The porn film with a deep impact

 

A documentary about the notorious Deep Throat film shows how hardcore movies almost gained respectablity, writes Donald Clarke

In the early 1970s the Majestic Cinema in middle-class south Belfast turned itself over to the exhibition of what we used to call blue movies. It hardly seems possible that shoppers on the snooty Lisburn Road once had to walk past posters for Nun Sex Bus or Gymslip Trollops on their way to the library, but so things were in the days before the internet. Did members of the recently formed DUP turn up to protest? Not that I can recall.

Pornography has never been more readily available than it is today, but we have come to accept that such material really is best enjoyed in private. This was not always the case. Thirty years ago, for a few brief moments, blue movies pushed their way above ground and gained a kind of intellectual respectability. The prime beneficiary of this dubious rearrangement was a little film called Deep Throat. Forget The Blair Witch Project; Gerard Damiano's sticky 1972 comedy, in which Linda Lovelace proved that a living can be made out of an ability to suppress the gag reflex, is probably still, in proportion to its budget, the most financially successful film ever made. Given that many of the picture's financiers came from shadier corners of the Italian-American community, it is difficult to assess quite how much Deep Throat took in, but some estimates put the gross as high as $600 million. Not a bad return for an investment of $25,000.

Odder still than the film's financial muscle was the way it became a topic of discourse in smart society. Following an article in the New York Times, which identified - or, more accurately, dreamt up - something called "porno chic", herds of floppy collared drones made the journey from the Upper East Side to a sleazy cinema in Times Square.

Warren Beatty, Jackie Kennedy and Norman Mailer all turned up to celebrate this new cinematic era in which an actor's performance on the casting couch would provide genuine information as to his or her suitability for the role.

"In some ways it was just the perfect storm," Fenton Bailey, co-director of the new documentary Inside Deep Throat, explains. "Everything came together perfectly in Deep Throat. Sex and sexuality had been an industry up to this point, but it had been a secret cottage industry. The fact that Deep Throat had something of a plot allowed those audiences to pretend they weren't watching a porn film. They were watching a comedy."

In the hazy penumbra that followed the 1960s, sexual politics were in a state of flux. If social change were to progress at the same rate it had over the previous decade - and why shouldn't it? - then by, say, 1980 we would surely all be sharing sexual partners the way we used to share cigarettes. Mainstream films would routinely include scenes of penetration and ejaculation. Dinner party conversation would focus on who puts what where.

It wasn't to be. Deep Throat marked the beginning and the end of porno chic. Within a few years an unlikely alliance between the women's movement and the Republican Party had chased the skin merchants back underground. The pornography industry continued to prosper, but it did so without the public patronage of Beatty.

Damiano, a former hairdresser who had listened hard to the sexual banter that flowed in his salon, first met Linda Lovelace while shooting a short porn film set in a hospital. Lovelace played a nurse and Harry Reems, her future co-star in Deep Throat, played a patient with an injured penis. When Damiano saw what his leading lady could do - let us just say that, during oral ministrations, none of the damaged organ remained visible - he determined to showcase her in a feature.

Deep Throat's crucial expository scene sees Lovelace explaining to her doctor that she is unable to reach orgasm. The doc - an intuitive diagnostician, obviously - asks her to open her mouth and immediately identifies the problem: Linda's clitoris is positioned at the base of her throat.

"This is a male fantasy," the indomitable eroticist Erica Jong says in Inside Deep Throat. "'I like to have my c*ck sucked, therefore she must enjoy it too.' Guess what? It's not true."

Of course, nothing sells tickets faster than fantasy and Deep Throat soon became a phenomenon. The money was coming in so quickly that Damiano's sinister financial partners were weighing the notes rather than counting them. Cinema owners tempted to fiddle the figures risked having their properties burnt to the ground. Eventually Damiano - now a gently spoken retiree - was persuaded to sell his stake in the picture to the mobsters.

Meanwhile the Nixon administration, which believed itself elected by a silent majority opposed to moral decline, set out to impede Deep Throat's advance. Howard Simons, managing editor of the Washington Post, was surely thinking about the White House's obsession with Damiano's opus when he came up with the name Deep Throat for Bob Woodward's Watergate source.

"I am not sure to what extent the campaign against the film was a conscious attempt by the administration to distract attention from Watergate," Bailey says. "But I think it is a general truth that conservatives will always use the politics of distraction to move us from thinking about problems that are more pressing and serious. It is always useful to get an enemy behind which you can rally your supporters."

One of the most stirring sequences in Bailey's documentary sees Harry Reems, an intelligent, articulate man, debating First Amendment rights with the notorious McCarthyite prosecution lawyer Roy Cohn (a secret homosexual who eventually developed Aids). Sadly, Reems could not escape this new witch-hunt and was later convicted of indecency charges in Memphis.

It was at this point that Deep Throat moved from being a fashionable frivolity to a cause célèbre. Actors such as Beatty and Jack Nicholson mounted a campaign and - in the mellower atmosphere of the Carter administration - Reems was released on appeal.

On the left flank the women's movement, spurred on by the incendiary writings of Andrea Dworkin, was massing to launch an assault on pornography in general and Deep Throat in particular. The sisters were eventually joined by Linda Lovelace herself, who, in her 1979 book, Ordeal, explained how her vile rapist of a husband, Chuck Traynor, forced her into the pornography business.

In a recent television documentary, critic Mark Kermode, who believes Traynor to be guilty of all charges, argues that the fame that came with Deep Throat offered Lovelace an escape.

If that was the case, she failed to take advantage of it. After turning her back on the feminist movement and returning to pornography to pay the bills, Lovelace was killed in a car crash in 2002.

The Irish Film Institute, in what is surely the first legal outing in Ireland for this, ahem, seminal film, will be screening Deep Throat on July 9th and 10th. Pete Walsh, programmer of the IFI, must have some concerns about opening his cinema to such controversial material.

"Well we are not advocating the film," he replies. "It is a historical artefact and now we have this other study - Inside Deep Throat - it seems useful to show the original. It would, in fact, seem rather odd not to show it."

The IFI's patrons - all of whom will, of course, be viewing the film in a state of un-aroused detachment - may find themselves pondering what became of the great march towards sexual anarchy.

Certainly the arrival of Aids introduced an element of danger into random coupling. Also it transpired that in the open relationships of the 1970s one partner invariably ended up feeling jealous and betrayed. In truth most humans, eager for a degree of order and structure, actually prefer to impose some sexual prohibitions on themselves.

It is pleasing that a film such as 9 Songs, featuring scenes of graphic sex, can now be granted a certificate, but most of us would prefer to watch something a little less squelchy (in public at least).

Ultimately, what stopped the blending of hardcore pornography into mainstream cinema - something Gerard Damiano felt sure would continue - was Star Wars.

It suddenly became apparent to the studios that there was more money to be made marketing films to kids than to Erica Jong readers. You might be able to hawk a Linda Lovelace action figure (full size), but Deep Throat breakfast cereals, lunch boxes and video games would probably stay on the shelves. We now go to the movies to escape pornography.

The former Majestic Cinema is currently a furniture warehouse.

Inside Deep Throat opens next Friday at IFI, Dublin. Deep Throat is showing on Jul 9 and 10 at 7pm. www.ifi.ie