What Was Film?
ome films haunt you. My mother saw Vertigo for the first time at ten, and the story—of Kim Novak as the icily sensual woman-in-trouble whom Jimmy Stewart fails to save from fate’s grasp—has captivated her since. I grew up watching it with her at least once a year, lying on our living room floor in front of the sickly green glow of the screen. My father has a similar obsession with Amadeus (when I was too young to know better, he told me that what Salieri did to himself in the opening minutes was cut himself shaving), and my boyfriend with Human Highway, Neil Young’s albatross of a love letter to toxic waste. Various movies have filled this role in my life, too: not movies I love or even like, but ones I feel contain some kernel of meaning I can never quite grasp. I’ve felt this way about Barry Lyndon, Badlands, and a handful of others, but right now there is only one: Dogarama, a fifteen-minute-long pornographic loop in which Linda Lovelace has sex with a dog.
Nearly everyone knows who Linda Lovelace is, and if they don’t, they’ve almost certainly heard of Deep Throat, which is in its own way as monumental a film as any listed above. Released in 1972 and financed by the mob, it stars “Linda Lovelace as herself,” playing a woman whose clitoris is in her throat, and who can therefore only reach orgasm by giving head. The movie, which had comparatively high production values and a script well aware of the humor inherent in its premise, became not just a success, but a cultural touchstone of the era, and can be credited both with providing an alias for a key player in the Watergate scandal and with introducing oral sex as a topic of conversation to legions of middle Americans.
On a simpler level, Deep Throat was and is the greatest mainstream success in the history of porn. For the first time, a wide audience—couples, college kids, middle-class and middle-aged viewers, and women—paid five dollars to go into a darkened room and watch people have sex. My mother—then a graduate student who wore overalls and wrote papers about James Ensor—saw it, and there’s a good chance that your mother saw it, too. Made for $25,000, Deep Throat raked in an estimated $100,000,000 (unsubstantiated claims run as high as $600,000,000) and Linda Lovelace became the first bona fide porn star in history.
She also got screwed in nearly every way a person can. Paid a hundred dollars a day during shooting—a princely sum by her and her husband/manager Chuck Traynor’s standards—her final paycheck was $1,200, all of which went into Traynor’s pocket. (Director Gerard Damiano didn’t fare much better: he was forced to sell his share in the movie back to its mafia backers for $25,000.) Following the movie’s success, Linda and Traynor went to parties at the Playboy Mansion, joined Hugh Hefner’s inner circle, and partied with celebrities. If any of the movie’s countless viewers noticed the bruises visible on Linda’s legs, or if any of the bright young things into whose company she had been introduced noticed her husband calling her “cunt” in place of her given name, it was something they chose to ignore. Money poured in for sequels, magazine spreads, and Inside Linda Lovelace, a tell-all “memoir”based on questionnaires that Linda later maintained Traynor told her how to fill out. The book cemented Linda’s reputation as pornography’s most enthusiastic supporter. In it, she claims that “If I didn’t love what I did, no money on earth could make me do it. Like my work? Friends, I love every second of it…on and off camera.”
When Linda finally broke from Traynor in 1973, a year after Deep Throat’s release, all of her attempts to make a legitimate career for herself—including starring in mainstream movies or appearing on network TV—were thwarted, and she found herself in substantial debt. She settled down, married a cable installer, had two children, and made no secret of the fact that she published her 1980 memoir, Ordeal (co-written with Mike McGrady) in an attempt to make a little money for herself and her family. Following the book’s success, she became a poster child for anti-pornography feminism, and in 1986 authored another memoir, Out of Bondage. (Later, she would distance herself from the feminists who had used her story to gain traction in their fight against the sex industry, partially because they had failed to offer her any financial remuneration.) She lost numerous jobs after her employers found out about her past, and struggled with health issues including cirrhosis, a liver transplant, and kidney failure. She divorced her husband in 1996, claiming he had physically abused her, and died of injuries she sustained in a car crash on the way to dialysis in 2002. She was fifty-three years old.
All of this is known now. But how much can we see of it in Dogarama, a piece of raw footage that was slapped into a can years before Linda Lovelace became a household name? More importantly, can we look at the woman we see in Dogarama, or in Deep Throat, or in any of Lovelace’s other films, and see any of the real fears and desires of a woman whose fame was based almost entirely on the public’s belief that they could see both of those things—Linda’s fears, Linda’s desires—at a glance? The more troubling question—relevant not just to Linda, but to every woman who experiences a similar notoriety—may be this: Can someone who has been transformed into a cultural symbol ever regain her status as a human being?
I watched Deep Throat for the first time because I had become interested not in Lovelace, but in the history of porn, and because Deep Throat is, almost indisputably, the skin flick equivalent of Citizen Kane. The movie begins with Linda walking in on her roommate, Helen, receiving oral sex, proceeds to an orgy arranged by Helen in an attempt to give Linda her first orgasm, and finally takes Linda to the office of Doctor Young (Harry Reems). After he finds her clitoris in her throat, Linda initially starts crying, only to be comforted when the doctor suggests they test his theory, offering himself (naturally) as her guinea pig. We’ve already seen plenty of sex, but what follows—nearly five minutes of unedited fellatio—is the most pornographic scene yet, not for its depravity but for its simplicity. There is none of the frantic thrusting, half-swallowed dialogue, or obligatory changes of position we find in later porn films. The doctor lies motionlessly and unthreateningly prone as Linda performs oral sex, her eyes closed. We see very little of his genitalia, so our attention focuses instead on Linda’s face, which we watch for so long and with such anticipation that we can’t help but speculate about what is going on behind those closed eyes.
As the doctor climaxes and “Linda” follows suit, shots of bells ringing, fireworks exploding, and spacecraft blasting off are interspersed with footage of Linda. The score launches into a frenetic, gospel-inflected crescendo, and Linda’s face displays an expression of—well, what? Devotion? Happiness? Gratitude? Relief? Exhaustion? Boredom? Regret? We have no way of knowing. The scene cuts to Linda kneeling before the (now fully-dressed) doctor, exclaiming “Oh, Doctor Young, how could I ever repay you? You’ve saved my life! I’m a fulfilled woman! I’ve heard the bells at last! Oh, Doctor Young, marry me! I want to be your slave!” When he refuses, she cries, “Don’t you understand? I need it! I need love!” Doctor Young remains unswayed, suggesting she is more of a danger to him than any man is to her (“How much deep throat do you think I can take?”). He reassures her that he won’t throw her out, though, and that “You’re going to find your love and find your happiness. In the meantime, you can come to work for me here in the office—I’ll make you a physiotherapist!”
In other words, Linda becomes a prostitute, happily cavorting in a comically-short nurse’s uniform as she uses her newfound skills on a host of torpid middle-aged men in a series of vignettes used to pad the movie’s sixty-two-minute runtime. The “true love” she ultimately settles down with first gets off on pretending to rape her at gunpoint, then proposes marriage immediately afterward. Linda declines, saying she can only marry a man with “a nine-inch cock,” and he laments that he’s only “four inches away from happiness” revealing a thirteen-inch penis to an ecstatic Linda. The movie ends with an encore of the title act, with all the requisite bells and whistles, and the final shot is a freeze-frame of Linda’s smiling mouth, over which are superimposed the words:
and Deep Throat to you all
Damiano hired Linda because she had a girl-next-door quality, an innocence he didn’t think viewers would be able to resist, and this, according to him, trumped even her sexual abilities. Linda’s appearance—her overplucked eyebrows, crooked teeth, freckled skin and small breasts—made her look not like a professional, but a pretty checkout girl or Poli-Sci major or teenage babysitter just a bit grown up. Even her lack of acting ability (her audition consisted of reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) made her more appealing to the audience: her lack of acting ability in a straight scene only further suggested that her apparent happy willingness to perform whatever sexual favors were asked of her was completely authentic: surely we were witnessing not an actress’s or even a sex worker’s rehearsed performance, but the unedited frolics of Linda Lovelace “as herself.” Anyone who saw Deep Throat could convince themselves that they knew, based on sixty-two minutes of footage, precisely how much Linda did or didn’t enjoy what she was doing, how innocent or morally corrupt she was, and—the most dangerous assumption of all—how willing.
any times throughout her memoir Ordeal, Linda recalls how all she ever wanted out of life was a husband she loved, a little house, and a couple of children. She was, by nature, sexually unadventurous and instinctually monogamous, and never gave much thought to a career—before she met Traynor, she thought she might one day like to open a clothing store. She wasn’t very interested in the growing women’s movement, or in reaping the benefits of feminism. Perhaps the most heartbreaking element of her memoir is that the system she put so much faith in—mainstream American life—never offered her even the slightest sanctuary from the relentless abuse she suffered. She had been raised knowing nothing of sex, menstruation, or birth control. As a teenager, she had gotten pregnant and—as many “good girls” did in those days—gave the baby up for adoption, learning early on that her rights did not extend even over the workings of her body.
When Linda met Chuck Traynor, she was nineteen years old and living with her parents while she recovered from injuries sustained in a car crash. (As a result of the accident she received a blood transfusion, which led to her contracting hepatitis C.) She was desperate to get out from under her domineering mother’s thumb, and Traynor wooed her with gifts and gentlemanly behavior, then convinced her to run away from home and live with him. Having alienated her from her family, he began abusing her physically and emotionally, and soon set her to work as the prime breadwinner in a prostitution ring he was running, inducting her into the profession by having five clients gang rape her in a Holiday Inn. When he married her shortly afterwards—because she had been privy to meetings with his lawyer while he was on trial for drug smuggling, and he wanted to ensure she couldn’t be called to testify for the prosecution—he told her she could never level charges against him, because “a wife can never charge her husband with a crime.” Linda believed him, as she also believed that he would murder her family and friends if she tried to escape, and that he would kill her if she disobeyed him. When Traynor needed a checkup or a prescription, he took Linda to a doctor’s office and arranged for her to trade sex for medical treatment, a barter to which the doctors—educated, powerful men whom Linda had been raised to trust and respect—nearly always agreed. She sought help from her mother, trying to explain Traynor’s treatment of her, and was told that all married couples have problems, but that her place would always be with her husband. Even if she had been able to escape, she had no money, no job skills, and no ability to make a living on her own. If her parents and the society she lived in had actually attempted to groom her for future imprisonment, they could not have done a much better job.
By her own account, Lovelace had been shamed and abused in nearly every way possible by the time Deep Throat started filming, and for the first time in months, she was able to get away from Traynor for more than a few minutes and spend time with people whose primary goal wasn’t to hurt her. Recalling the first day of principal photography, and her lighthearted attitude around the cast and crew, she wrote that:
Something was happening to me, something strange. It had to do with the fact that no one was treating me like garbage…. One of the crew members did something funny—I can no longer remember what—but everyone started laughing, and I was laughing along with the rest of them. I was laughing along with the rest of them. And I thought my face would break.
However, at least one aspect of the film’s production stuck out to Linda at the time. She wrote that:
Probably the most important thing to happen to me was a rechristening. Damiano came up with the name Linda Lovelace for the character in his movie. There had been a BB [Brigitte Bardot] and an MM [Marilyn Monroe] and now he wanted an LL. In time, I came to dislike the name, Linda Lovelace, because of what it stood for. But the truth is this: Linda Boreman and Linda Traynor never managed to get away from Chuck; it took a Linda Lovelace to escape.
n 1986, Linda testified before the Meese Commission, a joint venture between conservative politicians and anti-pornography feminists, and concluded her allegations against the pornography industry by stating that “every time someone sees [Deep Throat], they are watching me being raped.” Pornography producers and actors—and a dubious public—reacted more strongly to this remark than to any other she made during this period of her life. The vitriol leveled against Linda, then and for the rest of her life, was remarkable. In 2001—following a pictorial in Leg Show magazine, in which Linda, struggling with health issues and seeking a little money, posed in a corset and garter belt and claimed to still hate pornography—Hustler magazine named her its “Asshole of the Month.” After Linda’s death in 2002, Al Goldstein, the publisher of Screw magazine, which gave Deep Throat its first rave review (Traynor’s thank-you gift had been a blow job from Linda), and generally acknowledged to be the most unpleasant character in an industry bursting at the seams with unpleasant characters, had this to say:
Good riddance to trash. She was a good cocksucker. She was a piece of shit. Her book Ordeal was a lying piece of shit. She was a hooker, a scumbag, a lying trollop. I'm glad Traynor taught her to suck cock. I dropped several ejaculations down her throat. I want to do a final load, so when she goes to hell my sperm will go with her.
A slightly more balanced but similarly patronizing assessment of Linda’s life came from Violet Blue, a columnist and author who is now well-known as part of the sex-positive contingent of third-wave feminism. Following Linda’s death, Blue interviewed veteran pornographic actor Eric Edwards—Linda’s human costar in Dogarama—who delivered what was by then the standard claim among industry insiders: “After Deep Throat, the business simply passed Linda by…She wasn’t particularly attractive, nor could she act. If she’d told the truth about her life, her book may not have sold as well as making up a story that claims she was forced to do these ‘disgusting’ things.”
Blue seems to have taken this assessment as gospel, and ultimately summarized the trajectory of Linda’s life as follows:
Linda Lovelace had a strict religious upbringing, and a sequence of events that happen to any number of young girls landed her in the arms of a man named Chuck Traynor in 1969. He was bad. Slick, tough, and aggressive, Linda clung to him and somehow found in him the stimulation she required. After three weeks of knowing him, she moved in with him and began turning tricks. He dominated her every waking moment, and it was no secret that he beat her up on a regular basis…. With Chuck, Linda framed herself in a picture of the abused woman’s relationship cycle—always bad, never good, desperate to please and always a failure in the eyes of the person she wanted to love her the most.
This dissection of Linda’s life—in which the patriarchy, as represented by Traynor, is capable of tremendous abuses, but in which these abuses are repaired through a woman’s freedom to sexually gratify herself on film—is not inherently baseless. Many women find freedom of expression and a great deal of pleasure—sexual or otherwise—by performing in porn, or by taking part in the sex industry in general. But Linda did not, and we know she did not, because she said she didn’t. She didn’t express this opinion during Deep Throat’s popularity because she was still under Traynor’s thumb, an explanation that seems to leave nothing wanting—and yet the overwhelming reluctance to believe her story persists. Since Linda’s rise to fame, the question of when to believe a woman’s claims of abuse has loomed even larger in the public mind, often in the wake of well-publicized criminal cases, such as Bobbitt and Rideout. Yet few people seem to arrive at the simplest and most sensible conclusion: that we should believe a woman simply because she says so.
Many did not want to believe Linda’s claims, and were able to easily persuade themselves not to: they looked at her face in the movie—eyes closed, Madonna-like, as she performed oral sex—and decided she loved it, just as the audience did—not just men, but all audiences willing to pay five dollars to be told an almost-believable story about the world they lived in. Deep Throat created a mechanical myth—a variation on the elusive simultaneous orgasm, and an assurance that women could love giving head as much as men loved receiving it—but also launched a much more appealing, and much larger, set of lies. It told us that men and women were finally equal, and that sex was not just equally enjoyable to both genders, but enjoyable in the same way. It told us that a woman could have sex without any emotional complication, any shadow of danger, or any motivations apart from her own need to “untangle her tingle.” It told us that an orgasm, and nothing else, could make “a fulfilled woman,” and that a woman’s best route to finding her “love” and “happiness” was promiscuity.
t would be specious to claim that such a hastily and poorly produced film could anticipate and perhaps partially cause the events of the ensuing decade, except we know for a fact that it did. Deep Throat was perhaps the purest crystallization of the philosophy upon which the seventies were built. Afterward, when Linda attempted to unstick her symbolism from herself, she seemed to the public to be discrediting the cultural revolution she had inadvertently helped create—a revolution which, in a larger context, was soon associated not just with fellatio and miniskirts, but with Nixon’s resignation, the end of Vietnam, freedom of speech, and the monolith of women’s liberation. By disavowing her appearance “as herself,” she destroyed a keystone of one of the most important and highly mythologized periods in recent American history, and for many people active in that period, there was only one choice: to discredit, shame, and silence.
In Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible,” a seminal scholarly work on pornography, Linda Williams claims that at its simplest, pornography is “the quest for the magic that will make sex speak,” and in particular for the means to effectively interrogate female pleasure, and to a certain degree femaleness itself. Williams describes the convention of the “money shot” as modern pornography’s attempt to satisfy audiences with the mechanics of pleasure, but notes that “this new visibility extends only to a knowledge of the hydraulics of male ejaculation, which, though certainly of interest, is a poor substitute for the knowledge of female wonders that the genre as a whole still seeks.” The male orgasm is rendered unmistakably identifiable, but the female orgasm remains hidden, and far more difficult to quantify in terms of its causes and of its outward display.
Even in Deep Throat, a movie which gave audiences willing to buy into its conceit unparalleled proof of “Linda’s” pleasure, the female orgasm remains invisible and buried, albeit in the throat rather than the vagina. Seeking proof of its star’s authenticity, audiences watch Linda’s mute body for evidence that the woman is the character—that the frightened twenty-one-year-old with bruises on her legs is a new goddess of sexual freedom, with a pleasure center in place of a gag reflex. Of her abuse, her fear, and her pain, the public soon had thousands of words of her own articulate testimony. Of her pleasure, though, we have always had the far more compelling evidence of a few minutes’ footage of her face.
In a 1981 interview she gave to the Toronto Sun, Linda said of Deep Throat that “it’s a crime that movie is still showing; there was a gun to my head the entire time.” This quote, almost as widely circulated as her testimony before the Meese Commission, has been broadly misinterpreted and used among her detractors as conclusive evidence of all they wish to be true about her: that she was a pathological liar, a turncoat, and a crybaby. The statement is absurd if taken at face value, because anyone who read Ordeal, published only a year earlier, knows that according to Linda herself, there was not a literal gun to her head. If we see this claim as her attempt to up the ante and intensify her abuse claims, then we may go so far as to write off all of her claims. If we appreciate the statement for what it is, though—a bit of hyperbole that others then quoted disastrously out of context—we can begin to appreciate exactly what motivated Linda to make Deep Throat, and what motivated her not just to appear in it, but to perform the way she did.
In Ordeal, Linda’s brief description of the filming of Deep Throat is dwarfed by her account of the two years she had already spent with Chuck Traynor, first as his girlfriend, then as his prostitute, and finally as his wife. His abuses of her were constant and varied, but through them ran a common thread: that she was never good enough at being abused. If she was raped by five men, she had to take part in her rape, to excite them, to tantalize them, to put on an act and give them their money’s worth. If she had sex with a dog in front of a camera, she had not just to withstand the act, but also to act as if she enjoyed it. She had to make Traynor, and anyone who might be paying to watch her, believe in the fantasy. By the time she filmed Deep Throat, she knew that she did not just have to allow her body to be violated in order to survive, but had to take an active hand in her own violation, to act happy and willing and constantly aroused—to be “Linda Lovelace.” There was no gun to her head during the filming of Deep Throat, but there had been—figuratively and sometimes literally—during the two years that led to her becoming the woman we see in the film. Deep Throat, so important a document for so many audiences, was for Linda a depiction not of her abuse, but of its results. She had finally become the woman Traynor and her other abusers wanted her to be. Her impulse to somehow destroy or hide the evidence, to lock away the film and arrest the audience, was the same that anyone in a similar position might have had—except that none of us has ever been in that position. There are millions of Linda Traynors in America, but there will only ever be one Linda Lovelace.
ittle of this was on my mind as I watched Dogarama. It’s hard to think of anything much, at least at first, while watching a woman have sex with a dog. At the time I watched the movie, I hadn’t read either of Linda’s memoirs, and didn’t know much about her beyond what most do: that she had been a porn queen, then a feminist poster child, and then died an untimely death. I didn’t yet know that the car crash she died in strangely mirrored the car crash that had brought her to Chuck Traynor. I knew she had claimed she was abused, raped, and forced into pornography, and while I didn’t disbelieve her claims, I was also far more interested in Deep Throat as a social phenomenon than I was in Linda’s life story. I didn’t know that, while reading Ordeal, I would feel dread and fear, and shame for the society that had allowed the events she described ever to occur. I didn’t know that, between underlining and writing notes on the importance of this or that passage, I would sometimes just write in the margin “Oh, Linda.” I didn’t know that I would come to defend her, and to describe her life to anyone who would listen. I didn’t know any of this, because my enduring image of her was the same as everyone else’s, and I watched Dogarama simply because I wanted to understand the woman who would one day be Linda Lovelace, and set out to do so in the way that not just pornography but media in general had taught me: by watching. Watching Deep Throat, the audience can easily believe they understand Linda’s true intentions, partly because the persona she projects is one we hope is real, or at least could be—we want to believe in a woman going on a search for “love” and “happiness” that will bring tremendous pleasure to any man she encounters. In Dogarama, on the other hand, Linda acts just as willing, just as joyful, and just as satisfied, but in far more troubling circumstances. We do not have a fervent need to believe in a world in which a woman, left sexually unsatisfied by her boyfriend, sets her sights on a dog.
Deep Throat’s status as a pop-culture phenomenon has allowed it to transcend its genre as much as a piece of pornography could ever hope to, and probably ever will. You can buy it, and any of its sequels, on VHS or DVD. If you want to watch Dogarama, however,you have to either find it in a private collection (according to Linda, Hugh Hefner had a copy in the 70’s, to complement an enormous stash of bestiality films) or venture into one of the seamier corners of the Internet. You can find it on sites advertising all manner of similar videos (more dogs, mostly horses), these far more modern, or on websites dedicated to vintage efforts. More shocking than the content of these movies is the fact that they are still available online, and seeing Dogarama advertised alongside some newer version, taken with a webcam or a cameraphone, can lend its fuzzy 8mm presentation a nostalgic quality, perhaps even harmless. This is not the case, of course. Mediums change and new gimmicks emerge, markets broaden and audiences crave extremes, but, as noted in the Bible (a book that takes little issue with the abuse against women it often depicts), there is nothing new under the sun.
In Ordeal, Linda claims that she flatly refused to act in the movie, would take whatever beating Traynor wanted to give her, and that she only performed when he held her at gunpoint. “All I could see,” she wrote, “was the gun—the gun and the odds.” She writes that she completely blocked out the experience of filming the movie itself, and then answers the reader’s most obvious question:
Did this give me the strength to kill him or to make a new escape attempt? No. For some reason, it had an opposite effect on me. Every new degradation made me weaker and more docile. Now I felt totally defeated. There were no greater humiliations left for me. The memory of that day and that dog does not fade the way other memories do. The overwhelming sadness that I felt on that day is with me at this moment, stronger than ever.
I watched Dogarama because I believed it could help me uncover some basic truth about the mysterious woman we know as Linda Lovelace, but what it taught me was that there was none. The Linda Lovelace of Deep Throat was the kind of woman audiences wanted to believe in—the kind of woman who suggests we live in a simple world, populated with simple women. The other Linda—the real Linda—existed for herself. If we doubt her claims of her fears, her desires, her intentions, and her origins, we have no way of uncovering a deeper truth. As long as we keep trying to interpret Linda and women like her as cultural symbols, we will continue to destroy their ability to exist as human beings, and will continue to imprison them within cultural moments they most likely had little interest in creating. Ultimately, Linda got her husband, her house, and her children, but she could never quite get away from Linda Lovelace. Audiences may have made her a star, but they were not ready to let her exist as a person.
Sarah Marshall's nonfiction has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from The Hairpin, The Awl, and The Montreal Review. She is currently at work on a novel.