Film, Reviews

What are we watching here?: Pleasure and pain in Lovelace

by S.A. Jones , November 6, 20134 Comments

Lovelace is about two alternative narratives of the same event: the production and aftermath of Deep Throat. Deep Throat is such a pop culture staple it needs little introduction. However, if you have been marooned on an island and would miss the joke if I described the film as ‘seminal’, here’s a primer: Deep Throat was the first porn film to go mainstream. Released in 1972, it became wildly popular in the United States and abroad. Its central conceit was that the star, Linda Lovelace, had a clitoris in her throat making fellatio wildly pleasurable for her and her partners. With this and other gags, Deep Throat simultaneously celebrated and poked fun at male sexual fantasies. It had a breeziness and high production values not previously seen in porn.

It also had ‘Linda Lovelace’, then Linda Traynor, later Linda Marchiano, as its star. Linda was, as the film describes it, ‘the poster girl for the sexual revolution’. Freckle-faced and with a wholesomeness that belied the porn stereotype, Lovelace became a major celebrity. In her interviews and first two autobiographies she celebrated uninhibited sexuality, representing herself as a free spirit who’d thrown off the shackles of her small-town, Catholic upbringing. This is one of the stories the film Lovelace tells.

The other story, the one occurring off-camera, is much darker. Eight years after Deep Throat was released Linda Marchiano (sensitively played by Amanda Seyfried) released Ordeal, followed some time later by Out of Bondage. She alleged that Chuck Traynor, her husband at the time Deep Throat was produced, coerced her into making the film through constant threat of violence. Traynor, played by Peter Sarsgaard, forcibly prostitutes, repeatedly beats and routinely degrades Linda. According to Marchiano, she made several attempts to flee her husband and abuser, finally succeeding on her fourth attempt.  When I first encountered Marchiano while researching my PhD into obscenity law and power, I came across a detail that has never left me: Marchiano had to wear surgical stockings every day  for the rest of her life as a result of the physical and sexual abuse she’d endured.

Later, when she became an anti-pornography campaigner, Marchiano stated that ‘every time someone watches that film [Deep Throat], they are watching me being raped’. It was a statement that echoed the feminist catchcry that ‘porn is the theory, rape is the practice’.

This alternative, harrowing narrative is at the heart of Lovelace. What is the viewer really watching when they view Deep Throat? Light-hearted, pleasurable fun or visual evidence of terrible abuse? How should we, as viewers, respond?

The film, by documentary makers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is sympathetic to Marchiano’s version of events. Traynor (who was never successfully prosecuted by Marchiano) is different only in shades of repugnance in both ‘versions’.  In the first he’s a garden variety sleaze bag and in the second a manipulative and violent man driven by the need to control and exploit. Traynor later went on to marry porn star Marilyn Chambers, who featured in another successful mainstream porn film, Behind the Green Door.

Yet Lovelace isn’t a reductive tale of ‘porn=bad’. By Marchiano’s own account, she and her male co-star Harry Reems got along well and she was not subject to threats or intimidation by anyone involved in the making of the film. In the version Lovelace tells, it is financial investor Anthony Romano (played by Chris Noth) who finally gives Linda sanctuary, and gives Traynor a long-overdue taste of his own medicine. The fact that her on-set experiences were largely positive was blithely over-looked by the anti-porn feminist movement which gave Marchiano her second outing as a poster girl. As Petra Boynton told The Guardian, this strand of feminism packaged Marchiano’s story as being about porn, which ‘conveniently overlooked the fact that Linda’s testimony was one of a battered wife, not a critique of the sex industry. Linda was encouraged to campaign against porn, but most of her problems were to do with an abusive partner’.

Generation X feminists who came of age in the cross-fire between the pro-sex feminists (Carol Vance, Lynne Segal, Nadine Strossen, Catherine Lumby) and the anti-porn feminists (Andrea Dworkin, Catherine McKinnon, Catherine Itzin, Diana E.H. Russell) will find much that resonates in this film. It is compelling, albeit disturbing, viewing.

S.A. Jones holds a PhD in History and is the author of the novel Red Dress Walking. She was recently named one of Australia’s one hundred women of influence. Her new novel, Isabelle of the Moon and Stars, is due for release in 2014.

Her essay ‘Smut Detective: Pornography, the Historian and the Law appears in Issue 11 of Kill Your Darlings.

  • Michelle Heeter

    Really enjoyed this review & its discussion of porn and feminism.

  • Annabel Smith

    A fascinating background to what sounds like a very disturbing story.

  • Dion Kagan

    Thanks for this S A Jones. I was erring toward giving this a miss due to Lovelace / sex wars teaching fatigue, but it sounds like a rather nuanced film, especially on the anti-porn v sex positive feminist front.

  • James Sherwood

    Very interesting. A clitoris in her throat? So the film demonstrates how porn distorts and subjugates the female form to suit male sexual desire and facitate male sexual preferences. I would think Feminists would want to burn it. I guess a lampooning female version might go something like: a mad female scientist develops a virus that infects males and makes them experience sexual pleasure while doing housework.


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