LOS ANGELES - The lurid celebrity and sordid aftermath of the brief career of the world's first porn star is vividly, if not explicitly, etched in "Lovelace." Given all the ways a project like this could have gone wrong, the result is surprisingly good on several fronts, beginning with a shrewd structure that fosters an intelligent dual perspective on the public and private aspects of the "Deep Throat" phenomenon. Leaving behind the overly academic approach they brought to an earlier cultural and censorship landmark in "Howl" three years ago, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have made a real movie here.
Linda Lovelace was the nom de porn bestowed upon Florida girl Linda Boreman when she starred in her one and only hardcore feature, the 1972 film that became the adult film industry's first crossover smash, launched "porno chic" and went on to gross anywhere from $100 million to $600 million on an initial expenditure of less than $50,000. Lovelace only ever collected her salary of $1,250.
Lurking behind the entire enterprise was not only the mob but, more intimately, Lovelace's husband and manager Chuck Traynor. By her own account, he threatened, beat and controlled her; kept her money; forced her into prostitution; and essentially kept her prisoner until she finally got away. Lovelace went on to write an account of her experiences entitled "Ordeal" and promoted anti-pornography and women's causes until her 2002 death in a car accident.
Her story is a sad, depressing and degrading one, so grim at times that one wonders if there's any edification to be had from it. To say that Lovelace provides uplift by the end would be an exaggeration, but the fact that the one-time victim did not succumb but, rather, stabilized her life and eventually fought back in every way she could provides a sense of vindication.
The early going is a bit choppy as young Linda (Amanda Seyfried), who lives with her parents (Robert Patrick and an unrecognizable Sharon Stone, both excellent) in working-class Davie, Fla., is escorted from the innocuous world of roller rink go-go dancing to the heavy-duty drugs-and-porn scene by the barely charming, bottom-feeding hustler Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard).
When Chuck takes Linda up to New York to push his discovery on porn director Gerard Damiano (Hank Azaria) and producer Butchie Peraino (Bobby Cannavale), she objects that, "I don't have any skills." Chuck protests that she does have one, a specialty she has perfected that will give the movie its title, lure upscale audiences to porn for the first time and make its star notorious.
After the "Deep Throat" frenzy has hit its peak, the film abruptly jumps ahead six years, with Linda taking a polygraph test to authenticate her accusations against her vile Svengali. And thus do the horrors of the past few years begin to pour out: the beatings, the forced gang rapes, the pressure from Anthony to make three sequels, the virtual slavery enforced by Chuck.
Another six years later, "Ordeal" has come out, Linda is raising two kids and is appearing on "The Phil Donahue Show" saying, "Linda Lovelace was a fictitious character." She's transitioned from the ultimate sex puppet and practitioner of male fantasies to a feminist hero of sorts.
Making a huge swing from the sweet, innocent Cosette in "Les Miserables" to the queen of porn, Seyfried gives a strong, credible performance that catches Linda's insecurities and exacts sympathy and regret for all that happened to her, even as she might not seem to completely inhabit the role at all times.
Similarly, Sarsgaard convincingly expresses all manner of manipulative behavior and venal motives as Chuck, but perhaps the actor is simply too genial to be as scary. Supporting roles are very well filled by the likes of Cannavale, Azaria, Chris Noth, Wes Bentley, Eric Roberts and Adam Brody as Linda's fun-loving co-star Harry Reems.
"Lovelace," a Radius/Weinstein release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "strong sexual content, nudity, language, drug use and some domestic violence." Running time: 92 minutes.