A famous Andy Warhol movie consists solely of a man’s face in close-up as he’s fellated by an offscreen partner. The HBO documentary Inside Deep Throat doesn’t have nearly that much conceptual elegance, but it too focuses on a reaction—namely the convulsions that shook the American body politic in the wake of the porn film Deep Throat. Call this doc, written and directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blowjob.” Deep Throat was a media event, a battle in the culture wars, a show business landmark. Shot in a Miami motel for $22,000, it would eventually gross $600 million. Its originality is not difficult to fathom. Whereas Warhol’s Blow Job was conceptual, Deep Throat was high-concept: A woman whose clitoris is somewhere near her tonsils seeks sexual gratification through (copious) oral sex.
Deep Throat was created by Gerard Damiano, an erstwhile Queens beautician, as a vehicle for the so-called Linda Lovelace; daughter of a New York City cop, she had been pimped by her husband for her extraordinary ability to suppress her gag response. “When I saw what she could do, I said, ‘Stop the cameras,’ ” Damiano tells Bailey and Barbato. The main recipient of her favors, on-screen, was an actor whose nom de porn was Harry Reems and who, his director recalls, “could get an erection at the sound of the camera.”
Opening near Times Square in June 1972, Deep Throat was the first hardcore porn film to draw dating couples and groups of women. The times had definitely changed. As film historian Jon Lewis, briefly interviewed, argues in his Hollywood v. Hard Core, Deep Throat belongs among those independent and foreign films, many rated X, that challenged Hollywood hegemony in the early ’70s. It was a phenomenon that fed on its own notoriety. (See the lengthy dinner table discussion in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.) By January 1973, Deep Throat was a Johnny Carson joke; it had been analyzed in The New York Review of Books and declared “porno chic” by The New York Times, which characterized Lovelace as “a vivacious, gifted sexual performer.”
Deep Throat was the perfect commercial expression of the Orgy. Characterized by good-natured humor and (relatively) liberal tolerance of sexual diversity—or at least do-your-thing-ism—it made light of the porn pandemic that, then as now, preoccupied much of the nation. But driven by the spectacle of a supposedly free and unfettered female desire, the movie was less bawdy joke than remarkable displacement. Deep Throat evoked, yet concealed, the source of female satisfaction; it privileged that satisfaction in the service of a phallocratic regime. No wonder even libertarian feminists were appalled.
Newly re-elected, Richard Nixon declared war on porn. What goes around comes around: The source who helped Woodward and Bernstein nail the president to his Watergate cross was named for that movie. (But he who laughs last: Was it not the dinner-table-discussable Deep Throat that ultimately enabled Bill Clinton’s impeachment?) Deep Throat was investigated by the FBI and banned in 23 states. In New York City, the case was heard by a judge who, Bailey and Barbato point out, was dumbfounded by the concept of clitoral orgasm.
Damiano, who was cut out of Deep Throat‘s profits by his mob partners, was left dreaming of a Hollywood-porn merger that never happened. Still, Lovelace had her 15 minutes of fame as a magazine cover girl and the star of more softcore movies, including Linda Lovelace for President. Later she would join the anti-porn feminists and maintain that she’d been hypnotized by her husband. In a Kafkaesque turn of events, Reems was the fall guy—facing prison, he became a Hollywood cause célèbre. Inside Deep Throat includes footage of him partying with Jack and Warren and debating Roy Cohn on TV.
Recent porno-dramas—Boogie Nights, Auto Focus, Wonderland—have followed the same formula: The Orgy was great, then it all went bad. The People vs. Larry Flynt put a bizarre Frank Capra spin on this saga, but Inside Deep Throat is, by comparison, more a Preston Sturges movie. The principals are wildly photogenic archetypes—Damiano the amiable satyr, Linda the frizzy-haired hippie goddess, Harry the unlucky Lucky Pierre. Beneath these cartoon floats marches a parade of greedy goodfellas, scheming exhibitors, idiot politicians, swanning celebs, and frothing religious fundamentalists.
Filled as it is with punchy montage sequences, Inside Deep Throat might have been edited by Damiano. It might also have been twice as long. And who wrote the script? Look inside Deep Throat and you’ll find “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Sugar Frosted Flakes, Disneyland and the Dallas Cowboys. It’s the Real Thing, it’s Elvis, it’s us.