Did you know that some of the top sex symbols of our time started out as ordinary, innocent girls with perfectly wholesome upbringings?
Oh, well, did you know 1940s and ’50s fashions were really smokin’, and ’70s fashions were utterly hideous?
Yeah, of course you did.
Okay, but did you know how good Gretchen Mol and Amanda Seyfried look naked?
Aha! Now I’ve got your attent—
Oh, you knew that too? Yeah, yeah, Boardwalk Empire and Chloe and all that…
Well, look, how about you just sit back and watch this here knock-down drag-out catfight between the legendary, 1950s “Queen of Pinups” Bettie Page and 1970s “Queen of (ask your father)” Linda Lovelace.* What more could you want from a Smackdown?
*Okay, really just their bio-pics, The Notorious Bettie Page (2005) and the new release, Lovelace. But still!
Linda Boreman (Seyfried) is just an ordinary, freckle-faced, twenty-something living with her strict, protective parents (Robert Patrick and an unrecognizably frumpy Sharon Stone), when she catches the eye of the charming but palpably skeezy pimp, Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), while go-go dancing at a club, and a whirlwind romance begins. He marries her, whisks her off to New York and, when he discovers her expertise at a certain connubial act, foists her into the wonderful world of porn.
She is immediately cast in the lead of Deep Throat, a truly idiotic yet perfect showcase for the special “talent” of its star, now renamed “Linda Lovelace.” The rest is X-rated history, with Deep Throat becoming a surprise smash that brings pornography into the mainstream and gives Linda her solid fifteen minutes of the type of notoriety that Paris Hilton could only dream about.
But then a flashback, via hypnosis, revisits the story through Linda’s eyes, and we see that the road to porn fame was fraught with horrors. Traynor, in this version, is an abusive, money-hungry monster with a drug problem and an insane jealous streak. It’s sort of like Rashomon, only without the swords. Well, actually…
Bettie Page (Mol) grows up as a devoutly religious, slightly naïve and irrepressibly good-natured teenager in rural Tennessee. After a brief marriage to a high school sweetheart, her camera-friendly face and camera-extremely-friendly body are discovered by amateur photographer Jerry Tibbs (Kevin Carroll), and thus begins one of the most pinned-up and tattooed modeling careers in all of history, as well as one that leads to a long working relationship with the wonderfully named Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor), a likable and respectful brother-sister team that just happens to produce deviant (but thanks to Bettie’s shiny wholesomeness, oddly adorable) soft-core bondage reels.
As her fame and visibility as an all-American sex goddess grows, Bettie remains a dedicated student, an aspiring serious actress, and an all-around Good Girl, but her movie career doesn’t go unnoticed by Congress’ puritanical Obscenity Committee headed by the humorless Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn).
These two movies have eerily similar plots — the lead characters follow almost identical trajectories — but such completely opposite flaws. Lovelace takes a compelling true story, distorts it beyond recognition and renders it into Lifetime movie pabulum, and Bettie Page is a fairly faithful retelling of a tale that simply isn’t dramatic enough to sustain its feature length. The former suffers from the dullness of its story’s cliches; the latter suffers from the dullness of its nearly complete lack of a story.
There absolutely is an entertaining movie to be made about the making of Deep Throat, as evidenced by the fact that there already is one: Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary, Inside Deep Throat (2005), which jauntily chronicles how this motley assortment of eccentric and nefarious characters essentially stumbled into making one of the most controversial, barrier-smashing and profitable films of the 1970s, one that opened the floodgates (for better or worse) to the multi-billion dollar industry that porn is today, as well as an obscenity trial (against the affable and articulate Harry Reems, the male lead and the one who really should have gotten the bio-pic treatment) that went all the way up to the Supreme Court.
But Lovelace, the second dramatic feature from renowned documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is not only not interested in any of that, it’s barely interested in the true story at all, instead co-opting Lovelace’s bio for a simple morality play about a naïve girl who takes the wrong path with the wrong guy, learns her lesson and comes home to Mommy. As the film would have you believe, Linda Lovelace did just this one movie due to pressure from Traynor, enjoyed the fleeting fame it brought her, then fled her psycho husband and the whole icky world, never to return… which, aside from being not particularly compelling a tale, is a load of crap. Among countless distortions and omissions, the real Lovelace had already made several hard-core loops (including an infamous one co-starring a canine) prior to Deep Throat, went on to make several R-rated and X-rated films after it, and even returned to nude modeling after she launched a career of anti-porn activism.
The omission of all this doesn’t necessarily makes Lovelace a bad movie, but because the phony story that Friedman, Epstein and screenwriter Andy Bellin chose to tell is so familiar and forgettable, it’s an infuriating missed opportunity. Sarsgaard, as usual, makes a convincingly oily sleazebag, and Seyfried does a fine job of capturing Lovelace’s intriguing mix of sexual confidence and girl-next-door vulnerability, and she does the most convincing “bad” porn acting this side of Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights. In fact, the sequences depicting the Deep Throat production, peppered with the always enjoyable Hank Azaria, Bobby Cannavale, and Adam Brody’s flattering, sweetie-pie turn as Reems are easily the movie’s highlights, but everything around them is dreary and preachy, as if it were made for the approval of the dour, disapproving, post-porn Lovelace. Everyone else will be baffled as to how a movie about a legendary fellatio expert could be so thoroughly dull.
A star-making lead performance is most of what The Notorious Bettie Page has going for it as well, in addition to some outstanding production design and Mott Hupfel’s gorgeous photography, mostly in black and white, but shifting to radiant ’60s-style color for the Florida scenes. Gretchen Mol, foundering in thankless supporting roles for so many years, reinvented her career with it, nailing Page’s unusual, wholesome-sexpot appeal as well as rivaling her pinup-worthy body. Harron, the talented director and co-writer (with Guinevere Turner), had previously worked wonders with the difficult but shockingly good American Psycho, but the stretch of Page’s life she focuses on, while colorful in spots, simply doesn’t make for much of a movie. Whereas, the real Page’s life eventually does get pretty wild (she is diagnosed with schizophrenia and spends her forties in and out of mental hospitals), but as with Lovelace, the film ends before it gets to the good stuff.
As handsomely produced, lovingly designed, and well acted as it is, the movie ultimately has nothing to say beyond “Yep, one of our all-time sex goddesses was actually conservative, religious, and barely cognizant of how arousing she was. Isn’t that interesting?” Sure, but if you already knew that, there’s no reason to see the movie. It simply rattles off the major events of Page’s career with the indifference of a Wikipedia page, interrupting it intermittently and pointlessly with excerpts from the Kefauver hearings (at which Page didn’t even testify). Say what you want about the goofy bondage reels she did for the Klaws, but they were exactly what they wanted to be. Whatever The Notorious Bettie Page wanted to be, all it actually is is dull.
One reliable test for whether a based-on-true-events film actually works is asking if you’d rather be watching a documentary on the subject. In both cases, we already have existing proof that neither of these movies does its subject cinematic justice. But forced to make a choice, I’ll happily take the dramatically flat but visually stunning, artfully made and fairly affable The Notorious Bettie Page over the dreary, phony, life-lesson proselytizing of Lovelace. Both Mol and Seyfried are to be applauded for their fearless performances, but as with Linda and Bettie, they deserved better material.