In the early '70s, Linda Lovelace (née Boreman) morphed overnight from a Middle American nobody into the first American porno superstar, courtesy of her lead role in Gerard Damiano's blockbuster hardcore comedy Deep Throat (1972). After leaving the skin mill, she married a cable-TV worker and settled into domesticity on Long Island, then published a horrifying 1980 autobiography titled Ordeal, in which she exhausted hundreds of pages detailing the sadism that befell her under the thumb of ex-husband/producer Chuck Traynor, whom she claimed regularly pounded her into submission, put a gun to her head to force sexual compliance, and accepted payola from several men to gangbang her in a hotel room. Soon, Women Against Pornography began to rally behind Lovelace, and she became a feminist spokesperson and a crusader against domestic violence. But curiously, the impression of Lovelace as a caged victim seemed to go against the grain of the public image of her as a free-spirited, footloose, sexually liberated woman. In time, some began discounting her literary testimony as a complete or partial fabrication.
As scripted by Andy Bellin and co-directed by Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the biopic Lovelace takes an eccentric approach to its subject. The movie exists in two halves with radically different tones, contrasting the Linda (Amanda Seyfried) that folks in the '70s thought they knew with the one that emerged in her autobiography -- one enslaved by the vile and reprehensible Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard).
Taken on a scene-by-scene basis, the film is never less than sublime. It's particularly strong in setting up Linda's motivations for on-camera flagrante delicto. Friedman and Epstein begin with a sequence set in 1970 that establishes the dreariness of Linda's home life with her parents in the Florida suburbs. Here, the creators benefit, to a great degree, from a performance by an unrecognizable Sharon Stone as Linda's intolerant, dictatorial mother. The filmmakers contrast this repressive Catholic environment with the apple offered by the Luciferian Traynor, and we instantly get the lure of the early-'70s porno industry for a suburban girl next door who has only a split-level tract and canned consumerist future to look forward to. As Linda moves into disrobing, the early stages of this picture feel lighthearted, racy, very amusing, and often witty. The directors and screenwriter also crystallize the appeal of sexual lib via an exemplary sequence with Wes Bentley as a nice-guy photographer who shoots a non-porno spread of Linda in a swimsuit. Confronted with Lovelace's archness before the lens, he asks her to describe the appeal of Deep Throat for her, then begins flashing his camera as she reflects on the sense of emancipation that she gets when working for Damiano, opening up like a previously closed flower blossom.
Then the movie pulls a hidden card out of its sleeve: It leaps forward in time to a point when Lovelace took (and passed) a polygraph that helped corroborate the details of her autobiography; Epstein and Friedman then retell Linda's rise to infamy with much darker tones. Here, the filmmakers shift gears and travel into Star 80 territory, depicting Traynor -- per Ordeal -- as an opportunistic, chauvinist bastard who snorts cocaine, viscerally beats Linda's body, coerces her into the said gang rape ("Am I going to a movie audition?" she asks, as Traynor shoves her into a hotel room), and at one point threatens to blow her brains all over the living room if she refuses to "perform." These scenes too are effective enough, albeit less surprising for being so -- it isn't particularly rocket science to make an audience empathize with a sadistically abused young woman. And when Linda unsuccessfully tries to flee from Traynor's car in a Los Angeles subdivision one night -- only to see the opportunity for escape via the police fizzle when the cops recognize her -- we do care and feel our hearts sink. To the directors' complete credit, they also never nauseate the audience by exploiting graphic domestic abuse, which is more than one can say about the Fosse film or, say, Robert Young's abuse drama Extremities. The second half of Lovelace also has a particularly effective, heart-wrenching scene involving Linda's self-awareness, as she phones her dad (Robert Patrick) and he describes his experience attending a screening of Deep Throat ("That was my baby up there...") to his humiliated daughter.
Only when one examines the relationship between the two halves of the movie does it begin to falter. In several cases -- as with a bedroom tryst between Lovelace and Traynor -- we get the exact same scenes played in two different ways: tenderly and abusively. It's a Rashomon-like device that initially seems tantalizing given its potential, and we expect the film to move into a third act following the publication of Ordeal -- one that takes as its centerpiece the revelation that numerous people subsequently attempted to discount Lovelace's testimony. But that never happens. Once we finish the second "version" of Linda's story and get a few scenes dramatizing her 1980s and '90s role as a feminist activist, the picture merely ends with a few title cards detailing her death from an automobile accident in 2002, and then Traynor's demise from a heart attack. This makes the movie's potential feel unfulfilled, and it damages the central tone: As it is currently structured, it seems that Friedman and Epstein set up their truth investigation and abandoned it midway.
The bottom line is that the filmmakers either need to put up -- by using the polarized narratives as a lead-in to a clever third-act meditation on truth in the face of ghastly accusations against Linda -- or shut up -- by defining a single, linear interpretation of Lovelace's life and career and abandoning all traces of Rashomon's influence. They could also travel another route altogether, by juxtaposing the public perception of Linda as a sexually liberated Middle American ideal with the reality that transpired when the cameras weren't rolling. This would enable them to contrast the myths of the sexual revolution with the idea championed by Gay Talese and Peter Bogdanovich in the 1980s: That American sexual liberation was a sham, a thinly veiled excuse for men to wave their equal-rights banners in order to further coitally enslave the gender that struck at the heart of their insecurities. One can attempt to read that meaning into this picture, but it doesn't really work, because the filmmakers never shift the perspective of the storyteller: Everything is told through Linda's eyes and never through the public eye, when the latter could serve the first half of this movie far more effectively.
The central narrative weaknesses of the film cripple it, but can't ruin many of the key pleasures that the movie does afford. In addition to Oscar-worthy lead performances by Seyfried and Sarsgaard, and a top-tiered cast with pros such as Hank Azaria and Eric Roberts slipping blithely into their characters, the movie captures an early-'70s ambience on a virtually flawless level, with perfectly chosen clothes, hairstyles, slang, and music (with the single exception of an anachronistic use of Elvin Bishop's 1976 recording, "Fooled Around and Fell in Love"). At times, Friedman and Epstein even enlist clever aesthetic devices to tap into an early-'70s mythos, as when they interpolate grainy, home-movie-style footage of a silhouetted Linda and Chuck on a beach at sunset.
In the final analysis: Enough of this film works to merit a moderate recommendation, though the next time that Friedman and Epstein take on such a challenging character who engendered so many divergent reactions, they should consider gauging the structure of their script more carefully, and perhaps seeing it through a few additional redrafts, before going into production.