04.25.12

Linda Lovelace and ‘Deep Throat’s’ 40-Year Legacy

The iconic porn movie Deep Throat’s 40th anniversary is in June—Tracy Quan looks at why we still remember its star and her melodramatic life.

As Deep Throat turns 40 in June, its star, Linda Lovelace, is still on our minds. There’s been a surfeit of buzz surrounding Lovelace, a yet-to-be-released biopic featuring Amanda Seyfried as the porn actress and Peter Sarsgaard as her awful-sounding manager-husband Chuck Traynor.

Lovelace had a talent for popularizing sexual attitudes and for being at the center of the storm when change was occurring. Never a deliberate trendsetter, she nonetheless had an impact on what became normal in our bedrooms. She’s also one of the most misunderstood icons of the 1970s.

She Was the World’s First Porn Star

Linda Lovelace, who unwittingly shaped the way we make, consume, and think about porn was no obvious star. Her publicity shots from the ‘70s radiate fragility rather than charisma.

While paving the way for later stars like Annie Sprinkle, who told me recently, “I got into porn because I was inspired by Linda Lovelace,” and hard-bodied performers like Jenna Jameson, she had little in common with her flamboyant successors. At her peak, with a pretty smile, pleasant face, and a cute girlish body, porn’s first superstar had more in common with amateur porn models of the ‘90s.

Lovelace Unwittingly Fell Into a Revolution About Porn

Sprinkle’s first job in porn was selling popcorn at the Cine Plaza theater in Tucson where Deep Throat was playing. “The Cine Plaza was busted for interstate transportation and the manager went to jail for awhile because he had picked up the film at the airport,” she recalled. “I had to be a witness during the trial because I worked there. So my first experience with porn is very political. That’s how I got in at the age of 18. It was an important case that eventually opened a doorway to the golden era of porn, decriminalizing it.”

Porn was still highly illegal in 1972. ‘I can’t keep track of all the trials, there were so many,” Sprinkle said. “Nobody would dare say they were shooting a porn movie. If asked, ‘What are you filming?’ the standard line was, ‘It’s a student film.’ You couldn’t say, ‘We’re making an X-rated film.’ You were a totally rebellious revolutionary person!”

The industry changed quite a lot, as did porn’s relationship to everyone else, including The New York Times, that great arbiter of respectability. Believe it or not, The Times ran print ads for Deep Throat in 1972. While watching the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat on my laptop, I caught a glimpse of the legendary Times ad and kept rewinding to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

The World’s First Porn Star Also Turned Into Its First Antiporn Star

Lovelace famously told the Meese Commission in 1986 that every time someone watches Deep Throat, “they’re watching me being raped.” It’s a statement that runs counter to what I see in the movie. The genial dialogue between Lovelace and her costar, Harry Reems, is like a vaudeville routine. (He plays a doctor searching for her clitoris and finding it guess where.) Deep Throat has a funny, provocative plot and a theme song evoking both Mickey Mouse and Mr. Rogers. Gonzo porn this is not.

Reinventing herself as a miserablist icon for ‘80s feminists such as Catherine MacKinnon, Lovelace made Deep Throat newly relevant. If not for antiporn feminism’s hostile gaze, it might have been remembered primarily for its quaintness. Instead, Lovelace’s persona evolved into something complex and troubled, creating a more disturbing legacy and, ultimately, Hollywood interest.

Sprinkle recalled that “people hated Linda for turning against porn. They felt she had done a lot of damage.” Lovelace became a living rebuke to liberal feminists, civil libertarians, and the entire porn industry. Though many have come to think of porn and prostitution as distinctly separate, Lovelace claimed she had been forced into both by her husband. For better or worse, the prototypical porn star became America’s first antiporn star.

Melissa Ditmore, editor of The Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, met Lovelace in 2001. “Linda’s the first celebrity trafficking victim I know of in the 20th century,” Ditmore said, “and she explained that she felt similarly taken advantage of, first by her husband and later by feminists who included her as part of a dog-and-pony show.”

To understand what was really going on, you might have to read Ordeal, Lovelace’s bestselling 1980 memoir. “There she described domestic violence rather than violence on the porn set,” Ditmore said, “but the public has been left with the impression that these two things are the same.”

Eric Danville, author of The Complete Linda Lovelace, and a technical adviser on the Amanda Seyfried film, once asked Lovelace: “Why did you join up with feminists trying to ban porn instead of feminists trying to fight domestic abuse?” Lovelace’s response? “The people fighting domestic abuse never approached me. Catherine [MacKinnon] was the first person to really approach me” says much about how she led her life. Dance with the one that brought you.

Music Loves Linda Lovelace

"What fascinates me about Linda,” Danville told me, “aside from the sexual acrobatics, is how much she permeated American pop culture.” In the ‘70s, Lovelace introduced Led Zeppelin and Elton John at live concerts, was invited to the Oscars and attended the Ascot races. She was the first  to do these things as a hardcore porn star.

Danville is currently producing his 2001 interview with Lovelace on 12-inch vinyl. A Penthouse editor who once worked for Al Goldstein’s SCREW weekly, Danville has cataloged “at least 25 songs” mentioning Linda Lovelace. In 1974, Canadian folk singer Murray McLauchlin issued a 45 single, “Linda Won't You Take Me In.”

“Four decades later, heavy-metal bands are still writing songs about her. It’s amazing how much crossover she’s had and how long it’s lasted,” Danville said, citing Chainsaw’s 2010 release “Ancient Evil, The Ballad of Linda Lovelace” and the recent rock opera Lovelace by Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey. Lovelace pops up in punk rock and country, in a neo-dada composition by Big Block 454, and gets name checked in the Elton John/George Michael duet “Wrap Her Up” (along with Nancy Reagan and Julie Andrews.)` Legendary jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson has been known to insert the endearing words, “Linda Lovelace thinks I’m obscene,” when performing that Tinpan Alley standard, “I Can’t Get Started.” Danville doesn’t sugarcoat musical history, though. He was quick to note that Deep Throat’s own hokey soundtrack created a regrettable template for future generations of porn.

Lovelace’s Persona Foreshadowed the Celebrity Culture of Today

Fenton Bailey, codirector with Randy Barbato of the documentary Inside Deep Throat, sees, in Lovelace’s relationship to pop culture, the seeds of reality TV. Deep Throat “introducing Linda Lovelace as herself” was a harbinger of manufactured reality, he said. Her melodramatic story, her rise and fall, these are the plots we now consume daily.

And then there’s the porn medium itself. “Throughout the history of civilization,” Bailey said, “the crucial role of pornography is to be a midwife of new emerging media. It represents the killer application. Far from being marginal,” he added, “pornography’s a vital civilizing force.”

Lovelace Never Stopped Reinventing Herself

Lovelace, who died in 2002, was canny, ambivalent, or just plain sentimental about her fame. She was struggling financially when she met Danville, who showed her how to market her past. “She made ten grand in three days at a movie-memorabilia fair,” Danville recalled.

Dian Hanson, now running Taschen’s Sexy Books imprint, is the editor who negotiated Lovelace’s comeback photo shoot for the fetish magazine Leg Show in 2000: “Eric [Danville] said she would never do it, but Leg Show was a magazine primarily of glamorous, dominant women. Our readers were worshipful and submissive, and we got her $10,000.”

Lovelace was the highest paid model in the magazine’s history. “We had never paid a model anything like that, but my publisher, George Mavety, understood her place in history, that she had come on hard times. We spent a lot on lighting and backdrops and never made back the money, but we were happy to have done it.”

The shoot itself was a challenge for Hanson. “Linda had physical problems I’d never encountered dressing a model. She not only had scars from her liver transplant and her car accident, she had silicone nodules which clung to her pectoral muscles, and she was very thin. Her legs were rather a nice shape, but she had severe varicose veins, and we were a magazine concerned with the leg and foot.”

Hanson obtained thick surgical tights, something Lovelace couldn’t then afford. “This allowed blood to stop pooling in her ankles, so they didn’t just look good, they actually made her feel better when we put them on her. I got on one side and the makeup artist got on the other. On top of the hose, we added stockings to give it a more complex and shiny effect.”

On the January 2001 cover of Leg Show, Lovelace looks radiant, almost ethereal, like a superhero. “Of course I didn’t talk about this while she was alive,” Hanson said. “We had her in a corset. I took film canisters and, essentially, rolled each breast around the canister, then fit them into the cup of the corset. That gave a nice natural look.”

Hanson was determined that Lovelace’s pictures wouldn’t in any way portray “the sad life she was living, as a cleaning lady without the money to take care of her medical problems. That’s what I promised her: ‘I’m going to make you look beautiful.’” She also received extra pairs of surgical tights to take home and was able, said Hanson, to stop cleaning offices for a living after she posed for Leg Show.

Lovelace, Domestic Violence, and Feminism

Was Linda really Chuck Traynor’s hostage? That’s what some feminists believe. To get at the truth, we need to understand Lovelace as a woman of her time, not a victim stereotype from exotic porno land.

“Linda had bruises on her,” Annie Sprinkle told me, “but Chuck was her husband. In those days you didn’t meddle.”

Even in the rebellious revolutionary porn scene of 1972, some conventions were that pervasive. In many ways, the ‘70s were still the dark ages. For one thing, rape within marriage had yet to be recognized in the U.S. It was still assumed in jurisdictions throughout mainstream America, that a husband was entitled to vaginal intercourse with or without his wife’s consent. That really was the legal nature of marriage then.

Sprinkle insists that Gerard Damiano, the creator of Deep Throat “was a darling man who gets a bad rap because of [Linda’s memoir] Ordeal. The antiporn feminists were egging her on,” she added. “Really, it was her husband abusing her, not Damiano. He would send Chuck Traynor out on errands to get him away from the set. Damiano was treating her like a star and he was as protective as he could be, with that domestic situation going on.”

According to Inside Deep Throat, Lovelace was attracted to Harry Reems, and when Traynor was sent on errands, it was because people didn’t want to deal with his jealousy. In other words, Traynor, now dead, wasn’t very liberated. It’s rather childish to encourage—perhaps even force—your woman to have sex with others while expecting her never to enjoy it.

In 1972, hooking up with a pimp looked like a groovy countercultural move, and it’s easy to imagine that a younger Lovelace—when she was Linda Boreman of Yonkers, N.Y.—felt that way. In reality, a pimp may be as uptight, jealous, and, indeed, puritanical as any other man. When this happens, watch out.

Through feminism, Lovelace sought ways to politicize her traumatic relationship with a violent man. Over time it became clear that there’s no political solution for a problem that is fundamentally personal. It’s a lesson women continue to learn, as we come to terms with the allure of feminism, and its limitations.