Deep Throat comes again.

Deep Throat comes again.

Deep Throat comes again.

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Feb. 10 2005 5:05 PM

Deep Throat Comes Again

A new documentary on the porn sensation.

Whoopee, it's a '70s flashback! Deep Throat Week in America! First, we had the opening of the Woodward-Bernstein Watergate archives, along with still more speculation about that most famous of anonymous leakers, embodied by Hal Holbrook in the film of All the President's Men. Now, we have this playful but essentially serious documentary Inside Deep Throat (Universal), a tale of sex, violence, and censorship revolving around the boffo 1972 hard-core porn flick that inspired, among other things, that Watergate moniker.

What an odd project for Brian Grazer and Ron Howard (Opie at the time of the original release) to shepherd to the screen. But I'm not complaining: Deep Throat deserves the scrutiny. For starters, it was the first heterosexual hard-core porn picture to focus on fellatio. Ex-hairdresser Gerard Damiano cooked up the premise when he first saw his future star, Linda Boreman, demonstrate her prowess during a less ambitious shoot in his living room. He said, "Whoa!" He christened her Linda Lovelace (alliteration was big with sex goddesses: think Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot), and then concocted a story about a woman who gets no sexual pleasure from copulation. A doctor, played by Harry Reems, discovers that her clitoris is in her throat and, being a Good Samaritan, helps her locate it. His climax—he came on her face, and she lapped it up—was the first so-called pornographic "money shot" that many Americans would witness.


In the documentary, directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, Norman Mailer points out that Americans will sell their souls for a giggle—and Deep Throatwas a giggle. But it was also a fount of controversy. Hugh Hefner and Al Goldstein (both seen here) had no qualms about it, but feminists complained that the conceit of a woman who could be sexually satisfied only by servicing a man is at best self-serving and at worst misogynistic and repressive.

But there's another dimension, expressed in the documentary by Linda Williams, a Berkeley professor and the author of Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible": that Deep Throat was the first time the very idea of a woman's sexual fulfillment was an issue onscreen. That wasn't a minor matter, for either film's adherents or detractors. Bailey and Barbato feature a quote from the New York City prosecutor who successfully sued to close the theater in which Deep Throat was playing: "The movie says it's perfectly normal to have a clitoral orgasm and THAT IS WRONG."

No one—not even Damiano—makes the case that Deep Throat was a good movie. But it was all the rage, and still, reportedly, the most successful film ever in its ratio of cost to box-office grosses. On both coasts, it had even the upper-middle-class and intelligentsia lining up. Interviewees from Camille Paglia to former porn star Georgina Spelvin argue that this was a hopeful sign—that sexual exploration seemed on the verge of penetrating, so to speak, mainstream Hollywood movies for the first time.

Unfortunately for cinema, Deep Throat became a target of moral crusaders and the Nixon administration. It's amusing to see that one of those principals is Charles Keating, later convicted of fraud in the savings and loan scandal. Alan Dershowitz—who would later defend Harry Reems in an unprecedented obscenity trial—maintains that it was the government's obsession that made Deep Throat such a hit. There's even a clip of a little old lady—I wish she'd been my grandma—emerging from the theater and announcing: "I wanted to see a dirty picture and that's what I saw!"


Inside Deep Throat follows two entwined roads: that government crusade and the sad histories of the participants, none of whom saw any money. The mafia co-producers grabbed it all. There's an indelible portrait of an elderly Florida couple—ex-exhibitors—who are still terrified at the thought of the mafia coming after them for blabbing. (She keeps urging her husband to shut the fuck up, but she's a great old gal nevertheless.)

The pair was certainly luckier than the movie's stars. During his trial, Reems became a causecelèbre among Hollywood lefties like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, but ended up panhandling on Hollywood Boulevard—although you'll be relieved to know he's now a born-again realtor in Park City, Utah. The story of Linda Lovelace remains the most notorious and disturbing. She would join anti-porn feminists and claim, in an autobiography and in testimony before the Meese Commission on the alleged link between violence and pornography, that she'd been forced into performing by her abusive ex-husband. What I didn't know was that at the end of her life, before she was killed in a car accident in 2002, she needed money and went back to posing in porn magazines.

Inside Deep Throat isn't as campy or as unhinged as the delightful Bailey and Barbato Tammy Faye Baker documentary, The Eyes of Tammy Faye; it's more like your standard HBO documentary (and HBO co-produced). But it's extremely entertaining, with a feast of good faces: Mailer, Gore Vidal, the director Ron Wertheim (who looks like an old Catskill comic), Lovelace's  cat * "Adolph Hitler" (named for what really looks like an ugly Hitler mustache), and the salty Deep Throat location manager (who looks like Brando's Don Corleone shortly before he drops dead). The accounts of the Florida shoot are hilarious, and for those with NC-17 hankerings, the documentary even features the fabled money shot.

The movie made me as nostalgic as some of its subjects. I never was much into porn (for some reason I always preferred Italian cannibal movies and lesbian vampire erotica), but I did see Deep Throat, on a late-'70s double bill with Damiano's The Devil in Miss Jones. The theater was creepy and depressing—as were, I gather, many grindhouses on the old Deuce. But the idea of a public culture for adults only remains appealing.

That dream was snuffed out, of course, by people like the Nixon crony (and homophobic closeted gay man) Roy Cohn, who actually debated Reems on camera. In the documentary, Cohn is heard to say to Reems, "You talk as though the Bill of Rights was created just for you." Well, um, yeah, it was. Which had something to do with that other Deep Throat, no?

Correction, Feb. 14, 2005:My thanks to Jennifer Kane for pointing out that "Adolph Hitler" was not the name of Linda Lovelace's dog but her cat. Obviously, for a Jew, this was the ultimate Freudian slip, based on the inability to connect Hitler to Linda Lovelace's pussy. (Return to corrected sentence.)