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When Porn Became Popular

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page C05

"Inside Deep Throat," a new documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, performs a task that, upon reflection, someone was going to get around to doing eventually: examining the cultural, political and historical legacy of "Deep Throat," the X-rated film that, more than 30 years after its original release, stands as the most profitable movie ever made in America.

The contradiction behind that particular factoid -- that an otherwise marginal, even transgressive film turned out to be seen by millions of mainstream Americans -- gets to the heart of the fascinating tensions between Puritanism and libertarianism that have animated this country for centuries.

Gerard Damiano directed "Deep Throat," the 1972 X-rated film that became the most profitable movie ever made in America. (Documentary Productions Llc)

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And that contradiction propels "Inside Deep Throat" along a sprightly course, even with its longueurs of yammering talking heads and wearying MTV-style montages. Despite these and a few other flaws, "Inside Deep Throat" is an often lively investigation of the social forces that produced the original movie and made it an unlikely political shibboleth in the ongoing culture wars.

In case readers have forgotten -- or are too young to remember -- "Deep Throat" was released on June 12, 1972, the breakout movie of a hairdresser-turned-filmmaker named Gerard Damiano.

It starred Linda Lovelace (the stage name of Linda Boreman), whose talent for performing oral sex had come to Damiano's attention on an earlier production; he immediately stopped filming that movie and wrote a script that would highlight the particular gift of the actress. ("Inside Deep Throat," by the way, is rated NC-17 because it shows the central act of the original movie -- consider yourself warned.)

This is all reported by Damiano himself, now a wizened septuagenarian with a bad toupee, who along with several other principals were tracked down by Bailey and Barbato to capture their reminiscences. We meet a cast of characters that, were they not real people, could only be featured extras in "Boogie Nights," from the shady "count," whose mansion Damiano used as a location, to his seedy -- but disarmingly candid -- production manager.

The filmmakers have done their due diligence in tracking down people who were around during the 1970s and who witnessed "Deep Throat's" ascension to the pop-culture pantheon.

No less than John Waters, Erica Jong, Dr. Ruth, Dick Cavett and Camille Paglia weigh in on why the movie's graphic depiction of oral sex was such a watershed. (It's Norman Mailer, though, who delivers the film's most trenchant observations, among them that "Deep Throat" "was a giggle. And the worst you can say about Americans is that we'll sell our souls for a giggle.")

There aren't many surprises in what often seems an interminable series of commentaries. Where "Inside Deep Throat" gets interesting is when the filmmakers chronicle how the political fortunes of Richard Nixon -- whose administration set out to make an example of "Deep Throat" in the most ambitious anti-pornography trial in history -- were tied to the film, and vice versa. As Harry Reems, who was the only person convicted in the trial, recalls, his lawyer told him at the time that if the GOP won in 1976 he'd go to prison; if the Democrats won, he'd be set free.

You know the rest, of course, and you know the piquant side note that it was a confidential source nicknamed "Deep Throat" that brought Nixon down. Rather than dwell on this delicious irony (former Post reporter Carl Bernstein makes only a brief appearance), Bailey and Barbato stay with the movie as it makes its way through American social history -- as Linda Boreman claims that she had been tortured and raped throughout the filming of "Deep Throat," as feminists become the unlikely bedfellows of the Reagan administration in their anti-porn activism, and as the X-rated film industry gives way to the cheaper (and, the filmmakers suggest, sleazier) video racket.

That last story arc, as well as several of the musical numbers on the soundtrack, echo the aforementioned "Boogie Nights," which shares the romantic view of its protagonists as a guerrilla vanguard against a sexual culture of shame and hypocrisy.

If it's difficult to accept Damiano and his ilk as heroes, and if "Inside Deep Throat" makes too-short shrift of Boreman's deeply troubling accusations and the larger feminist issues they raised, it still makes a diverting case for "Deep Throat" as more than just a shadowy cinematic footnote.

Inside Deep Throat (90 minutes, at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle) is rated NC-17 for explicit sexual content.

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