Four decades after the pornographic film “Deep Throat,” we need not one, but two biopics on the star of the movie, Linda Lovelace. (The first stars Amanda Seyfried. The other which may never happen — stars Malin Akerman.) These dueling projects are just one measure of how big a deal “Deep Throat” remains 40 years after it went into wide release, on June 30, 1972.

Other measures include the multi-billions in profits earned each year by a porn-film production industry that scarcely existed before “Deep Throat,” the level of household-name fame the film’s title earned amid the Watergate scandal, the countless courtroom challenges over whether porn merits First Amendment protections, and the still-ongoing debate over whether porn is good or bad for women — a debate embodied by the life story of Lovelace herself, still the most famous/infamous porn star who ever lived. And then there’s the snickering or prickly reaction you had upon reading the phrase “Deep Throat” a few moments ago. Yes, the movie is still a controversial topic about which no one feels indifferent.

That’s a lot of cultural weight to lay on the slender shoulders of a film that was shot for $ 22,500 in six days and runs barely an hour. But the movie had the good fortune to come along at exactly the right time, as hardcore filmmaking was making overtures to the mainstream (and vice versa), as the sexual revolution of the ’60s was trickling down into suburbia, and as first-wave feminism was demanding that its roar be heard (and that women’s rights included the right to sexual pleasure on women’s own terms). Oh, and as a certain burglary was taking place (on June 17, 1972) at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.

In the years before “Deep Throat,” hardcore films existed only as short, generally silent one-reelers shown at stag parties and peep show emporia. “Deep Throat” wasn’t the first porn film to run feature-length, or to have an actual plot and characters (there had been one called “Mona” in 1970, and another soon-to-be-notorious feature, “Behind the Green Door,” in 1972), but it was still one of the first that aspired to something more than just pleasing the raincoat crowd for a few furtive minutes. Writer/director Gerard Damiano actually aspired to make porn films into a couples’ date-night experience (even more grandiose, he aspired to art).

“Deep Throat” seemed to meet some of those requirements. It had decent production values (in terms of film stock quality, sets, costumes, and even music, on which Damiano spent another $ 25,000), modestly talented actors (not just Lovelace, but also Harry Reems and Carol Connors, better known today as the mother of “American Beauty” and “Ghost World” star Thora Birch), and a humorous screenplay. It also had the novelty factor of Lovelace’s particular oral sex skill, around which Damiano constructed the entire plot of the film. And to appeal to women, there was the proto-feminist tilt of that plot, which took as a given the Lovelace character’s right to seek sexual fulfillment by finding a lover who could give her a clitoral orgasm. (Sure, the movie also made her a medical oddity by misplacing her clitoris in the back of her throat, in a way that catered to male fantasy as well… but you gotta start somewhere.)

“Deep Throat” demanded to be taken seriously, and soon that demand was met. The New York cognoscenti (including the likes of Norman Mailer, Barbara Walters and Truman Capote) admitted they had gone to see it. Mainstream theaters began to book it (often facing legal challenges from local authorities for showing it), and mainstream newspapers began to review it. Bob Hope and Johnny Carson made jokes about it on network television. Couples went to see it. The movie made untold millions at the box office. (The 2005 documentary “Inside Deep Throat” claimed the movie sold $ 600 million worth of tickets, a figure that seems highly implausible. The fact that the movie’s funding was ultimately traceable to the Mafia, and that it often played in Mob-run grindhouses with less than transparent accounting practices, also make it impossible to say how much “Deep Throat” really grossed.)

And if the movie had shown any sign of flagging, there was the Watergate scandal to pump it back up. Washington Post managing editor Howard SImons had coined the code name “Deep Throat” as the name for the confidential whistleblower whose oracular pronouncements from the hidden depths of a D.C.-area parking garage added a heady whiff of cloak-and-dagger intrigue to the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The cover-up behind the burglary of the Democratic headquarters brought down President Nixon in 1974, but the identity of “Deep Throat” remained a tantalizing mystery for more than 30 years afterward, one that inspired much speculation in movies, books, and TV. In 2005, former FBI associate director Mark Felt outed himself as the informant, but to this day, the “Deep Throat” mystery remains the most colorful part of Watergate lore.

Meanwhile, “Deep Throat” the movie faced what may have been more legal challenges over its content than any movie since 1915′s “Birth of a Nation.” It was banned in 27 states. In 1976, in Memphis, a series of federal cases brought charges against virtually everyone associated with the film. Damiano and Lovelace turned state’s evidence and earned immunity; everyone else was convicted, including Reems, making him the first actor ever convicted of a federal obscenity charge. Reems’ conviction was ultimately overturned, but others behind the film ended up serving time.

The film’s legal troubles, however, only made it more popular, giving it the lure of the forbidden. “Deep Throat” ushered in an era of so-called “porno chic,” with other hardcore movies (like Damiano’s “The Devil in Miss Jones”) riding its coattails as events for hipsters, and with stars like “Green Door”‘s Marilyn Chambers crossing over into non-pornographic films. Riding the wave of popularity, Lovelace wrote two memoirs and made several other movies, including one called “Linda Lovelace for President.”

The crossover seemed to work both ways. The demise of the old Production Code in 1968 had opened up Hollywood movies to nudity and profanity. In this, they were only keeping up with European imports like Sweden’s “I Am Curious Yellow,” which blended serious-minded art cinema with explicit sex scenes. In 1969, “Midnight Cowboy” earned an X rating — and a Best Picture Oscar. By 1972, as “Deep Throat” was making porn safe for artistic aspirations, Bernardo Bertolucci was approaching from the opposite direction with “Last Tango in Paris,” with Marlon Brando buttering up Maria Schneider’s backside. Damiano predicted that strictly hardcore movies were on their way out, and that mainstream art films for grown-ups would merge with sex movies within a decade.

Of course, that merger never happened. Despite its brief flirtation with mainstream acceptance, hardcore cinema ultimately went back into the closet, its flight from public visibility aided by technology. The VCR took it out of theaters and put it in the living room; the Internet took it out of the living room and made it a solitary and furtive experience centered around short clips once again.

There were other factors in the 1980s that deflated the spirit of illicit fun that “Deep Throat” inaugurated. One was AIDS. Another was the Christian right, whose activists found an ally in Reagan administration attorney general and anti-porn crusader Edwin Meese. And then there was the anti-porn left, arguing that the hardcore industry degraded not only those who watched it but the women who starred in it as well.

Exhibit A was Lovelace herself, who in the late ’70s became a born-again Christian and went on to write two more memoirs renouncing her porn past. In one of them, 1980′s “Ordeal,” she claimed that she had made “Deep Throat” and her other porn movies under threat of violence from then-husband Chuck Traynor. She alleged that, during their marriage, Traynor had routinely beaten her (giving her bruises on her legs that were supposedly visible in “Deep Throat”), kept her a prisoner, withheld her earnings (including her $ 1,250 fee from “Deep Throat”) and forced her at gunpoint to perform sex acts on camera. Viewers who watch “Deep Throat,” she testified before the Meese Commission in 1986, are “watching me being raped.”

Traynor and others among Lovelace’s former associates denied the accusations or rape or coercion at gunpoint, though Traynor acknowledged having been a controlling husband. Lovelace took to the lecture circuit, alongside such anti-porn feminists as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, to denounce the exploitative nature of the porn industry. Later, however, she would accuse Dworkin and MacKinnon of exploiting her as well, saying she earned only a pittance from her lecture tours with them. (Lovelace was 53 when she died in 2002 of injuries suffered in a car crash.)

None of this public shaming of the industry stopped porn from being popular and ubiquitous in private. With the arrival of pay subscription porn websites in the late 1990s, it rivaled and perhaps exceeded mainstream Hollywood’s outputs in terms of gross profits. Pay-per-view cable put hardcore movies in every hotel room in America. Someone was ordering porn videos by the millions, and it wasn’t just a handful of isolated pervs in big cities and blue states. Porn really had gone mainstream, even if none of its viewers wanted to admit it.

Still, a certain nostalgia exists for the let-it-all-hang-out era of ’70s porno chic that “Deep Throat” ushered in — a time before AIDS and Lovelace’s horror stories, a time before breast implants and clean-shaven genitalia, a time when imperfect bodies captured on imperfect film stock had a warmth and spontaneity that some viewers found missing in the chilly perfection of sculpted and hairless bodies captured on grain-free videotape or digital video. The cheap distribution enabled by the Internet may finally do to the industry what the courts and crusaders could not, since free porn websites have made the bottom drop out of the market (a la music piracy) and have slashed distributor profits and performer salaries to a fraction of what they were just five years ago.

Despite the occasional mainstream success of a Traci Lords or Sasha Grey, actress crossovers from the porn world remain rare. Some porn actresses continue to argue that their sex work is a form of female empowerment (and have tried to prove it by running their own production companies so that they can be the exploiters, not the exploited), but they don’t seem to dream, as Lovelace once did, that their success would come from Hollywood stardom.

No doubt the Akerman and Seyfried biopics will focus on both the tragic and titillating aspects of Lovelace’s life. Forty years after “Deep Throat,” she remains a potent symbol of both the porno chic era’s free-spirited optimism and its sordid underbelly, its lofty aspirations and its bitter self-delusions. In telling her story, the biopics will surely get to have their cake and eat it too, to offer viewers an erotic spectacle while wagging a finger at them for enjoying it. In that event, the ultimate legacy of “Deep Throat” will be our still-unresolved attitudes toward what it put on display, a desire that remains at once as invisible and ubiquitous as ever. Buy Inside Deep Throat and conclude why government didn’t want you to see it.

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