Deep Throat was a monumental success story. Estimates have it making anywhere from $6 million to more than $600 million, depending on who’s counting. Yet Linda Lovelace, the adult film’s legendary lead, was paid a mere $1,250. Even at the least absurd fraction of the final haul, her share sounds about right to me. In some ways, times haven’t changed all that much, with performers in porn still earning one flat scene rate no matter a film’s gross revenue.
What has changed dramatically since the Lovelace era is how the world of porn is run. Today it’s less of the distraught social playground Lovelace entered and more of the legitimate business it always should have been, complete with licensed agents and medical-testing protocols. Though the adult industry itself is not abusive, there certainly are abusers within the industry—something the onetime Linda Boreman found early on.
Seeing Lovelace, the biopic that’s opening in theaters Friday, brought back a flood of memories from my early days in adult: the story of a “good girl” seeking affection, embarrassed by compliments, and, ultimately, afraid to shed her clothes but willing to do so in order to please. To this day, there are some men in porn that prey on fresh, young meat, using a naive new girl like she’s a piece of real estate to be owned. I know several girls, myself included, who have lived to tell the tale of the male porno parasitic host. Yet few of the tales I know are as tragic or dark as that of Linda Lovelace.
Lovelace illustrates well the rise to porn stardom, from the insecurities that get you in the door to the excitement that keeps you moving deeper into the house of sin. It’s no surprise that this modest Linda Boreman (played by Amanda Seyfried) fell for the wrong guy. Brought up in a strict, conservative household by a fiercely Catholic mother (here, a barely recognizable Sharon Stone) and forced to give up her illegitimate baby, Boreman was looking for a way out. When it came in the form of Chuck Traynor, a fast-talking businessman showering her with compliments, she took it. From one controlling relationship to another, Linda slipped into something she felt comfortable with.
While Lovelace gets many things right, it is the title character herself who seems to be severely underscripted. Though the movie paints Linda as a simple victim most of the time, the real-life Linda was far more complex and could have benefited from a more sophisticated telling. Thankfully, Seyfried’s nuanced portrayal of Linda makes up for some of the complexities the script lacked. Peter Sarsgaard does a commendable job playing up the nauseating aspects of Traynor, who, in his own sick way, might have cared for Linda. He took the barefaced girl under his wing, taught her new tricks—and then exploited her trust in him.
The ingenuity of Lovelace was to show the distinction between two realities, both potentially true. Linda’s tenebrous tale isn’t fully revealed until we see her take a polygraph test six years later, when the film takes us back to some of the same moments we’ve already seen, but from a dour perspective. Ironic how she paved the way for the sexual revolution while trapped in it.
“You made me beautiful” is not just a line uttered by Seyfried’s character, but something I’ve heard and said myself numerous times on set. Rarely do girls in porn give themselves any credit for being beautiful. It’s because of someone else’s tireless work—the makeup artist, the director, or the photographer’s artistic tinkering. Someone else deserves the credit. As one of the porn producers says to Traynor in the film, “You own the product.” Perhaps it’s the lack of self-worth that tricks some girls down the rabbit hole into believing they’re nothing more than a marketable product.
While I enjoyed this telling of the Lovelace story and its stellar performances, any number of documentaries or news reports will turn up a more layered image of Linda Boreman’s dark journey than this Hollywood version. Even so, there are some truths in this film—and when they hit, they hit hard.