Hard to Swallow: Lovelace Tries to Beatify the First Porn Superstar

I saw Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s biopic Lovelace about a month ago, and I still haven't figured out its purpose. We don't really need another retelling of Linda Lovelace’s story, especially one like this: bereft of nuance and determined to make a one-dimensional victim out of a woman who was fascinating, complex, contradictory, and revolutionary.

Not only does Lovelace simplify a strong and complicated woman’s story into a trite cause-and-effect cautionary tale (turning her into a naïf taken advantage of by her husband Chuck Traynor, brutally abused, and forced into pornography), it resigns itself to rote replication of the events as we know them—and as they were later revised. And the fact is, almost all existing literature about the film’s central figure—porn-star-turned-anti-porn-crusader-turned-Leg Show-model—has more depth than what Epstein and Friedman offer: World of Wonder’s 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat, a British documentary called The Real Linda Lovelace, Lovelace’s own writing (including her 1980 memoir Ordeal)—even her E! True Hollywood Story.

Roughly the first half of the movie details the road to and filming of Deep Throat, the landmark 1972 porno that made Lovelace a star and deep fellatio a standard practice. (Really, the most mind-blowing part of Lovelace is the notion that deep-throating was once widely regarded as something exotic and rare.)

Then Lovelace shifts into a second half that just repeats much of what we've already watched— only expanded and deepened by showing the abuse visited on Lovelace by Traynor during the filming. Unfortunately, it's sloppily done: An on-screen graphic tells us “Six years later,” and we're taken to Lovelace undergoing a polygraph in advance of writing her memoir; less than a minute later, the film flashes back to six years earlier. The film continues time-jumping throughout for the rest of its duration, and the herky-jerky structure of its second half is about as smooth as bumper-to-bumper traffic.

There are strong performances from Amanda Seyfried as Lovelace, Peter Sarsgaard as Traynor, and, especially, a vanity-free Sharon Stone as Lovelace’s Puritanical mother—a sly bit of casting, considering Stone's ascent to softcore superstardom in Basic Instinct. But they're all playing archetypes, and whatever life they bring to their roles is undone by the film’s selective relationship with facts, and its blinkered single-mindedness in presenting Lovelace as a saint.

Maybe the pre-emptive beatification is an over-compensatory response to the sadly regular disbelief faced by women who report abuse. Sex workers are so routinely disparaged and ridiculed that it's sort of refreshing to see a portrayal swing so far to the other side as to be overly sympathetic.

And yet. In this clip from The Real Linda Lovelace, Gloria Steinem contextualizes Lovelace’s claims:

We have to think about why it is that we doubt stories of sexual hostage-taking, or slavery, or coercion when we believe the others. And I think it’s a kind of version of a rape victim. You know, I mean, five years ago, we said to rape victims, "Oh, you enjoyed it, you wanted it, you asked for it." And now we’re saying the same things to women who are forced into prostitution or into pornography.

I don't mean to dispute the allegation that Traynor abused Lovelace—he was a shitty guy by most accounts. But Lovelace is not a reliable narrator, and the particulars of their relationship are murky.

Ordeal, written in desperate financial circumstances (a fact she spells out in the book itself: “I hope this book brings us some money”), is riddled with inconsistencies. She tells people that she thought Traynor was “insane,” but believed every word he said. She writes about undergoing hypnotism and waking up a few minutes later “fully refreshed."

Then there are moments in Ordeal that are flat-out unbelievable:

“Mom, Chuck has beaten me bloody,” I began. “He has held a gun to my head and made me do awful things. He has forced me to have sex with women and other men. And now he is talking about making me have sex with animals. He has made me pose for dirty pictures and he is turning me into a prostitute. He is always threatening to kill me. He has even threatened to kill you and Daddy.”

“But, Linda, he’s your husband.”

There are infuriating condemnations from someone who has no right to judge: “People who are into promiscuity—I’m sorry to say—have a problem.”

There is casual racism:

Lou listened for a few more minutes, then cupped his hand over the telephone mouthpiece and whispered over to me.

“Hey, would you fuck a nigger?”

I shook my head no but even as I was doing that, Chuck overruled me.

“Sure she would,” he said.

There is casual homophobia—on the script of Laurie, a proposed R-rated film by the makers of the original Emmanuelle, Lovelace recalled: “It had me masturbating with camera lenses. Being with fags. Being with lesbians. Yecccccchhhhhhh!”

Lovelace was in full anti-porn mode at that point, and yet includes in the memoir countless vivid and profane depictions of sex acts. Here she waffles:

This is still difficult for me to talk about, and I apologize in advance for it, but I don’t know a more polite way to put it: I found it easier to suck a man’s cock than to let him put his thing inside of me.

That's a chaste example. There's also, among other stories, a multi-paragraph description of a live show in which a woman has sex with a male donkey—a show that Lovelace never attended or participated in herself, but that was described to her by Traynor as prospective work. There's no reason to include the vivid (second-hand) details of bestiality other than prurient titillation—the kind Lovelace claimed to be opposed to at the time. Ordeal, a pornographic anti-pornography story, reminds me of revenge horror like I Spit on Your Grave, which demands you sit through prolonged, sexually explicit degradation of its heroine in order to watch her supposed feminist rebirth through vengeance—both sides can attract vastly different audiences united in voraciousness.

(For contrast, read Traci Lords’ memoir, Underneath It All, which condemns and apologizes for its author’s bygone porn days while essentially glossing over them in two chapters, refusing to rehash the titillation.)

All of this is too difficult and complex—and real—for the simple Lovelace. Lovelace’s later claims that she was used by the women’s movement (“I know they made a few bucks off me, just like everybody else”) are too complicated for the simple Lovelace. Lovelace’s return to smut with a 1995 spread in Leg Show is too complicated for the simple Lovelace. Lovelace refused to take agency for the work that made her an icon, always chalking it up to coercion and abuse, but the idea that she was more than a battered follower is too complicated for the simple Lovelace. That Lovelace's denouncing of porn could have been motivated by a deep sense of shame and regret is too complicated for the simple Lovelace.

Linda Lovelace’s real life, which ended in 2002 in a car accident, was so much more interesting and thought-provoking than what we see on screen. Her movie life sacrifices layers and vast motivational possibilities for a gratuitous redemption arc. Lovelace does its subject’s humanity a great disservice—it contains all of the fantasy of porn, but little of the honesty.