When Deep Throat opened at Manhattan’s World Theater
in June 1972, it did reasonably well, but not great. In fact, its box-office numbers
were just peaking when a moral panic swelled around the movie in the form of police
crackdowns and several obscenity trials that helped drive the final gross up to
$600 million and, doubtless, still counting in video. It also generated a groundswell
of excitable punditry, from conservatives — prominent among them Charles Keating,
who has not excelled at raising the nation’s moral profile since — about the evils
of filth, and from liberals about freedom of artistic expression and the ongoing
sexual revolution. And though it’s true that Deep Throat signified
a brief mainstreaming of porn, the fusion of hardcore and art predicted by gung-ho
practitioners of both never caught on.

This appears to be a source of some distress to Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the team who brought us both documentary and dramatic versions of the Club Kid exposé Party Monster, and whose hard-working new film, Inside Deep Throat, seeks to establish a pioneering role for the movie in liberating America’s sex life. To me it’s far from clear that that cheerfully cheesy slice of hardcore, made for $25,000 by a middle-aged hairdresser named Gerard Damiano, about a woman who discovers that her clitoris is in her throat and is thus liberated into nonstop fellatio, has spawned much in the way of a cultural legacy. When it opened, matrons in flowered frocks showed up out of media-made curiosity, while men came to see it, as Erica Jong points out in the documentary, because it flagrantly catered to their time-honored fantasy about women loving to give head. Certainly Deep Throat creaks audibly under the cultural and political weight loaded onto it by an army of the usual libertarian talking heads in the documentary: John Waters, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Larry Flynt and, more interestingly, Wes Craven, who admits that in common with many independent filmmakers, porn is where he got his start. A few stalwart female enthusiasts are wheeled on — Dr. Ruth, a worryingly temperate Camille Paglia, and (scoop!) Helen Gurley Brown touting the skin-enhancing properties of semen — followed by the usual array of humorless ’70s feminists who, we are led to believe, turned Deep Throat’s uninhibited star, Linda Lovelace, into a repentant prude. In fact Lovelace did get shafted in more ways than one, as Damiano admits, and after a brief return to porn at age 51 she died, penniless, in a car accident in 2002.

Things get fresher, funnier and, inevitably, more poignant when we meet the people involved in the making of the movie: Lovelace’s co-star, Harry Reems, who sank into drink and drugs before becoming a Christian and retiring to work in real estate in Utah; and the plain-spoken, genial Damiano, who, now in his 70s, seems a happy man despite the fact that he never made any serious money off Deep Throat. Corroborating Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, Damiano claims that many of the porn filmmakers of the 1970s, before video and the invasion of Mafia distributors lowered the tone, thought of themselves as independent artists on a mission to reunite America with sexual pleasure. I believe he believes it, but that doesn’t make it so.

INSIDE DEEP THROAT | Directed by FENTON BAILEY and RANDY BARBATO | Produced by BAILEY, BARBATO, MONA CARD and BRIAN GRAZER | Released by Universal Pictures | At Landmark NuWilshire and Laemmle Sunset 5

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.