Head Games

Inside Deep Throat doesn't go deep enough

Deep Throat is dirty film legend.

The 1972 porn film starring Linda Lovelace as a woman who can only climax while performing fellatio set off a nationwide craze for "porno chic." The flick was banned in 23 states and became the lab rat for the nation's obscenity laws.

Deep Throat has been called the most profitable film of all time in terms of output ($25,000) vs. gross ($600 million), though it appears from the documentary that only the film's mob investors, and not the director or stars, saw any of that coin.

In their documentary Inside Deep Throat, filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato identify the X-rated film as the catalyst that opened the floodgates for a repressed America previously forced to get its kicks from Mason Lodge blue movie screenings and Mom and Dad sex education films. Enter the grinning hippies with real breasts and chimpanzee body hair who carried the mantle of sexual freedom straight to Times Square grind houses. It was all almost sweet, the filmmakers would have you believe, when viewed through the prism of contemporary porn and its surgically enhanced sex ponies.

Inside Deep Throat is a skin-flick about a skin-flick, dependent upon the propensity for T&A as the bait to lure reluctant viewers to documentary's table. But the skin this documentary privileges is wrinkled and sun-damaged. The truly startling imagery is not Lovelace in a clip from Deep Throat performing one of the film's signature acts of fellatio, but the sight of public enemy No. 1, Deep Throat director Gerard Damiano, as a hunched elderly man strolling through his Florida neighborhood. The only hint of former wild times is the chunk of gold chain tucked into his sports shirt. Inside Deep Throat catches up with Damiano, his elderly production crew, and star Harry Reems, all demonstrating time's ability to render every former bad boy into a hangdog retiree in Sansabelt trousers.

Inside Deep Throat consults both these witnesses to the film's six-day production schedule, but also provides ample newsreel footage to show America's progression from prude to porn dog, as suburbanites, movie stars and slumming uptowners lined up for Deep Throat like converts at profanity's tent meeting. Inside Deep Throat is consistent in only one regard: its portrait of Americans as judgmental about sex as they are ravenously curious.

Grinning constantly at their smutty material, Bailey and Barbato return to the irony-addicted hijinks that plagued their 2000 documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye. They pile their already sufficiently raunchy film high with copious sexual innuendo, from its dopey title to the procession of hot dog, rocket ship and Washington Monument imagery. Bailey and Barbato apparently never met a phallic symbol or a rude pop song they didn't like.

The film is crammed with "experts" who were on the battlefield where Deep Throat fought propriety. Norman Mailer calls the film "a giggle," and Dick Cavett (who admits he hasn't even seen the film) provides the filmmakers with an icon of the age and more New Yorker wisecracks. Even academic attack dog Camille Paglia is dug out of her pop-culture-moment mothballs. And Hugh Hefner, wearing his smoking jacket ring-a-ding-ding uniform, spouts the party line of sex as freedom from sexual repression, while Erica Jong questions the equation of sexual liberation with a dick down some chick's throat. But so much of the material is served up with a wink and "a giggle," the possibilities for real revelation are scarce.

Compared to Kinsey's examination of the conflicts sex sets off in the human animal, Inside Deep Throat is kid's stuff, arguing for moral extremes rather than nuance. Especially grating is how the filmmakers create a conventional divide between the libertines and the blue nose porn-censors like future racketeer Charles Keating Jr., who was once an anti-porn crusader. Virtually dismissed as more hysteria, feminist objections to porn prove less interesting to the filmmakers than the usual cast of repressive politicians and self-appointed moralists who are easier to lampoon.

And by dividing the world into censors and freedom fighters, the filmmakers create some ridiculously unlikely underdogs and patriots. By the end of the film, the creators of Deep Throat have emerged as no less than sexual martyrs - sagging sybarites sporting a cherub's halo.

Two who perhaps deserve that retroactive beatification are Deep Throat's stars, Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems, who seem to have suffered the most for the nation's sexual liberation. They endured social ostracism, legal persecution, alcoholism and an inability to make much of their lives following that early burst of fame - two victims of America's love-hate relationship with sex.