[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Lovelace opens today in limited release.]
The world wanted to possess Linda Lovelace. Celebrity always involves an aspect of ownership (it’s why we feel justified in judging the lives of famous people even though they’re personally strangers to us), but Lovelace was treated as a possession by her family, her husband, and ultimately the world as she became famous not for any aspect of her personality, but because she had one particular talent. In Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman‘s biopic Lovelace, the filmmakers change the narrative of Lovelace from sex icon to victim of domestic abuse. The movie finds a tenuous connection between the public and private possession of Lovelace, but the narrative’s strength comes from stars Amanda Seyfried and Peter Sarsgaard taking a mature approach to domestic violence, which helps Lovelace rise above its melodrama and poor structure.
In 1970, Linda Boreman (Seyfried) fell for strip-club owner Chuck Traynor (Sarsgaard). Traynor married the “good girl”, coerced her to become more sexual, and slowly goaded Linda into prostitution before bringing her in to audition for a porno. At first, the director Jerry Damiano (Hank Azaria) and producer Butchie Peraino (Bobby Cannavale) think Linda’s girl-next-door persona is no good for their adult movie, but then Chuck shows Linda’s skill at fellatio. She is renamed “Linda Lovelace”, and the rest of the story is fairly common knowledge: the porno, Deep Throat, went on to become a massive hit, and Linda became a star. At this point, Epstein and Friedman rewind the picture to show us how Traynor was abusing Linda behind the scenes.
It’s an abrupt structure that takes what was previously moving forward as a solid biopic about the ownership of Linda Lovelace, and then splits the story in to a half where the public owns her and a half where we see how Traynor owned her. The motives and players in Linda’s notoriety are far more interesting than circling back and pointing out that Linda Lovelace was not some savvy actress who lucked into starring in Deep Throat. In the first-half, Epstein and Friedman even try to make a play for laughs as Damiano and Peraino marvel at Linda’s talent, and later there’s a distracting appearance by James Franco as a young Hugh Hefner.
By rewinding the movie, it’s as if Epstein and Friedman are saying, “Look! It wasn’t all fun and games!” even though we’ve already picked up on the problems between Lovelace and Traynor. Once we start going behind the porno, Lovelace becomes primarily about the horrible domestic violence Linda suffered. We can’t say she “becomes” a victim because Linda is always at the mercy of more powerful players. She’s sweet and shy, and we can see how she was easily manipulated before being physically forced into submission. Using this dynamic and plotline, Epstein and Friedman start sending their movie into melodrama, but thankfully they have Seyfried and Sarsgaard to add the depth and nuance the picture lacks.
Seyfried needs more roles like this one. Her talent is being wasted on mindless thrillers like In Time and Red Riding Hood. On the page, Lovelace is a bit of a static character up until the end of the movie. She’s the good girl who was turned into a victim, and while we innately feel sympathy for any woman who’s being abused, Seyfried turns Lovelace into a character who is perversely resilient as she never succumbs to self-abuse despite being exploited by the world. There’s always good in her, which makes the character more than a victim.
Sarsgaard is even more incredible as he makes us see the humanity in an atrocious human being. Traynor is unquestionably a despicable figure, and the film never tries to make any excuses for his behavior. However, Sarsgaard works to find what would make Traynor behave this way. We see how a weak and pathetic person would turn his loathing outward, and direct it towards someone like Linda, who was getting the recognition he felt he deserved. Saying Sarsgaard gains our sympathy is a bit of a stretch, but he certainly earns our understanding.
The maturity of the lead actors and the space they have to give excellent performances make Lovelace more than a domestic violence PSA or a Lifetime movie with nudity. Epstein and Friedman remove their film from a larger issue regarding the public’s ownership of an infamous celebrity, but they do a strong job of taking the smaller story and still making it feel heartbreaking and thoughtful.