March 2012
Lili Anolik

Out of the Blue

Deep Throat, Last Tango in Paris, And the Art of Cultural Penetration

Discussed: Eggheady Rumination, An Ur–Samantha Jones, Nebbishy Celluloid, Linda’s Tingler, The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm, The Wrath of Richard Nixon, Intercessory Dairy Products, Stealing Brando’s Humanity, Nose Appeal, A Polymorphously Perverse Ding-a-Ling, Sweet-Talkers, Arty Trappings

June 12, 1972. The day America opened wide and said ahh. A movie starring a couple of no-name actors, directed by a middle-aged beauty-salon owner from Queens who’d cut more hair than film, with a script written over a single weekend, played for the first time at the World Theater in Times Square. The nation’s mouth gaped in a mixture of excitement, horror, fascination, and disbelief. Deep Throat was the X film that went mainstream. It became a genuine sensation, one of the most profitable films ever made, costing a mere twenty-five thousand and bringing in a whopping six hundred million. It was responsible, as well, for ushering in the era known as “porno chic,”middle-class respectable types getting hardcore about hardcore. The New York Times Magazine devoted five pages of eggheady rumination to it. Johnny Carson and Bob Hope cracked wise about it. And Truman Capote’s high-society swans migrated down to low-life venues to see it.

If the mouth gapes watching Deep Throat these days, however, it’s likely as not because a yawn’s coming on. Deep Throat is no Ulysses or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s not even a Candy or an I Am Curious (Yellow). It is, as location manager Len Camp so succinctly put it, “a piece of shit” with actors who “are all shit.” Even Gerard Damiano, the director, when asked if he judged it a good movie, said (after a long pause, as if such an admission pained him), “No.”

Even by the diminished standards of the early-’70s hardcore world, Deep Throat was considered a modest venture. Linda Lovelace, a relative newcomer to the Adult scene, played the lead, a character named Linda Lovelace. Harry Reems, who had originally been hired as the lighting director, was cast opposite her as Dr.Young. And in the supporting role of Helen, Linda’s older, wiser friend, was Dolly Sharp. Ted Street played the delivery boy. It’s tough now to understand what all the fuss was about, the furor and the controversy and the endless legal battles. (Reems was prosecuted in Tennessee for breaking obscenity laws, and found guilty. He would’ve gone to jail for up to five years but for the grace of an Alan Dershowitz–orchestrated appeal and legal-defense fund-raisers thrown by the likes of Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson.) From a present-day perspective, Deep Throat looks like a junky little nothing of a porno flick, your garden-variety suck-and-fuck loop—well, suck-and-suck-some-more loop, if you want to get technical—too dopey and good-natured to inspire genuine offense.

It’s possible, I suppose, to be galled by the premise: a young woman suffering from extreme sexual frustration goes to her doctor. After a thorough examination, he discovers the reason. Her clitoris is located in the back of her throat, the kind of anatomical defect most men would rank alongside a woman’s breasts being too big, or her legs too long. The treatment he prescribes is as inventive as it is self-serving. He unzips his fly, she opens her mouth, and, just like that, she’s all better. The notion that a woman can be cured of her sexual frigidity only by performing a man-gratifying act like fellatio is a little insulting. But, really, the movie’s primary concern is with female pleasure. It wants “bells ringing, bombs going off, and dams bursting” for its G-spot-challenged heroine, which is actually sort of sweet, even if it’s misguided/wishful-thinking-y/in-your-dreams-buddy-esque in how it goes about providing said pleasure.

High claims have been made for Deep Throat’s wit. Sure, OK, if you think lines like the one Helen (Linda’s older and more experienced friend, an ur–Samantha Jones) drops on the delivery boy as he performs cunnilingus on her—“Do you mind if I smoke while you’re eating?”—constitute sparkling repartee. Its freshness, too, has been much vaunted. And I guess it is fresh so long as you don’t choke on the mothball stench coming off Reems’s Jewish-doctor routine, replete with child’s toy stethoscope and Borscht Belt–emcee Yiddish accent. So how did this inept, lame-brained, spoofy, goofy bit of nebbishy celluloid thrust itself so deeply inside the popular consciousness, hitting the country’s elusive sweet spot every bit as adroitly as Dr. Young hit that of his lovely patient?

Maybe I’m being too rough on Deep Throat. The fact of the matter is, I’d probably take a more charitable attitude toward it if its cultural importance wasn’t already so absurdly inflated. (It was dubbed “porno chic” by New York Times journalist Ralph Blumenthal, and Nora Ephron, who otherwise took a hard line with it, declared in Esquire that not to see it “seemed somehow… derelict.” And Roger Ebert pronounced it “the first stag film to see with a date” in the Chicago Sun-Times.) In truth, the movie did have a few things going for it. It had a great title, an inspired ad campaign—“If you like head, you’ll love Throat”—and a lead who wasn’t the typical porn starlet with blond-bimbo hair and run-amok secondary sexual characteristics, but a skinny brunette with Raggedy Ann freckles, an impish grin, and a very, very special talent. Al Goldstein, founder and publisher of Screw, a magazine James Wolcott would describe as looking “like something to line a sex offender’s litter box,” was especially impressed by Linda’s gifts, claiming he was “never so moved by any theatrical performance since stuttering through [his] own bar mitzvah,” and giving Deep Throat the highest possible score on the Peter Meter, his tried-and-true system for rating a film’s erection-inducing ability. Deep Throat also featured an erotic act that was new to the scene; or, rather, new to the mainstream scene; or, rather, new to the heterosexual mainstream scene. It offered a setup that had something in it for the misogynist crowd as well as the feminist: yes, Linda Lovelace could achieve satisfaction only by catering to a man in the most slavish of fashions, but respect was shown for the essential mystery of feminine sexuality—Linda’s “tingler,” Harry Reems’s puckish term for it, was located inside the body, in the recesses of her esophagus, still a private, tucked-away location—and a profound interest in her having as much fun as any of her partners. And, most important of all, the movie was lucky. The timing of its release couldn’t have been better: two years after Anne Koedt’s influential essay “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” appeared, and the same year the birth-control pill became available to unmarried women in all states. Not only was attention being paid to the female climax, but, for the first time in history, said female was free to chase that climax, could screw around as much as she wanted without fear of pregnancy. In fact, screwing around was practically her patriotic duty, what with anti-Vietnam make-love-not-war sentiment at its height. Luckiest of all, perhaps, the film incurred the wrath of that counterculture bogeyman and bad-daddy supreme President Richard Nixon—who, with his imperfect grasp of child psychology, decided to order a nationwide crackdown on the smut business. At his indirect behest, the New York City police shut down theaters showing Deep Throat, which only served to increase its popularity and au courant–ness among the under-thirty crowd.

Ultimately, though, it was just a dirty movie, an exploitation picture meant to provoke release rather than reflection, and timely rather than good. In the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat, directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato use public intellectuals the way Woody Allen used them in his 1983 mockumentary, Zelig. Get them, in other words, to parody themselves, satirize their own ideas. When Camille Paglia refers to Deep Throat as “an epochal moment in the history of modern sexuality,” or Norman Mailer characterizes pornography as “a mid-world between crime and art,” you can practically hear the huffing and puffing sounds behind their words. The two are attempting to puff up this pipsqueak, rinky-dink topic—Damiano’s minimum opus—until it’s achieved dimensions worthy of their magisterial attention.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Lili Anolik has written on deposed porn king Al Goldstein and film critic Pauline Kael for the New York Observer. She is currently at work on a young-adult series for Penguin, under a pseudonym.

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