Review: Lovelace ("Angel" in a Centerfold)

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Fame isn’t free and the toll it takes is a subject entirely elided by Lovelace, a biopic about America’s first (and perhaps only) porn super star, Linda Lovelace. In the early 70s she became a household name by starring in Deep Throat, which unlike most porn films developed a mainstream reputation, eventually luring audiences so famous their patronage was newsworthy; paparazzi caught Jackie O buying her ticket concealed with a scarf. It was a unique historical phenomenon, basically unrepeatable, and one that’s been expounded upon in plays, musicals and documentaries, but Lovelace sidesteps the legacy of Deep Throat (the Memphis smut trial, the “sequels”) to look at the star as she might have wanted to be seen—a victim and martyr, a good woman in a bad marriage, an ingénue corrupted. For this, Amanda Seyfried is uniquely qualified.

Lovelace is operatic and heartbreaking, told in two parts: Linda’s transformation from Linda Boreman to Linda Lovelace (1970-1974) and the same story informed by her third memoir “Ordeal,” in which she (now Linda Marciano) reveals the cruelties of her first marriage, the forced prostitution, the beatings, and finally denounces the porn industry entirely. This is the Odessa Steps moment of Lovelace, the point the script chooses to stop the history and preserve a happy ending. If they’d gone further they’d have to deal with Marciano’s involvement with the Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, from which she finally distanced herself and then shot a centerfold with porn mag Leg Show. Lovelace the movie is fascinating and touching, a real conversation starter, a grandiose biopic; Lovelace the woman is a muddle of conflicts and motivations the film about her does not confront—what it does instead is give her story two versions—let’s say it gently critiques.

Seyfried’s Lovelace is wide eyed and suffering, and her violent hubby Chuck Traynor is a slippery Peter Sarsgaard. Robert Patrick is Lovelace’s dad, leaving frame in time for his wife (Sharon Stone) to lower the unyielding boom on their daughter like hard knocks is a game made for women. It’s ironic casting but Stone is impeccable—literally making the T-1000 look like a teddy bear. Cameos are Oscar-grade showstoppers amidst a parade of knowing performances: Wes Bentley (American Beauty) gets Linda to come out of her shell in the Deep Throat poster. James Franco as a solicitous Hugh Heffner is its own referential reward.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedberg apply soap-opera grade concealer to their many-layered subject, which isn’t as uncharacteristic as you might think. Their most recognizable projects have been documentaries about LGBT crusaders like Harvey Milk and Vito Russo, but those docs weren’t invasive or critical, rather they looked broadly on the accomplishments of their subjects with gentle nods towards the events that altered their agendas. Linda Lovelace, however, was not a crusader, and to characterize her as if her motivations were clear may be impossible. What Epstein/Friedberg carry from doc to fiction is an interest in the way sexuality informs our identities and relationship dynamics, here showing most interest in Lovelace’s misplaced legacy. Conscientious and often lionizing they direct Seyfried like a kind of twisted Madonna; the moment that seals Lovelace’s fame/infamy (one auspicious blow job on camera) is directed to titillate and deify, because, of course she was gifted. You don’t get famous for nothing.

There’s a condition named after Lovelace, “The Linda Syndrome,” describing actresses who leave porn and become detractors. The subtext of rejection and shame is louder than words. Lovelace’s drama saw plenty of publicity when it was sexy and again when it wasn’t. She was the face of sexual liberation while she was a battered and exploited wife, and there’s more to her story than what’s on this screen, but this isn’t the last we’ll see of Lovelace in theaters. And as Sharon Stone can testify, everyone deserves a second act.*

*Thank you, Dennis Willis, for the conversation that yielded this conclusion.

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