Where were you when you first saw 1972's Deep Throat? I was in the Commerce Building at the University of Illinois, the large lecture hall packed with students eager to learn a few things about human anatomy. That the screening took place within the confines of an academic institution ' sponsored by a frat, as I recall ' seemed thrilling at the time. In retrospect, it was just further proof that 'porn chic,' as The New York Times dubbed the phenomenon, had crossed over into the mainstream. Before Deep Throat, hard-core pornography was a backroom affair, furtive and shameful. After Deep Throat, it was a multibillion-dollar industry. And during those couple of years when the movie was traveling the country, sharing Linda Lovelace's gift with a large and adoring public, it was all anybody could talk about.
Or so it seems while watching Inside Deep Throat, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's highly interesting, highly enjoyable documentary about this low-rent landmark in the history of movies. Made for $25,000, the skin flick has reportedly earned $600 million over the years, most of that funneled to the Mob, which finally resorted to weighing the cash when counting it proved too time-consuming. But money's just a way of keeping score. Deep Throat's importance runs deeper than that. Discussed, fought over and prosecuted to the full extent of the law, the film came to symbolize the sexual revolution as it spread to the American hinterlands ' the money shot heard 'round the world. And the Nixon administration's efforts to quash the film only heightened its profile, leading to stories on the 'CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite.'
Bailey and Barbato conduct an oral history, if you will, by bringing on the talking heads, including aging libertines like Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, Dr. Ruth and, most spectacularly, Helen Gurley Brown, who recommends male ejaculate as a facial cream. But it's the cast and crew who take us behind the scenes, to show us what the creative process can do with the procreative process. Director Gerard Damiano, now shrunken and shriveled and living in Florida, his pants pulled up around his nipples, recalls how, when he first learned that Linda Lovelace could take it all in, he decided to build a whole movie around it. But the real stroke of genius was coming up with the idea that Lovelace would play a woman whose clitoris is located deep inside her throat, providing her with a unique path to sexual fulfillment.
Well, as Mama Rose used to say, you gotta have a gimmick, and Lovelace got more than 15 minutes of fame out of hers. But anyone who's followed this story over time knows that fame's about all she got. According to her 1980 book, Ordeal, Lovelace was basically held hostage during those years by her husband, who rented her out to the highest bidder. When she finally escaped, she became Exhibit A in the case against smut, testifying before the Meese Commission and making appearances on behalf of the radical-feminist group Women Against Pornography. Later, she flipped again, doing a spread for a girlie magazine at age 51 in order to put food on the table. Because she died in a car accident three years ago, Lovelace communicates to us only through past interviews, and what she seems to be saying is, 'I have no idea who I am.'
Bailey and Barbato don't exactly ignore that message. Nor do they spare us what happened to her co-star, Harry Reems, who, once all the court trials were over, wound up panhandling on Sunset Boulevard. But they nevertheless seem to buy into the myth of Deep Throat as a beacon of hope in a country that was so sexually uptight it couldn't have found the clitoris without a map. 'I think the judge learned a lot during the trial,' a New York cop says about the man who presided over that city's courtroom battle, and he isn't referring to the finer points of the law. Lots of men were a little confused about how to please a woman back then, apparently, and Deep Throat both cleared away the cobwebs and spun some new ones. Today, immersed in the sexual atmosphere this little porn flick unleashed upon the world, they're probably as confused as ever.