bronx, her mother’s rages were the dominant theme of her childhood. She would write in one of her autobiographies that she’d been beaten since the age of four for all sorts of minor offenses, like getting the wrong nose drops at the drug store, or innocently asking for the definition of a swear word. She got pregnant out of wedlock at 19 — hardly a scandalous age — but it didn’t much ameliorate her situation at home. So when she met a man named Chuck Traynor, it looked like a shot at independence. In a not-too-shocking twist, he turned out to be a drunk and an abuser, too. Traynor, who initially denied Linda’s claims but later in life would tell a Vanity Fair interviewer he saw no real problem with hitting women, forced her to have sex for money in addition to outright ordering her to do the film, on pain of a beating or harm coming to the rest of her family. And that’s how we got the iconic figure of “Linda Lovelace,” which was a stage name adopted exclusively for the purpose of Deep Throat.
“Linda Lovelace’s” appeal rested on two theoretically opposing thoughts: one, that she was an Everywoman, the girl next door, a brunette with freckles; and two, that she was a very particular “sort” of woman, the sort who loved giving oral sex, doing porn, and so was “liberated” in a new and exciting sort of way — exciting to the men who attended Deep Throat, that is. Those might seem difficult to reconcile at first, but Madonna and whore are the two poles that define most women’s sexual lives, and oscillating between them isn’t quite as difficult a dance as you’d think. Even the likes of Andrea Dworkin have dryly observed that, “The argument between wives and whores is an old one; each one thinking that whatever she is, at least she is not the other.” Deep Throat suggested that within every Madonna is a whore and, well, the press went wild for it. Most of the press. Nora Ephron, for one, hated the film, writing for Esquire that it was “one of the most unpleasant, disturbing films I have ever seen — it is not just anti-female but anti-sexual as well.” She was embarrassed to be so doctrinaire about it, she said, but she went on:
There is a scene in Deep Throat, for example, where a man inserts a hollow glass dildo inside Miss Lovelace, fills it with Coca-Cola, and drinks it with a surgical straw — the audience was bursting with nervous laughter, while I sat through it literally faint. All I could think about was what would happen if the glass broke… “Demeaning to women,” I wailed as we walked away from the theatre. “Degrading to women.”… The men I was with pretended they did not know me, and then, when I persisted in addressing my mutterings to them, they assured me that I was overreacting, that it was just a movie and that they hadn’t even been turned on by it. But I refused to calm down. “Look, Nora,” said one of them, playing what I suppose he thought was his trump card by appealing to my sense of humor, “there’s one thing you have to admit. The scene with the Coca-Cola was hilarious.”
It says a lot about this version of Lovelace that the Coke bottle bit is never mentioned — as it rarely is, in pieces about Deep Throat overall. The Coke bottle is darker, more ambiguous, than what everyone seems to agree was the “hilarious” clitoris-in-the-throat conceit. And Amanda Seyfried’s Linda, in an effort to create that Rashomon effect, seems positively enthusiastic about doing the actual work, even if she’s suffering offstage.
Which is a shame, because ambivalence about what had happened to her, and the way other people used and profited from it, seemed to define her life after she escaped from Traynor’s chokehold. Lovelace simply has her move straight into book mode, then drops the curtain, but the story was more complicated than that. According to an unpublished dissertation on Linda’s life by Nancy Leigh Semin, the book was a sort of consolation prize. A lawyer she’d consulted about suing Traynor told her she had no cause of action because the statute of limitations on sexual abuse had run out. One thing she could do, he counseled her, was reclaim her story by writing a book. So he helped her arrange to work with a journalist named Mike McGrady on an autobiography.
In a preview of what was to come, McGrady didn’t believe Linda’s story at first, either. But when she told him where to look for bruises in the frames of Deep Throat, he could see them. So he agreed to help her write the book, and was instrumental in getting it published by a low-end publisher he’d worked with in the past — the same house that had published both The Anarchist Cookbook and the Turner Diaries. Which explains why, in an unconventional move, the publisher also asked Linda to participate in a polygraph, which she passed with flying colors.
A lot of McGrady’s colleagues said he’d been “taken for a ride.” But the book, Ordeal, was a bestseller.
As they were working on it, Linda happened to catch an episode of Donahue that had Susan Brownmiller as a guest. Brownmiller was the author of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape and was a founding member of a new anti-pornography group, which she was discussing on the show. Donahue asked her about Deep Throat, wondering, “Wasn’t [Linda] having a good time?” And Brownmiller said she couldn’t believe, no, that Linda had enjoyed herself.
Linda’s ears perked up. She had McGrady contact a member of WAP to confirm she hadn’t had a good time. And when she herself appeared on Donahue to promote Ordeal, Gloria Steinem was watching. Horrified by the way Donahue and his audience seemed to believe Linda was lying, she called McGrady, and then met with Linda herself. And then she wrote a piece for Ms. entitled, “Tell Me, Linda, What in Your Background Led You to a Concentration Camp?” People who’d worked with Linda and looked up to her were horrified; one referred to her, consistently, as a Benedict Arnold. But Linda had found a defender, and evidently she intended to cling to her.
From there things moved very quickly. Lovelace began speaking around the country at events for “Women Against Pornography,” the group Steinem and Brownmiller belonged to. She appeared on TV shows with Steinem, declaring that, “Everyone going to see Deep Throat is watching me being raped.” She appeared at protests of the screening of the film. She testified in favor of a Minneapolis ordinance, proposed by Dworkin and MacKinnon, which would have created a basis for women exploited by pornography to sue pornographers. Opponents claimed that the ordinance violated the First Amendment, and journalists always being interested in the protective of that prime directive, the ordinance effort became a kind of media circus. “The fact that this film is being shown and that my children will one day walk down the street and see their mother being abused,” Linda testified, “it makes me angry, makes me sad.” But the ordinance was eventually struck down as being too broad. And the anti-pornography movement sank under the accusations that it was pro-censorship. So Linda, again, was without a cause.
Dworkin and MacKinnon remained close friends with Linda; the relationship with Steinem, apparently, was more fraught but still friendly. But she was disappointed that the effort had not succeeded in killing Deep Throat; the 17 days in the industry still trailed behind her. She developed health problems due to silicone leaks in her breasts from the injections a quack doctor had given her. She needed and received a liver transplant. And gradually, she became a drunk. Her marriage unravelled. She continued to give a few anti-pornography speeches at colleges, but privately she was a mess. She used meth and weed. She ran through a string of jobs. So desperate was she for money at one point that she posed for a fetish magazine called Leg Show, and attended memorabilia shows that included Deep Throat. To the people in porn who offered to help her, she spoke bitterly of the feminists she felt had used her — but still kept in touch with MacKinnon and Dworkin.
And then one day she was driving home from a friend’s house when her car veered inexplicably off the road and threw her 60 feet. No one knows why she lost control of the car, though some of her friends said dialysis had made her woozy. Due to a clerical error it took two days for the hospital to get in touch with her family. Two weeks later, they turned off the life support. She was 53. A friend heard a radio jockey making oral sex jokes; obituaries focused mainly on the cultural impact of Deep Throat rather than the toll it took on Linda itself. Which perhaps explains why Linda’s family still speaks so bitterly about the entire affair. In a 2005 documentary about Deep Throat, her sister Barbara said she was sad Chuck Traynor had died before she’d had a chance to get to him herself.
I wonder what she thinks of Lovelace, which effectively perpetuates the same old flat story. You aren’t left with any questions about whether Linda was really brutalized, of course. You know that it was a rough ordeal for her. But there’s a lot of giggling beforehand, a lot of fairy dust wasted on figures like Hugh Hefner, and just a blank declaration of Linda’s survival without any hint of all the speed bumps that came after. There’s a better movie to be made here, one that doesn’t think there are easy answers about either porn or about survival. I look forward, one day, to watching it.