Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Sometimes familiar material can be, if not made fresh, at least elevated by one or two exceptionally strong performances.
Such is the case with the new biopic “Lovelace,” which would be a routine miss without the eye-opening work of Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace and the reliably strong support of Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Traynor, the husband who made her a household name but became increasingly controlling and abusive as time went by. The chameleonic Sarsgaard is the sort of actor to whom Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert might have devoted a segment of their show; whether in a lead or supporting role, he raises the IQ of any movie by twenty points, and after witnessing the disappearing act he pulls off here, you may wonder whether there’s any part he can’t play.
But this is, of course, Seyfried’s coming-out party. She’s an actress I’ve had my eye on for several years, and here she becomes Linda Boreman, then Lovelace, then Marciano. Seyfried captures the sweetness and pure heart of the young woman we meet as a 21-year-old living in Florida. After she and her friend Patsy (Juno Temple of “Killer Joe”) go-go dance behind the band at a local roller rink, Chuck picks up both girls, taking a special shine to the modest and un-self-confident Linda. He bets her that if she invites him to dinner with her uptight parents (played by Robert Patrick and a jaw-droppingly incog Sharon Stone), they’ll remark what a nice young man he is. He wins the bet, and gets to sleep with her (had he lost, she’d get to sleep with him), discovering that though she has had no sexual experience, she’s a natural at one skill in particular.
Thus is the stage set for Linda to move out of her parents’ house and with Chuck to Los Angeles, where a pair of movie producers (Chris Noth and an especially good Bobby Cannavale) can barely keep from laughing at her screen test but watch raptly when Chuck plays his home movies of their bedroom activities. In no time, we’re on the set of the infamous “Deep Throat,” easy to laugh at now (though hard to watch) but a cash cow and, for a time, the hottest topic in American life. Linda and Chuck were invited to Hollywood premieres and parties at the Playboy Mansion. Chuck saw nothing but dollar signs, and quickly abandoned the novelty sales of “Lovelace Enterprises” in favor of pimping his wife out to anyone who’d pay enough. His physical treatment of her soon became that of a pimp toward a whore. “Lovelace” gives us scenes of domestic violence we’ve seen dozens of times before, but some we haven’t as well.
In one, Chuck slaps Linda to the pavement after she tries to run away from him down their Malibu street. Two cops happen by and, upon realizing who she is, tell Chuck to take her home and clean her up, buying the story that she simply fell. One walks back to her and asks for her autograph, and I can’t adequately convey the play of emotions on Seyfried’s face in this moment: kindness toward the cop, happiness at being recognized, the unexpressed hope that he will help her escape her husband, the regretful wish that she could muster the courage to tell him the truth of her situation, the echo of her mother’s voice: “God has blessed you with a husband. Obey him.” It’s quite a piece of work.
The production design team on “Lovelace” has lovingly re-created the look and feel of the 1970’s, but in an understated way that doesn’t feel the need to show itself off. It just gets its right. But more than that, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have done justice to a woman who deserved to be more than a mere punchline. They end the film with a black-and-white photograph of Linda from her later years (she died of injuries sustained in a car crash in 2003), after decades spent campaigning against pornography and the victimization of women. As Linda said, she spent 17 days in the porn industry, and came to be defined by those 17 days. “Lovelace,” a sad story of trust betrayed and innocence slaughtered, does her the honor of giving us a longer look.