MOVIE REVIEW: Lovelace
Even though we find this notion hard to believe in a 21st century world of social media, manufactured notoriety, and overwhelming reality programming where regular people can become famous, every single actor or performer you see on any media format, used to be as normal and ordinary as you or I. Popularity came to them and changed them. We always see the good versions of that, but, every now and then, we are moved and shocked by a failed journey of celebrity. Just look at the timelines of Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, James Dean, or even River Phoenix, Lindsay Lohan, O.J. Simpson, and Heath Ledger.
Because us normal people can only dream of the heights they reach, even tragically in some cases, we are endless fascinated by these stories. Even though fine movies (A Star is Born, Dreamgirls, That Thing You Do!, Boogie Nights, among many others) are made about fictional unknown dreamers skyrocketing to stardom and fame, if movie makers wanted to, they would never run out of real stories of real people. One of those real people is the late Linda Susan Boreman. Fame remembers her better as her stage name "Linda Lovelace," the pornographic actress that hit the mainstream with the 1972 cult film Deep Throat.
Naturally, there's more to her story than just that, and the new film Lovelace hopes to flesh that out. Les Miserables and Mamma Mia star Amanda Seyfried plays Linda. We meet her as a 21-year-old good girl in Florida who hangs out with her buddy (Juno Temple) at roller rinks and lives with her strict folks (Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick). One night, she catches the eye of a charming creep name Chuck Traynor (Garden State's Peter Sarsgaard) that breaks down her prudish walls and shows her off as his girl and later his wife. He sells her on the idea that she can be a star someday.
Soon enough, Chuck exploits her sexual talents and gets her an audition with a pair of adult filmmakers (Hank Azaria and Bobby Cannavale) and their financier (Sex and the City's Peter Noth) who want to make a legitimate 35mm "film" and not just the same old porn. With an actual script and a popular star (The O.C.'s Adam Brody) leading the amateur Linda, Deep Throat becomes an overnight sensation and perfectly-timed torch bearer for the sexual revolution of the 1970's. As risque as it was, everyone was talking about it. At the peak of its meteoric rise, Linda even caught the eye of Hugh Hefner himself (played by James Franco).
All of that is the stuff we're used to seeing from these types of stardom stories and Lovelace plays its chipper hand of 1970's decadence like a Boogie Nights prequel. However, right at that peak, the film moves forward six years and takes an intentionally darker turn. We now see a very different and grown-up Linda recounting her past experiences via polygraph in the process of writing her autobiography. It's through these flashbacks and stories that we see the extended versions of those earlier chipper scenes. We now see the underlying dark current of abuse, control, and violence perpetuated by Chuck upon Linda over all of those years and experiences. It's a dramatic, risky, and jarring shift, but a necessary one.
That shift builds to show just why Linda's 1980 autobiography was entitled Ordeal. It's the tragic part of her stardom that no one saw. It's also the start to the part of her life that fame and notoriety forgot. Soon after Deep Throat, she left Chuck, eventually married again, become a mother, and stood up as an anti-pornography spokesperson and advocate for the next 20 years after 1980. No one remembers that. Everyone remembers her tawdry exploits.
This is, without question, the most challenging and compelling work Amanda Seyfried has done to date, but that isn't hard considering her fluff resume of Mean Girls, Dear John, Letters to Juliet, and more. She brings the right charisma and vulnerability to this difficult role without overdoing it. Seyfried plays Linda with a conviction that trumps the character's supposed naivety. Peter Sarsgaard has always been a chameleon floating between wimps, villains, and sleazeballs over the years, but he raises his game here. The real curveball out of nowhere is a stoically tough performance from Sharon Stone as Linda's mother. A generation ago, the Basic Instinct star might as well have been the Linda Lovelace of the 1990's. You can't take your eyes off of her emotional reactions as a mother who's lost all pride and respect for one of her own children. It's the best she's been in years.
No matter which way you cut it, Lovelace is a tough sell as a biographic film. Directed by Oscar-winning documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, it's no doubt a bold piece of work, but there's no good way to take on this subject. Showing this path to stardom makes light of pornography and recreational sex and the film spends a great deal of time glorifying that movement. Painting a protagonist of this background as the sympathetic type, even with her eventual redemption, likely sugarcoats the not-so-savory truth of what really happened behind the scenes. Real stories like this are unbelievable, which means fictional and dramatized interpretations are likely even worse. Even with tough love, Lovelace is a hard movie to get behind and enjoy.
LESSON #1: PORNOGRAPHY'S DIFFICULT PLACE IN ART AND IN CULTURE-- Indifferent to massive societal opposition and stressing its own freedom of expression, the pornography movement that took off in the 1970's has become a billion-dollar industry today. Whether we admit it or not, it fuels more than a small piece of this nation's economy. It's amazing to imagine just how close it was to breaking through to mainstream acceptance some 40+ years ago. That was a different time, but the popularity of people like Linda and pornography's attempt to become an art form made people honestly question and consider pornography's merit and place in our culture. The scary thing is, once you consider it, it's likely already part of it.
LESSON #2: NOT EVERY PATH TO STARDOM IS A PRETTY ONE-- We know how this kind of daydream starts. Since the boom of American popular culture in the art forms of film, music, and television over the last one hundred years, millions still dream every day about becoming a star. Just as the lesson states, not every journey to stardom is a glamorous one. Some roads are lined with bad choices, huge mistakes, failures, and an awful lot of sold souls. People can become just as famous, and sometimes do so even more quickly, for doing indecent things rather than good things. Bad news sells better than good news. If you don't believe it, just look back on how Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton became famous and got there opportunities. It was from a different kind of "performance."
LESSON #3: THE MISFORTUNE THAT COMES WHEN YOU SURROUND YOURSELF WITH THE WRONG PEOPLE-- The unfortunate root of both Linda's rise to stardom and her downward spiral afterwards was the people she chose to associate with. Chuck's pushing got Linda her shot. I don't care how much a wife believes she should always listen to her husband or how enticing his promises are. The level of abuse and control employed by Chuck Traynor should have been red flags from the start. Linda's youthful ignorance or indifference (you be the judge) kept her from leaving, which reflects how stardom blinded her from what was really going on. Even after turning her life around, Linda knew that she brought that misfortune on herself by poor association.