About halfway through the new biopic Lovelace, there’s a scene where former porno actress Linda Lovelace (played by Amanda Seyfried) is hooked up to a lie detector. The polygraph examiner explains that he’s going to ask Linda a few test questions to get a reading.
“Is your name Linda Lovelace?” he asks.
Visibly nervous, Linda replies, “Can you ask something simpler?”
It’s a great scene because it establishes the central mystery of both the film and the title character.
Just who exactly was Linda Lovelace?
A girl whose main talent was apparently giving head, Lovelace became a star in the 70s when she starred in Deep Throat, the first (and perhaps only) hardcore film to become a legitimate mainstream hit. For a brief while, Lovelace was the face of the American sex industry. However, her attempts to have a mainstream film career failed and Lovelace retreated into obscurity.
Several years later, she wrote a book called Ordeal. In Ordeal, Lovelace claimed that she was forced, by her abusive husband, to perform in Deep Throat. Whereas Lovelace, during her brief stardom, originally claimed to simply be a sexual adventurer who performed on camera because it was liberating, the post-stardom Lovelace presented herself as being a brainwashed victim. Or, as Lovelace herself put it, “When you watch Deep Throat, you’re watching me getting raped.” While several people disputed the authenticity of Ordeal, Lovelace herself passed a polygraph examination. Lovelace then became an anti-pornography activist before, once again, descending into obscurity and eventually dying in an automotive accident in 2002.
Lovelace deals with the issue of figuring out just who Linda Lovelace was by basically telling her story twice.
During the first 45 minutes of the film, we see how young Linda Boreman first meets Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard). Everything about Chuck — from his mustache to his perm to his flashy clothes — practically screams sleaze but, since he’s played by Peter Sarsgaard, he also has an undeniable charm. (With this film and An Education, Sarsgaard has proven himself to be the definitive older man who your parents warned you about.) Chuck and Linda eventually marry and, when they need money, Linda turns to “acting” in order to pay the bills.
Under the watchful eye of producers Bobby Cannavale and Chris Noth, director Hank Azaria, and co-star Adam Brody, Linda stars in Deep Throat and becomes the face of the sexual revolution. While there are occasional hints that things might not be perfect (bruises are often visible on Linda’s arms and legs), Linda seems to truly love the spotlight. Even Hugh Hefner (played by James Franco, who is way too hot to only have a cameo) says she’s going to be a huge star.
And then, rather abruptly, we jump forward six years. Linda is now writing Ordeal and we once again see how she first married Chuck Traynor, starred in Deep Throat, and came to be a star.. However, we now see the story through her eyes. We see that Chuck wasn’t just controlling but that he was also an abusive psychopath who would hold a gun to her head in order to get a performance out of her. We see that, during the shooting of Deep Throat, she was regularly beaten by her husband. We see Linda attempting to reconnect with her strict and tradition parents (played by Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick). We see the ugliness that was hidden underneath the glamour.
Considering the subject matter and the talent involved, Lovelace should have been one of the most interesting films of 2013 but, unfortunately, the two separate halves of the film just don’t come together. While the first half of the film does a good job of capturing the absurdity of sudden fame, the second half of the film falls apart.
Oddly enough, Chuck Traynor and Linda Lovelace only come across as real human beings during the superficial first half of the film. During the second half of the film, both Chuck and Linda come across as one-dimensional ciphers. Linda becomes such a total victim and Chuck becomes such a melodramatic villain that neither one of them is all that compelling as a character. Instead of being disturbing and revealing, the second half of the film just feels like another generic film about the price of fame.
Most of what I know about Linda Lovelace and Chuck Traynor comes from two sources — the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat and Legs McNiel’s and Jennifer Osborne’s book The Other Hollywood. In both the book and the documentary, Lovelace comes across as being a rather pathetic figure who was exploited by both the adult film industry and the anti-pornography activists who used her as a symbol. Both the industry and the activists abandoned Linda once her novelty was gone. Ironically, even though both the documentary and the book are rather critical of her, it is there that she comes across as a far more interesting, sympathetic, and ultimately tragic figure than she does in this biopic.
With all that in mind, Lovelace is not necessarily a failure as a film. The 70s are convincingly recreated and there’s a few scenes that hint at the type of film that this could have been if the filmmakers had been willing to take a few more risks.
The film is also full of excellent performances. Seyfried is sympathetic and believable as Linda and, up until the second half of the film requires him to abandon all shades of ambiguity, Sarsgaard perfectly captures the sleazy charm that someone like Chuck Traynor would need to survive. As Linda’s strict mother, Sharon Stone is surprisingly strong. Just watch the scene where Linda’s mom explains to her that she has to go back to abusive husband because that’s what marriage is all about and you’ll see an example of great acting. Even better is Robert Patrick, who brings a poignant sadness to the role of Linda’s father. The scene where he tells Linda that he saw her on film is heartbreaking.
Lovelace is a film of hits and misses. Sadly, it misses the big picture but a few individual parts and performances are strong enough to justify sacrificing spending 93 minutes to watch it.