Porn, Again

Photo: Courtesy of AP Wide World Photos/Universal Studios

We live in a time when sexually explicit material is either persecuted (see Howard Stern flee to satellite radio) or mainstreamed (see Jenna Jameson go from video gang bangs to best-sellerdom). In this mixed-signal context, the startling innocence of the 1972 pornographic film Deep Throat is its most fascinating shock.

As the delightful, insightful documentary Inside Deep Throat chronicles, there was once a time when society folk like Jacqueline Onassis and Truman Capote eagerly joined the immense audience for this strange cultural phenomenon: a bit of comic smut made for $25,000 whose premise was that a woman’s clitoris was located way down her throat. Linda Lovelace was the unknown actress able to perform the act of oral satisfaction that pleased both her character and her co-stars (yes, a clip is shown), and Inside’s directors, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, have marshaled everyone from Throat director Gerard Damiano to Norman Mailer to Camille Paglia to attest to the charms, the novelty, and the limitations of Lovelace’s vehicle for stardom.

Deep Throat established the template for the modern, pre-VCR/DVD porno—a light tone, as opposed to shamed furtiveness; scenes played like blackout sketches. For its time, it was Laugh-In with a hard-on. “It was a giggle,” says Mailer, hitting the right note of jauntiness. “It was all about the rebellion,” says onetime porn star Andrea True, hitting the right note of period-counterculture defiance. (That True also scored one of the disco era’s frothiest hits, cooing “More, More, More” in 1976—she’s seen here performing it in vintage, glitter-ball footage—only adds to her authority.) It was also all about the money: By hitting the jackpot at the box office, Deep Throat brought porn into the mainstream, and with it, attendant curiosity and censure.

Filmmakers Bailey and Barbato—whose previous female subjects for HBO and Cinemax have included Monica Lewinsky and Tammy Faye Bakker—follow contemporary cable television’s frequent approach, which is to present erotic material within the framework of sociological examination. Cable fare like HBO’s Real Sex and those genius contributions to socio-porn, the “pimps up, hos down” docs, are clear influences on Inside Deep Throat. They freed the viewer to watch the naughty bits guiltlessly because, after all, they were Portraits of a Subculture, weren’t they?

Inside Deep Throat’s flaws are few. It alludes only briefly to underworld connections to porn profits, but only the FBI plus Superman could penetrate that deadly thicket. It spends too much time milking laughs out of a retired Florida movie distributor and his wife, who squabble riotously over their misgivings about screening the movie. But mostly, Inside Deep Throat is more than a giggle—it’s a valuable document of a cultural shift. The vintage shot of Reems flanked by new pals Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty alone says more about the nascent nexus of showbiz and sex than a million Howard Stern–Jenna Jameson chatfests.

Inside Deep Throat
Directed by Fenton Bailey And Randy Barbato.
Universal Pictures. NC-17.

Porn, Again