Skin Deep

Sarah Nicole Prickett on Lovelace

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Lovelace, 2013, color, sound, 92 minutes. Harry Reems and Linda Lovelace (Adam Brody and Amanda Seyfried).

HERE IS A WOMAN who rode liberation to the top, becoming the first porn star in America, gigantically famous, beloved by Hugh Hefner and Johnny Carson alike, a lover of Sammy Davis Jr.’s, author of two best-selling autobiographies, and later, rose with the second wave as the nation’s number-one babe against pornography, friend of Gloria Steinem, author of two more best-selling autobiographies, both utterly and believably contra the first two, and yet—nobody looks at Linda Lovelace and thinks, “Now she was smart.”

A new biopic feels unlikely to change that. Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Lovelace follows the Bronx-born Linda Susan Boreman through nine years, four last names, and a lie detector test. Leading the cast with her cow-eyed bathos is Amanda Seyfried, and even in brown contact lenses and brown wigs, each browner and uglier than the last, she is pretty the way Linda wasn’t—symmetrical, milk-skinned. Another difference: She can act. Arresting, credible, and still the best thing in Mean Girls (2004), it’s only surprising it took Seyfried, twenty-seven, this long to triumph. (Lindsay Lohan, of course, was set to star as herself/Linda Lovelace in another biopic, Matthew Wilder’s Inferno, but—like Lovelace on the set of Laure—was too drugged or not willing enough to work.)

Epstein and Friedman’s imagining is based not on any of Linda’s four memoirs, one of which (the harrowing Ordeal) was optioned ages ago by Ron Howard, but on the “only authorized biography of Linda Lovelace,” written by a guy named Eric. Her two children, Dominic and Lindsay, and her erstwhile, earnestly antipornography lawyer, Catharine MacKinnon, are all said to have cooperated on the film.

Thus Lovelace is pro-family, anti-porn-industry propaganda, and at the same time, a well-spun and sunlit biopic. There are at least two stories to every side.

The film begins with Seyfried in nothing but freckles. She’s smoking in the bathtub, so we know she’s depressed. We do not know whether at this point she’s Boreman or Traynor or Lovelace or Marchiano and it matters not, so classically cool is the image: all smoke, no steam. You can almost hear the paternal voice-over. She’s white, thin, and beautiful. So why is she so sad?

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Lovelace, 2013, color, sound, 92 minutes. Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried)

In the IRL saga of Linda Lovelace you can find a complicity of answers, one of which is that she wasn’t sad at all, but rather desperate. Where Lovelace lies is telling, so here, expurgated and with extreme reluctance, is a fact-check: She was spotted sunbathing, not go-go dancing, by Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), who was not a casually sleazy stranger but her best friend Patsy’s friend. It was Patsy (Juno Temple), not Chuck, who showed Linda the first porno she saw. When (in 1971) she ran away with Chuck, she straightaway worked in his strip bar, then made 8-mm porno “loops” (like short films, or long GIFs) and sold/was sold for sex, only after all of which she starred “as herself” in Deep Throat (1972), while in Lovelace, she seems not to have done porn or know she’s doing it till Harry Reems—played by the succulent Adam Brody—unzips. And after Deep Throat, as unseen in Lovelace, she smoked pot and got on painkillers and went around with male movie stars and was generally perceived as a carefree if drug-addicted superfreak.

As Hilton Als says of a friend in his new book, White Girls: “She was a good actress, but only in real life.”

I did not expect more biographical accuracy in Lovelace than I did otolaryngological accuracy in Deep Throat. Still, it’s strange to see scenes from the latter depicted, or repicted, more faithfully in the former than the facts or the look of Linda’s world. In the porno scenes, she wears period-apropos costumes. Offscreen, say on honeymoon with Chuck, she wears Jeffrey Campbell platforms you could find on sale right now. Her present feels suspiciously like last year’s Instagram.

Slowly, as this becomes clear, a solarization occurs. The loud, gorgeous, too-saturated colors of contemporary pornography are those of Linda’s “real” existence in Lovelace, and even when the film gets dark, the earlier scenes of happiness recapitulated alongside bonus footage of green-lit beatings, threats, guns, a choking, a bit of blood, and once a violet bruise, her abuses are filmed to look soft-core. Yes, what Chuck calls “passion” we now see as rape. We see him hold her, hostage. We see him leave a hotel room and six men enter and she screams. But little is explicit, and it’s 2013. If the directors even once let Seyfried look ugly, or showed us what she wants, we’d believe her. Since they don’t, Lovelace at its cruelest is still mostly a revision of my RedTube history. (The worst things—both the things that happened to her and the things she did herself, although who knows precisely the difference—aren’t shown, but I’ll give you one word: Dogarama.)

Linda’s Deep Throat is the inverse, shot in the happy softened hues of suburban life. Plot-wise, she smiles and slurps her way to a marriage proposal from one of the cocksucked, thus winning in porno the very happy ending that evaded her (twice) in life. But not in Lovelace. The film’s washed-out denouement has her calling Linda Lovelace “a fictitious character,” then saying, with remarried pride, “I’m Linda Marchiano.” She later re-divorced, but the film doesn’t tell you that. It stops, shy. That the movie lies doesn’t matter, but that it lies to protect her does; in Lovelace the verdict rests on the second layer of Linda’s story, played as not alternate reality but revelation, clean and total, concealing the human or animal shiftiness that in a real story lies beneath.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Lovelace, 2013, color, sound, 92 minutes. Dorothy Boreman (Sharon Stone).

In the last scene, Linda goes to see her fascistically religious mom (Sharon Stone, who should really play Candida Royalle), now in an old folks’ home. All is redeemed. They embrace. It is 1980 and with her near-last words—“I am a mother and a wife; that is where I found my joy”—Linda’s practically campaigning for Reagan.

And didn’t Reagan win? Smart thing.

Only Lovelace makes believe that Linda was dumb, that she meant everything she said and nothing she did, that she was the artless pornographer as a young girl, forever a young girl, never a woman who wanted any of this, not the sex, the porn, the orgies, the orgiastic if fast-fading fame, the conversion to feminism, which comes at the end of the film and which afterward she also renounced. And not the money! That’s the least forgivable thing in Lovelace: She never talks about wanting, hardly even needing, a cent. Which she did. She needed money when she made Deep Throat for $1250, all pocketed by the ruthless, peccant Traynor. She needed money when she made Deep Throat Part II (1974) and also when she wrote Ordeal (1980), and when she crusaded against porno she got $500 per speaking appearance but said “they made a few bucks off [her], like everybody else.” And when at fifty-two she posed in stockings, for Leg Show, she had medical bills to pay.

The directors can’t afford their girl even this basic and basest desire. Instead, they go and make her pure. It’s Chuck, always in legal trouble, who needs cash: “Do I have enough? Linda, do we have enough,” he says, and a star is born. The script reads like courtroom drama, a reenactment for the jury, in which the only character witnesses are people who knew Linda in high school. She was a nice girl. She’s quiet. She is shy and asophistic to a fault. Her single scar doesn’t pass for a flaw; she is almost no character. Seyfried’s tiny, physical sensitivity, her minutely expressive face, is all reduced to a series of close calls, so that she’s perfect in freeze-frame but nothing actually moves. What we get is only moving.

Lovelace takes the audience, too, for stupid. What’s at surface a morality play is beneath it a submission to tropes. Catholic matrophobia gives way to patriarchal bondage (except we’re supposed to believe her dad, a cop, is a good guy, as if anything could be more pro-state), while the promised liberation becomes regret unpreceded by need. The happy hooker/sad hooker dualism, already so done, meets a cheated end.

In 1972, Linda found millions of Americans willing to think any woman would believe that her clitoris was in her throat, and in 1980 she entered a world ready to accept that a woman regretted, without complexity, every sex act she’d ever committed. But this year—what gives? Must a heroine still be proven innocent? We only have to Google to find that Linda Marchiano did not keep her second husband, did not stay friends with Steinem, did not become independently wealthy, ran out of best-sellers, died in a car accident at age fifty-six, and did not get what she wanted, if only anyone would tell us what that was.

Lovelace opens in theaters and On Demand on Friday, August 9.