In an age where movie studios have less of an inclination to pursue anything resembling an exciting new idea, that strange phenomenon of cinematic cloning that I first noticed way back in 1998 with the simultaneous releases of Armageddon and Deep Impact seems to crop up at least once a year nowadays. Last year we had dueling Hitchcocks, and this year we’ve already had two White House under siege movies in Olympus Has Fallen and the far superior yet commercially disastrous White House Down, and we very well might have had two sets in one year had it not been for the uninsurable nature of Lindsey Lohan. What started out as two competing biopics about the not-so-glamorous career of Linda “Lovelace” Boreman is now one, and while we’ll never know how Lohan’s Inferno might have tackled this same material, we have some idea what it might have been like to watch via her latest film The Canyons, which regrettably had less stringent rules regarding its own insurance policies. If only for the presence of the much more talented Amanda Seyfried in the title role over Lohan, I have to imagine that Lovelace would have ended up being the superior effort regardless, though that shouldn’t take away from the quality of the film in its own right.
Lovelace tracks the life of the titular 70’s porn actress turned women’s rights activist through the rise and fall that made her a household name, or at least a household stage name, as the star of one of the most successful mainstream pornographic films of the era. At the risk of sounding insensitive considering that this is based on a true story, I was a bit worried going into this movie because, frankly, it’s a true story we’ve seen on screen more than a few times before. It seems tasteless to reduce a person’s life to a narrative structure and a series of cinematic cliches, especially when that life was as filled with tragedy as Boreman’s, but within this story you get shades of The Coal Miner’s Daughter, What’s Love Got To Do With It, and basically any movie where a young innocent girl is seduced and manipulated by an older man and finds herself introduced to the dark side of fame, only here its considerably darker than either of those examples given the setting and the facts of her life. Thankfully Lovelace deliberately sidesteps the clichés with an interesting storytelling mechanic that becomes apparent about halfway through the movie.
I’d almost consider it a twist, so much so that I’m hesitant to spoil it, but how can there be a twist to be spoiled in a movie based on a true story? Basically, you almost watch the movie twice. For the first forty five minutes or so, you see Boreman become Lovelace and ascend to stardom, going from chaste small town girl next door to 70’s sexual icon and media darling. It’s relatively light and breezy to the point where if you didn’t know what the story was really about you might begin to wonder why it was thought to be so interesting in the first place, and if you do, you might be struggling with all the stuff they seemingly left out. It is at the halfway mark that you realize the clever trick the movie’s played on you if you didn’t see it coming already, that we’ve been watching the events as one would from the outside, as a glamorous fantasy (or at least as glamorous as a movie about porn can be). The shift is sudden and brutal as we then see the true story from Boreman’s perspective, following her through all the dark and horrifying things that happened behind closed doors that eventually led her to renounce her famous name and return to a quiet suburban life and then detail her experiences in a series of harrowing autobiographies upon which the film is based.
If you aren’t aware of all the gruesome details as I was, I won’t say much except that they are indeed gruesome and you should prepare yourself for that. This isn’t a Boogie Nights style farce, no matter what the first half suggests. The film lulls you into a false sense of security and then goes really dark really quickly to place you in the same position as its main character, thrust into a whirlwind of bad choices and terrible consequences that only gets worse and worse as it goes along. The bait and switch structure perfectly echoes how the revelations of this story actually occurred, with the truth behind the scenes only learned years later, long after the phenomenon of Deepthroat was past, and its such a perfect way to present this story that I can’t imagine Inferno could have possibly done it any better. Speaking of which, in the wake of Lohan’s The Canyons, I can’t help but think that this should have been the dark and gritty, sexually uncomfortable Paul Schrader movie I should have gotten this year instead of that unwatchable garbage. Lovelace does what I used to think Schrader did best, and does it better than he is apparently now capable of.
Surprisingly given the setting, the dark underbelly has very little to do with Boreman’s life as a porn star, and everything to do with her life outside of it, married to a coked up violent wretch of man played to the disturbing hilt by Peter Sarsgaard, whose own jealousy and pettiness led him to take out all of his aggression on his wife, abusing her while living vicariously through her achievements. I wonder if they maybe took the Chuck Traynor character a bit too far, which isn’t to say that I doubt he was every bit the human monster depicted, but when you have scenes where he’s snorting cocaine off of his own wedding photo (because clearly there was no other available surface other than this thematically relevant one), subtlety kind of goes out the window. By contrast, the people behind the scenes of Deepthroat are some of the nicest smut peddlers you’ll ever meet and the closest thing to an honest loving family Boreman ever had. If it wasn’t true to life I’d call it a welcome twist on the cliché of the sleazy demonic porn producer stereotype, and it’s the closest thing we get to comic relief, which you’ll be thankful for as the film gets progressively more sinister. Hank Azaria and Adam Brody are both delightful as a happy counterpoint to Boreman’s otherwise increasingly horrible life, and Chris Noth’s financier character, who you would think would be the abuser in any fictional version of this kind of story, actually turns out to be something of a hero.
Seyfried is easily as good or better here than I’ve ever seen her. That’s not to say that I’ve ever particularly disliked her, but this is the first performance of her’s that I’ve ever seen that really impressed me, and it’s a role that can and should propel her to bigger and better things. The character is more complex and multifaceted than one might think at first blush, and Seyfried manages to switch effortlessly between the many sides of this person, from the innocent young ingénue to the sex-pot façade, to the battered woman, and finally to the self-confident feminist activist and icon. If I had one minor quibble it is that with all the bopping around in time, we get to see all of these different versions of the same character, but rarely get to see the transition from one to the other. In context we know why she would change, but I wanted to see more of it actually happening. This isn’t the fault of Seyfried’s performance as much as it is an unavoidable consequence of the film’s unique structure, which I like enough to forgive this characterization problem. One thing that did irk me a bit was the nudity, which you would probably expect in a movie about this subject matter, except that they don’t actually recreate any nude scenes from the famous film, and easily could have done the movie without the few moments they had. My thinking is that if they could have left the nudity out, they should have, and it came across as a little gratuitous.
I’ve made a point of referring to the title character of this film as Linda Boreman rather than Linda Lovelace as a sign of respect for the late actress and activist, knowing what that stage name came to represent for her later in life. To its credit, the film avoids the salacious potential of its premise and adheres to something at least close to the same level of respect, playing the porn industry inside baseball for campy laughs, but never losing sight of the seriousness of Linda’s story. Admittedly it could have gone even further into the darkness, as there are a few moments that I remember from her books that are particularly horrifying even compared to what we see in the film. I’m not sure if I’m disappointed that these scenes weren’t depicted, as I think what’s there is more than enough to get the point across, and one very pivotal omission might have gotten the film slapped with an NC-17 rating just for the inference of what went on, which would have severely limited the movie’s audience. And it should be as wide as possible, because Lovelace is one of those rare few biopics that feels like a story that needed to be told, and is treated with the reverence that it deserves.