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Deep Throat

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Happy 50th Birthday, Deep Throat! or Maybe Not

How far does a girl have to go to untangle her tingle?

There was an important cinema anniversary last month, but depending on your point of view, it might not be one you’d want to celebrate.  This month, commemorating that anniversary, one of the most important and controversial – and still controversial — theatrical releases of the 20th Century is being re-released.  It is also estimated to be one of the most profitable movies ever made, costing only $25,000 and shot in six days, then going on to pull in something like $600 million globally.

The anniversary?  June 12, 1972 was the release date for porn milestone Deep Throat.

Huh?

No, seriously.  Not only did it revolutionize the porn industry, but one can argue that – for good or for ill – it also expanded the tolerance for sexual content in mainstream movies.  Some considered it a new low in sleaze, others a battlefront over the First Amendment.  I suppose if you stand back and take the 30,000-foot view, it’s both.

*****

Looked at today, Deep Throat is cheesy, not particularly erotic, and even the man behind it – porn maestro Gerard Damiano – didn’t think much of it even as porn cinema.  In an article on the movie’s anniversary, porn director Jacky St. James points out that following Deep Throat “…there were better films back then,” at least as far as big-screen skin flicks went.

Still, it was an important film which is why chroniclers of the skin industry (and yes, they exist) tend to mark the business as Before Deep Throat and After Deep Throat.

The porn industry wasn’t born with the film, but it existed as a low, grubby business of silent 8 mm movies shown in peep shows or bought for home use.  There were porn theaters, but they were usually once-legit theaters gone to seed running movies that didn’t look much better than those cheap 8 mm one-reelers; some of them didn’t even have synch sound.  In the same way that Playboy changed print porn, Deep Throat sort of did the same thing for big-screen porn.

Before Playboy, nudie magazines were sold in icky little porn shops in neighborhoods you didn’t want to be in after dark.  Playboy, which rolled out in 1953, mainstreamed erotica, classed it up with certain artistry and restraint, and by the 1970s, if you wanted your nudie fix, you didn’t have to pull your hat down, your collar up, and skulk off to some scuzzy little “Adult Store”; you could find Playboy – and a growing number of competitors — on any newsstand and claim you were just getting it for the stereo and movie reviews and some pretty nifty fiction (Richard Matheson’s short story Duel, the source material for the Steven Spielberg-directed TV movie, was first published in Playboy).

Deep Throat didn’t quite mainstream hardcore big-screen porn the way Playboy had done with print erotica, but it did take it out of dark corners…although with little of Playboy’s artistry and none of its restraint.  The movie became a pop culture phenomenon, driven largely by word of mouth which, in turn, was driven largely by talk of the particular oral talents of the movie’s leading lady, Linda Lovelace (real name Linda Boreman who later became Linda Marchiano, and who passed away in 2002 as a result of injuries suffered in a traffic accident).  It graduated porn from the raincoat-in-the-lap crowd to suburban couples who thought a trip to a porn house was daringly cool.  “You saw it?”  “Of course!  You mean you haven’t?  You really should!”  Celebrities like Jackie Onassis and Truman Capote talked about seeing it, late-night talk show monologues were dotted with jokey references to it.  Whether you went to see it or not, Deep Throat became the pop culture reference everybody knewBiggest thing since the Beatles.

But the timing of Deep Throat’s appearance on the cultural scene put it in direct conflict with another seismic change in the culture.

*****

Deep Throat
Image: Bryanston Distributing Company

As it happens, the movie came out as the first wave of militant feminism was reaching something of a peak.  One of the signatures of the late 1960s were Women’s Lib marches, bra burnings symbolizing a rejection of male-dictated parameters of femininity.  They were women, hear them roar because, for the first time since Abigail Adams had beseeched her husband to “remember the ladies” as the Thirteen Colonies declared their independence (he didn’t), women were feeling empowered in a way that even gaining the voting franchise in 1920 hadn’t.

The first oral contraceptive had been approved by the FDA in 1960, but it remained illegal in a number of states for a doctor to prescribe it.  It wasn’t until the Supreme Court’s Griswold v. Connecticut ruling in 1965 that the prohibitions were off.  Then, the same year Deep Throat was released, came to the recently reversed SCOTUS Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion.

The combined rulings gave women a sense of sexual empowerment and independence, of physical self-determination in a way American men had always enjoyed, and American women had always been denied.  It was only one element of feminism, but was part of the overall push by women to be recognized – finally – as equals and not subordinates to men; in the home, in the workplace, in the bedroom.

But then women had to deal with Deep Throat, a movie feminists felt – like all porn — degraded women, used women as props to satisfy male fantasies which, in turn, they feared affected how men viewed and dealt with women in the real world:  “If Linda Lovelace can do it, why can’t you?”

Ms. Boreman had her own comeback to that.  In her 1980 memoir Ordeal, Boreman, who by then had allied herself with the anti-porn camp, claimed her husband at the time, Chuck Traynor, had abused her and forced her into prostitution and porn.  “Everyone that watches Deep Throat,” she wrote, “is watching me being raped.”

Although Damiano and Boreman’s costar, Harry Reems, disputed her characterization of the experience, forced or not didn’t make the film any more palatable to women fighting a culture that even at the mainstream level, in one way or another, objectified them.

Complicating the issue further – and one of the reasons this whole discussion is relevant to a site like this – is that this simply wasn’t a matter of women feeling put down by a dirty movie because this particular dirty movie also became a battlefront in fights about the First Amendment, censorship, and (not kidding) artistic expression.  Robin Leonardi, the daughter of Gloria Leonard, a contemporary of Boreman and a vanguard of a sort in being the first woman publisher of a men’s magazine (High Society), on the occasion of Deep Throat’s anniversary told a reporter, “Fifty years later we’re still having this conversation about free speech and censorship…”

You have to keep in mind that through the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, mainstream Hollywood, faced with falling attendance, started pushing into heretofore taboo subject areas to get the audience – particularly a young audience – into theaters.  This meant violence got bloodier, and sexual content got sexier, the latter manifesting itself in movies like, among others, Midnight Cowboy (1969), The Killing of Sister George (1968), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1968), The Sergeant (1968), Straw Dogs (1971), The Detective (1968), Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), and especially the Big Kahuna in the bunch, Last Tango in Paris (1972).  Hollywood’s increasing brazenness had already resulted in self-policing with the MPAA ratings system as a move to preempt calls for government censorship.

So, the dynamic was something like this:  yes, porn degraded women, but you didn’t want to censor porn because that could open the door to censoring other uncomfortable content, but porn did degrade women, but censorship was dangerous — …  Well, you get the idea.  Complicated.

And it was going to get still more complicated.

*****

Image: Bryanston Distributing Company

The success of Deep Throat was a booster rocket for porn.  Looking at the money that could be made on a small outlay, other players followed Damiano’s example:  upgrade the movies, give them a patina of polish (or as much polish as you could manage on skimpy budgets) so that “the straights” felt comfortable coming to the theaters, and you were looking at big money.

Compared to Deep Throat, production values on the skin flicks that came after were easily better, stories – such as they were – were somewhat more sophisticated, and while they were still basically just a framework for a series of sexual escapades, some did have an interesting hook or two.

Damiano’s follow-up to Deep Throat, for example – The Devil in Miss Jones (1973) – features Georgina Spelvin as a spinster who commits suicide.  Although she’s led a perfectly chaste life, suicide being a sin she’s consigned to Hell.  But Satan takes pity on her and before she goes on to her eternal damnation, she’s allowed time to indulge herself in all the erotic activities she’s denied herself.  Ironic twist:  once addicted to sex, her eternal punishment is to remain aroused but unsatisfied, trapped for all eternity with a guy (Damiano himself) more fixated on a hovering fly than the woman who desperately wants to copulate with him.

Then there was Behind the Green Door (1972), controversial because its star, Marilyn Chambers, had been the “Ivory Soap Girl,” her wholesome image appearing on boxes of Ivory soap flakes, and also because it featured what was possibly the first hardcore interracial sex scene.  The film featured – for the time and for the minuscule budget – a dazzling FX climax in an obvious attempt to elevate the pedestrian visual aesthetic of so many porn flicks.

Another Damiano effort was Memories Within Miss Aggie (1974) which was about a middle-aged couple remembering how they met.  Each memory by Miss Aggie leads to a sexual episode after which her lover tells her that’s not how they met, and so she recalls another similarly false memory, each vignette featuring different actors as Aggie and her lover.  Eventually, the movie gets to the real memory:  he was a drifter, came by her remote cabin, she murdered him, and then we realize she’s been delusionally talking to his desiccated corpse the whole time.

Ok, none of it was exactly Citizen Kane (1940), but they were trying.

The porn business grew into something like a funhouse mirror of Hollywood.  If you’ve seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997), you get some idea of how the business evolved.  They had their own equivalent of the MPAA (the Adult Film Association of America), their own award ceremonies, major cities had top-end showcase theaters like Manhattan’s Pussycat Theater in Times Square which had red carpet world premieres complete with a searchlight sweeping the night sky.

And the business had its stars.  While there were a number of male stars like Deep Throat’s Harry Reems, Jamie Gillis, John Holmes, and others, the above the title marquee names were nearly always women:  Lovelace, Chambers, Spelvin, Leonard, Seka, Juliet “Aunt Peg” Anderson, Holly McCall, et al.  Some in the porn industry talked a good game about how what they were doing was rebelling against long-standing American puritanism and that this was a free expression of human sexuality.  But the fact that all the big names were women only reinforced the criticism that the only human sexuality that was getting freely expressed was that of men.  Jacky St. James, looking back on the period says undoubtedly the “…focus was on male pleasure.”

But not unlike when the Hollywood major studios began to falter in the 1950s and their stars got out from their long-term contracts to better control their careers, some of these women, recognizing their box office clout, did the same thing.  Porn stars like Seka and Marilyn Chambers turned their names into brands, having more input into their films, expanding into merchandising, and, with the rise of the Internet, establishing commercial websites.  Nina Hartley – still active in the industry at 63 – parlayed her porn notoriety into not just merchandising and her own site, but academic appearances, sexual relationship workshops, books, sex advice columns and more; a veritable one-woman cottage industry.  She’s even managed getting a toe into the mainstream appearing as William H. Macy’s habitually cuckolding wife in Boogie Nights.

Similar female enfranchisement was happening on erotica’s print side with Gloria Leonard heading up High Society, Hustler founder Larry Flynt’s wife Althea taking over the magazine after her husband was disabled by a would-be assassin’s bullet, Hugh Hefner’s daughter Christie becoming president of Playboy Enterprises (which included the magazine along with a number of businesses).

So now a new question entered the debate:  if a woman controlled the erotic material in which she voluntarily participated, was this empowerment?  Or still degrading to women?  Or, to confuse the matter further, a bit of both?

Think of a three-sided table.  Sitting on one side, the anti-porn crusaders; on another, the First Amendment/freedom of expression representatives; and now, on a the third side, reps for the empowered women’s sexuality view.  Obviously, who you want to give the moral weight to depends on your point of view.  What makes it so complicated, at least as I see it, is that giving everyone the benefit of the doubt on good intentions, all three of them have a certain amount of right on their side.

That can of moral worms got opened a half-century ago with Deep Throat…and the worms, as Robin Leonardi pointed out, are still wriggling.

*****

What’s been dubbed The Golden Age of Porn begins with Deep Throat and starts to fade in the early 1980s.  In another rough parallel with the Hollywood industry, porn got hammered with the same ball peen giving studio executives ulcers:  home video.

Yes, like Hollywood, home video provided an aftermarket for big-screen features, and XXX-rated videocassettes were certainly welcomed by the straights too embarrassed to go to a porn theater.  But in the home video market, a more cynical view of the porn audience began to show itself.

It’s like this:  maybe men enjoyed Playboy’s stereo reviews and all that, but nobody had any illusions that the prime mover for readership was the mag’s audience liked looking at pictures of pretty, naked women.  That more graphic magazines like Hustler began to eat into Playboy’s market was proof that any pretensions of art and creative expression and all that stuff was more about make content creators feel better about what they were producing than because of any great appetite for such by the audience.

Direct-to-video producers say they didn’t need to spend the kind of money a Damiano was spending on a big screen skinflick because they knew their audience could give a rat’s ass about production value and story.  They just wanted to see people having sex.  Period.  So, a lot of cheap, junky DTV porn began filling the “Adult” section of video stores.  When there was a story, it was barely more than a premise to kick off the action.  A Cheech & Chong parody from their album days caught it perfectly:  “You ordered a pepperoni pizza?  Well here’s the pizza…and here’s the pepperoni!”  Zipper noise.  Some DTV features didn’t even bother with that much and were nothing more than highlight tapes from old 8 mm one-reelers with non-synch sound added in…badly.

There was another aspect of the porn home video market the legit movie business didn’t have to deal with:  home video that was really home video – amateur porn.  There were everyday people (I was going to say “average people” but I don’t know how average you are if you want to share your intimacies with the world) who set up a video camera, recorded their sexual shenanigans and then there it was on a video store shelf (again, Boogie Nights nails this development).

That transition from (relatively) polished professional porn to any Mr. and Ms. Whosis displaying their wares, expertise, and dexterity only accelerated with the rise of the Internet.  There are now literally countless porn sites stocked with endless hours of “professionally produced” porn (I put it in quotes because all that means is prettier people and better equipment) and just as much amateur porn, free and accessible to anybody with a laptop.  Looking back at something like The Devil in Miss Jones is like comparing today’s movie industry with Hollywood’s mogul-era Golden Age; they don’t make ’em like that anymore.

In porn’s case, it’s because they don’t need to.  The cynics were right.

The ubiquity of Internet service and the ubiquity of porn on the Internet makes discussions of censorship and porn’s portrayal of women and sex, for all practical purposes, academic.  Internet service providers haven’t figured out how to police political disinformation, at least not without getting tangled in First Amendment arguments and/or hurting their business models; sex is an even hotter hot button.  Unless there’s some quantum leap in the technology that can effectively control objectionable content, and an equal quantum leap in the moral integrity of Internet service and content providers, what we got is what we’re gonna have for the foreseeable future.

*****

Deep Throat
Image: Bryanston Distributing Company

There’s no way to measure it, but it’s interesting to speculate on what effect the cultural ascendancy of porn has had on mainstream filmmaking.  As I pointed out earlier, Hollywood was already exploring some rather dicey sexual content even before Deep Throat, although obviously in much less graphic detail.  Think of the sexual elements in movies like Boogie Nights, Body Double (1984), Basic Instinct (1992), Exit to Eden (1994), Showgirls (1995), Striptease (1996), Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Sin City (2005), Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), Atomic Blonde (2017)…  Would we have gotten here anyway?  Did porn just accelerate a level of acceptance for limit-pushing eroticism in the mainstream?  Or did it give license to it?

What’s become clear is another parallel between sex in mainstream films and in porn:  the double standard for women and men.  Put simply, women get naked and are often more naked than men.  Doesn’t matter if the film is making some kind of statement about a strong, independent woman (or at least that’s the cover a filmmaker might offer) or not, we see more boobs than balls…a lot more.

And forgive me the digression, but while I’ll leave it to others to condemn or defend porn, this brings to mind another double standard which seems to be peculiarly American.  I can go to any multiplex in America and see movies featuring decapitations along with other various dismemberments, impalings, devourings by bizarre creatures and zombies, eviscerations, heads bashed in, limbs broken…  You get the picture.  But if I were to put a movie up on one of those multiplex screens showing the sex act in equally graphic detail, there’d be a crowd outside that theater with pitchforks and torches.

There’s a complaint I received back in the 1990s when I was still working at Home Box Office that I never forgot.  I wound up on the phone with a very nice gentleman complaining that he and his son (I seem to remember the boy was something like 12 or 13 – in that range) had been watching HBO together, the dad left the room for a minute and when he came back, HBO was showing his kid a naked lady.  Worse, the content advisories for the show didn’t include any warnings about nudity or sexual content.

I looked up the schedule and the only thing I could see that lined up with what he said about the time they were watching was Tales from the Crypt, our horror anthology.  Tales… could be a lot of things – gory, grotesque, macabre – but it wasn’t known for much in the erotic line.  I said I’d get back to him.

I checked with the people who put together our program listings and they based their content advisories on what they were told about content by the programming people.  I got them on the phone, they were as surprised by the complaint as I was and told me they’d get back to me after screening the episode.

When they contacted me again, it turned out the content at issue consisted of a brief, under-a-second flash – less than 24 frames – of a woman’s breast.  The reason there’d been no nudity warning was the show was already carrying warnings about “graphic violence” and “adult content” (I don’t remember if the TV content ratings system was in effect yet, but if it was, Tales… would also have carried a TV-MA rating, the system’s strongest warning).  It never occurred to them to add a nudity advisory based on a handful of frames when the other warnings seemed sufficient to let people know this wasn’t kid-friendly fare.

I called the dad back and explained this to him.  Au contraire, he said.  He was divorced, he had his boy with him on weekends, and watching Tales from the Crypt together was a bonding thing for them.  The gore, the graphic violence, things like ghouls dining on someone as a buffet – all that was fine fare for his young son.  But a flash of breast?  That was out of bounds.

Today, I don’t have to go to the movies or even have a subscription service like HBO to see that kind of grotesquerie.  I can watch The Walking Dead on basic cable.  Hell, I can watch stale reruns of Rizzoli & Isles and watch medical examiner Isles poke around a corpse which had suffered an extremely violent demise.  But I can’t see two consenting adults engaging in a loving act portrayed in similar detail.

I’m not defending porn as a defiant rebel yell against this weird puritanism we still have about sex in the media, or that it’s the answer to our love affair with killing and maiming people on TV, on the big screen, in videogames.  There’s a point, I think, at which we can all agree that something is pornographic.  What we don’t seem to be able to figure out is what’s obscene.  If nothing else, maybe Deep Throat – then and now – forces us to ask the question.

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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