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May 12, 2006 | Comments ()


Skimming the Surface of a Fascinating Story

Inside Deep Throat / Jeremy C. Fox

Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()


Directing/producing/writing team Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have made their careers examining outre and often-ignored figures who live on or sometimes past the fringes of acceptable society, from the erstwhile televangelist of The Eyes of Tammy Faye to murderous club kid Michael Alig in Party Monster (which they made twice, as a 1998 documentary and a 2003 drama). With sexuality a recurrent theme in their works (101 Rent Boys, Monica [Lewinsky] in Black and White, Hidden Fuhrer: Debating the Enigma of Hitler’s Sexuality), it comes as no surprise that producer Brian Grazer tapped them to explore one of the signal moments in America’s long struggle with its own libido; it’s not exactly a project he could turn over to his most frequent filmmaking partner, Ron Howard.

Deep Throat opened in Times Square (then in its salad days of porn and prostitution) in June 1972 and went on to become the most financially successful film of all time, grossing $6 million against a reported budget of $25,000. Along the way, it became the first pornographic film to capture the attention of the general public, attracting suburban mothers, society figures, and celebrities along with the dirty trenchcoat crowd, and bringing the subject of fellatio to America’s dinner tables and rumpus rooms. It made a household name of its star, Linda Lovelace (nee Boreman) and paved the way for the mainstreaming of other pornographic films such as Behind the Green Door and The Devil in Miss Jones. Its unprecedented success was driven by the publicity from its many legal battles; after being declared obscene by a New York City court, Deep Throat went on to be banned in 23 states, and one of its stars, Harry Reems, to be convicted of obscenity in federal court — a conviction that was later overturned.

Inside Deep Throat gives Reems the opportunity to tell his story, and does the same for his attorney, Bruce Kramer; Deep Throat director Gerard Damiano, location manager Lenny Carp, and co-star “the Swinging Count;” theater managers Herb Karsher and Arthur Sommer; mob functionaries Peter “the Candyman” Manouse and Ray “the Ringman” Shipley; the sister and a high-school friend of Linda Lovelace (who died in 2002); fellow ’70s porn stars Georgina Spelvin (The Devil in Miss Jones), Ron Wertheim, and Andrea True (Deep Throat Part II, later a disco diva), New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal; Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein (who, with his partner Bob Woodward, named their secret Watergate source “Deep Throat”); Xaviera Hollander (author of The Happy Hooker); Linda Williams (author of Hard Core); Susan Brownmiller (co-founder of Women Against Pornography); Prosecutors William Purcell and Larry Parrish; former FBI agent Bill Kelly; former NYPD officers Gorman and Sullivan; dirty-magazine publishers Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, and Al Goldstein; filmmakers John Waters, Wes Craven, Tony Bill, and Peter Bart; and other talking heads, including, but not limited to, Erica Jong, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Dick Cavett, Camille Paglia, Bill Maher, Norman Mailer, Alan Dershowitz, Gore Vidal, Helen Gurley Brown, and Annie Sprinkle.

In short, Bailey and Barbato seem to have interviewed virtually every person who was alive in 1972 and had an opinion on Deep Throat, not to mention their liberal use of hard-core scenes, period interviews, news stories, and courtroom footage. What emerges is a film that’s as shallow as it is broad — a picture of a time and place in our cultural and sexual history, the ongoing evolution of an industry and the political movement seeking to shut it down, and the dissolution (and sometimes rebuilding) of several lives. Any one of the filmmaker’s focuses could easily have filled out a feature; by trying to cram them all in, they ensure that a thorough examination of any is impossible. Though they’ve gathered together a provocative selection of porn-industry insiders and insightful, witty social critics, none of them is given enough time to deliver on what they promise. The dozens of commentators are edited down to brief sound bites, making their major points and getting frequent laughs but lacking the time to explore any particular issue at length. A greater deficit is that, having assembled voices from such disparate points of view, Bailey and Barbato don’t do enough to contrast their accounts, giving us an opportunity to examine discrepancies of memory or interpretation.

To be sure, there’s much here that’s fascinating. The commentators are a colorful bunch, and their stories about the film, however brief, do offer illumination. Almost everyone directly involved in the making of Deep Throat seems convinced that everyone else involved was incompetent — particularly Lenny Carp, who hasn’t a kind word for anyone but has plenty of vivid ways of expressing his contempt. Harry Reems also develops into a fascinating character: In archive footage he gets unintended laughs as he defends his position as an “artist,” but he’s surprisingly adept at debating no less than Roy Cohn, the famous Communist-baiting attorney and sexual hypocrite. In a recent interview, he’s shockingly bourgeois, a born-again Christian and successful real-estate broker, recounting his spiral into drug and alcohol abuse, a situation that eventually found him literally panhandling on Sunset Boulevard.

Though already over when work on the project began, the life of Linda Lovelace is also examined touchingly. A na├»ve girl from Long Island with dreams of being a flight attendant or opening a dress boutique, Linda was introduced to pornography through her controlling first husband, Chuck Traynor, who recommended her to director Gerard Damiano as a girl who “gives head very well.” Damiano structured Deep Throat around her gifts, and the film catapulted her into tremendous fame, unfortunately fame of the variety that was, at least then, virtually useless (today she’d likely be appearing in Versace ads with Paris Hilton). After Deep Throat, she worked in only a few other blue movies, posed for Playboy, and tried unsuccessfully to turn her notoriety into a legitimate career. She later publicly renounced her years in porn, insisting that Traynor had physically abused and bullied her into performing. She published a memoir of her experiences, Ordeal, and allied herself with feminist anti-porn crusaders such as Susan Brownmiller and Gloria Steinem, going on to testify before the Meese Commission on the dangers of pornography.

The individual stories have great interest, as does the film’s examination of the sexual revolution and eventual feminist reaction against the treatment of women in hardcore. Somewhere in Bailey and Barbato’s archives, they have the makings of a very good two-and-a-half hour film that addresses the myriad issues, or perhaps a few 90-minute features on different aspects of Deep Throat’s impact. The film they’ve released, though, only skims the fascinating surface.

Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.

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