Ordeal is a harrowing, heart breaking, and at times disgusting autobiography. It is also, like many slave narratives, a disputed narrative. Were Lovelace a better movie, we might be having conversations about Ordeal similar to those about Alex Haley’s Roots or Solomon Northrup’s 12 Years a Slave. Those conversations might find the question of whether the life Linda Boreman (Lovelace was a stage name) describes in Ordeal is representative of the experiences of a class of people as relevant and important as the question of whether or not each and every incident happened to her exactly as she described or whether she somehow managed to fake her way through a polygraph exam.
Given its subject matter, Lovelace could be forgiven for being shocking or harrowing itself…if it were. It could be forgiven for being a lot of things–contentious, outrageous, depressing, infuriating. But given its source material, here’s the one thing I couldn’t forgive it for being: gutless.
Lovelace never takes a stand about its own material. It is content to be a she said/then she said double narrative, conveying two vastly different experiences rather than choosing one or the other or even trying to find the truth somewhere in between them. That it eschews even attempting the latter is an indication that it doesn’t much care which version it tells is the truth, and with material like this, that lack of concern is reprehensible.
The first version of the story, covering roughly the first half, shows Linda as a naive but more-or-less willing participant in the porn industry. She marries Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard) before she has a notion of his violent side or criminal activities. When her fellatio technique is so effective it causes her more experienced co-star on the set of Deep Throat to ejaculate too quickly, she looks doe-eyed at the directors (who are angry that shooting time must be delayed until he can be aroused again) and asks, “Did I do something wrong?”
There are at least three problems with this split-narrative structure. The more obvious one is that nowhere in the “A” story are viewers signaled that the narrator (in a literal sense the camera and an indirect sense Linda herself as the source of the narrative) is unreliable. It is only half way through, after Linda has ostensibly submitted Ordeal to a publisher who demanded a lie detector test, that the film circles back and tells another version of the story, this one with Chuck as sadist.
The second problem is that the “B” story, conveyed in the second half of the film, still materially alters the narrative Lovelace tells in Ordeal. The most glaring alteration is that the film moves a gang rape scene in which Chuck sells Linda to five men at once in a motel room to after the filming of Deep Throat. That the film really doesn’t trust the audience to reason through complicated truths is underscored further by the fact that the film has the men grab Linda and throw her on the bed, while in the autobiography she strips (in the bathroom vestibule) after Chuck threatens to kill her and enters the room to meet her inevitable fate.
Chuck is shown beating Linda once, after she makes a joke at his expense on the set of Deep Throat. Ordeal portrays the beatings as routine, and used to cow and control her. Even the nature of the beating itself is tamed down relative to its description in Ordeal. In the film we get a passing glimpse, through a curtain of her being thrown against the wall, which Linda says was only preliminary. In the autobiography Linda describes her strategy for surviving Chuck’s more systematic abuse:
He tore my bathrobe off in two pieces. I wriggled away from him and went down to the floor. By this time I had learned that the best way to handle a beating was to roll myself up into a tight ball on the floor–protecting my breasts and my stomach from his boots. When I curled up that way, most of his kicks hit me on the legs.
This happened enough that today my legs are still a mess. Not too long ago, I went to see a doctor in New York about having the surface veins removed from my legs and he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He said, “My God, what happened to you?”
Well, this was what happened to me. This beating and may others like it.
The general academic consensus about alternate narratives (or alternate endings), is that the second (or last) is usually privileged. Even in a novel such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman where the narrator claims to have flipped a coin to decide which ending he will give first, the author still ultimately controls how the coin lands. Such conventional wisdom may lead some to conclude that Lovelace believes Ordeal and only structures itself as such to emulate the public’s acquaintance to the story at the time. Such a reading is underscored in a recreation of Linda on the Phil Donahue show where members of the audience question Linda and admit they can’t relate to or accept her story. Boreman was apparently accustomed to such skepticism, and Ordeal anticipates with depressing accuracy many of those questions. Why didn’t she try harder to get away? How could she have not known what Chuck was like? Doesn’t the fact that she had a child out of wedlock (and given up for adoption) before she was twenty-one indicate that there was something deficient with her character to begin with? If she was forced into it all of the pornography, why did she initially lie about her participation in an 8MM film in which she engages in bestiality?
I’m not particularly interested in answering these questions–though I think there are credible answers–since this is not a review of Ordeal but of Lovelace. Still, it bothers me not only that Lovelace seems uninterested in answering them but also only peripherally aware of them. Were Lovelace a film that didn’t believe Linda’s eventual story, it would make more sense to highlight the narrative elements of it that the writer and director find unbelievable rather than altering them to soften the darker narrative.
If the writers do tend to believe Linda, as suggested by structuring the darker story second, then the first forty-five minutes are just a colossal misfire. It is too stylistically enthusiastic, too celebratory of it porn roots. While the “A” story enthusiastically buys into the liberating nature of sexual freedom–portraying Linda as a latter-day Bettie Page protected by her own innocence–the “B” story is not only skittish about the violence but coy about the depravity. By toning down the brutality and degradation of the “B” story–reducing the beatings to one incident, no serious mention of prostitution, an out of context snippet from the Donahue interview where Linda says that twelve days in the porn industry shouldn’t define her whole life–the film tips its hand. It wants to be risque, not risky, delicious, not disturbing. It wants to use Linda Boreman’s life as an excuse to arouse curiosity but avoid outrage. It wants to chronicle the impact of Deep Throat without ever giving serious consideration to moral judgments about what that impact signified.
Most of all, it wants to suggest that the worst things that happened to Linda Boreman were somehow extricable from her participation in the porn industry, that there is a version of the life of forced prostitution, abuse, and pornography that wouldn’t have been all that bad had her husband not been too jealous. The most incomprehensible aspect of Lovelace is not that the “B” story is toned down but that the “A” story is there at all. But, hey, we get to see Amanda Seyfried bare her breasts in the service of a story about how the sexual exploitation of women is wrong…unless they want it.