The Throat GOAT: How Deep Throat Saw the Heights and Depths of Porn 50 Years Ago

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The <i>Throat</i> GOAT: How <i>Deep Throat</i> Saw the Heights and Depths of Porn 50 Years Ago

Sandwiched between a pizza joint and the Sun Luck Chinese restaurant, the New Mature World Theater changed the film industry forever on a Monday in 1972. It was there and then that Deep Throat, its name immortalized by Watergate pseudonyms and trashy shot glasses, had its premiere, 50 years ago, on New York’s West 49th Street. Though beaten to the theaters by Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie and a few others, Gerard Damiano’s feature-length sword-swallowing extravaganza pushed the genre past the point of no return. The piece of cinematic foreplay aroused a perfectly timed, nationwide porn obsession. The gimmicky fad triggered a Golden Age.

Deep Throat celebrates the half-century mark with a new 4K restoration, but this renewed attention highlights (in a roundabout way) how a deep-rooted darkness complicated the seemingly easygoing Deep Throat and made the experience harrowing for those involved. Its behind-the-scenes drama was dirtier than its content, complicating a legacy that spanned the highs and lows of its form.

Deep Throat became a genre novelty through its plot, punchlines, soundtrack and watchable cinematography. But it (probably) claimed the title of “most profitable film in history” (for $25,000, it reportedly brought in over $600,000,000) through an easily sold hook—her clit’s in her throat and she learns how to reach it—and that favorite marketing tool: stodgy institutional fury.

There’s no better ad than censorship from a loser. Every attempt by a crusty conservative to ban a queer book or protest a lesbian nun movie only makes these pieces of art into hot commodities. For Deep Throat, the biggest of those accidental advocates were New York Mayor John Lindsay and Judge Joel J. Tyler. For the former, the film was a perfect object to rally his lucrative Times Square cleanup around. He seized prints and sent cops to arrest everyone from projectionists to ticket-takers. The latter couldn’t have been paid to be a better copywriter. He described the porn as a “nadir of decadence” that “pollutes as noxious gas,” a “feast of carrion and squalor” and, best of all, “a Sodom and Gomorrah gone wild before the fire.”

Fine, take my five bucks.

And Deep Throat started raking it in, five bucks at a time. Financial success led to mainstream news coverage (the New York Times, Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show) which led to even more financial success, as informed audiences wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Jackie O was photographed leaving a show. Mike Nichols told Truman Capote he had to see it. Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma caught a screening together. An octogenarian, near-blind Fritz Lang wasn’t about to be barred from Deep Throat—he brought a magnifying glass to the theater.

But it wasn’t just A-listers and industry folks streaming into the sticky seats. Average moviegoing units, couples and friend groups, far surpassed the see-and-be-seen stars and surreptitious jerk-off crowd. Part of that was pure production value. Deep Throat actually seemed like a movie, with a plot and everything…even if the plot was as silly as Linda Lovelace having a need and Harry Reems knowing how to fill it.

Despite what was argued at its high-profile obscenity trial, it wasn’t just that Deep Throat had all the trappings of a “real” movie. Beyond the narrative and relative lack of grain in the film, it was approachable. Even amiable. Good-natured and jokey, Deep Throat is certainly a wet, hot cornball covered in ‘70s body hair. But it’s (mostly) in focus, hilariously soundtracked (“Deep Throat / Deeper than deep / Your throat / Deep Throat”) and satisfyingly unpretentious—even counting Damiano’s intercut bombs, bells and rockets representing…well, you can probably guess. Lovelace is winningly fresh-faced, sincere and undoubtedly skilled; Dolly Sharp is charming and sharp as her supportive pal; Reems is endearingly weird, energetic and campy, like a rock-hard host of an amusement park ride. It’s well-lit and radiates harmlessness, far too goofy even when getting down and dirty to be associated with the time’s raunchy 8mm loops. It’s no wonder men, women and couples of all variations were having fun seeing this silliness, or felt comfortable using it as a first public plunge into subversion.

Deep Throat even centers female pleasure…kind of. Though positioned so that Lovelace’s condition relieves men of any guilt from getting blown (she likes it—no, she needs it!), the surface narrative still positions her as the hero. (And who knows how many people found out about the clitoris thanks to the film?) As Reems’ doctor follows her escapades, her sexual fulfillment is the main goal. Reems’ nurse takes over documenting Lovelace’s exploits in a funny reversal, and it’s exactly the kind of simple and chummy gag—with a dribble of power critique baked in—that made Deep Throat so amenable to a perfectly primed 1972.

“Compared with what came before,” summed up David Vandor, porn tracker of the Mayor’s Office of Midtown Planning and Development, “Deep Throat is an excellent film.” But compared to what it inspired, Deep Throat was just a shallow taste.

It’s not even Damiano’s best porn. His follow-up, The Devil in Miss Jones, is far more artistic and sensual—and only made a little less than James Bond, barely trailing Live and Let Die at the box office in North America.

As that success demonstrates, with fashion comes fortune. The trendy Deep Throat inspired the phrase “porno chic” and started a gold rush. Porn’s Golden Age produced extravagant, engaging, liberatingly mainstream hardcore films and filmmakers with enough ambition and artistry to cross back and forth between porn and non-porn features—often transgressively blurring the line as they further horned up more traditional exploitation movies. There were those like Abel Ferrara, William Lustig and Wes Craven, whose New York filmmaking careers were directly influenced by Deep Throat’s profits. Then there were filmmakers whose best work remains their most explicitly pornographic, like Radley Metzger. The money was there, which led to one of the biggest and horniest on-the-job film schools in the U.S., without which, we wouldn’t have had countless classic films or the experienced indie filmmakers behind them.

But it’s easy to whitewash its history. Easy to remember how the free-spirited fellatio film exposed the sexual gulf between the enlightened and the square in the ‘70s. During the movie’s obscenity trial, Judge Tyler learned about the missionary position. “It’s worthwhile for me, if nothing else happens, to have gotten this education,” Tyler said. What a dweeb. And modern marketing continues to emphasize that gulf using buzzy touchstones like “Sex Positivity.” But that same marketing is happy to downplay the seedier sides of its production—and what happened after, to Lovelace, Reems and even Damiano.

Lovelace consistently claimed that she was coerced into performing by her violent then-husband Chuck Traynor. “When you see the movie Deep Throat,” she said in 1981, “you are watching me being raped. It is a crime that movie is still showing; there was a gun to my head the entire time.” Her book Ordeal documented these and many other claims of abuse, and began her later period as an anti-porn crusader. This about-face made her a target for victim-blamers, porn advocates and even her own former business associates. “Often misunderstood, she wrote no less than four contradictory autobiographies which only added to the confusion,” reads a section of the Deep Throat restoration’s press notes. Lovelace was grilled by many and blamed by more during her post-Throat life; the bruises on her body, clearly visible in Deep Throat, are inarguable.

The film’s production-assistant-turned-star Reems followed in the footsteps of Lenny Bruce, being prosecuted for obscenity as a performer—“the first artist of any kind ever to be prosecuted by the federal government,” Reems said with pride. He was to be an example. But his scapegoat conviction was overturned after a star-studded rally, including backing from Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, earned him a retrial. His eight co-defendants, mostly with Italian names, involved in the film’s distribution and exhibition weren’t so lucky. But it was a win for the First Amendment, a win for Reems and a win for actors everywhere that wanted to take on daring jobs without fearing prosecution. Then Reems found out Hollywood didn’t need the law to tell them to discriminate. They just had to think about losing a few bucks. Reems was removed from a role in Grease (Paramount thought Southern audiences wouldn’t take kindly to one of the world’s most famous male porn stars playing Coach Calhoun) and began an alcoholic slide out of the industry.

Damiano, initially owed one-third of the film’s record-breaking profits, was bullied out of the deal (and into taking a measly $25,000) by his mafioso co-producers. “I can’t talk about it,” Damiano told the New York Times in 1973, “you want me to get both my legs broken?” The documentary Inside Deep Throat sees Damiano reiterate this, and is full of Deep Throat distributors, theater owners and other aged, erstwhile mob associates who still seem rattled. If seized with momentary confidence, their practical wives shut them down from across the room. Snitches get stitches, even 50 years later.

Crooked moneymen and consent issues plagued its production. Its star was physically assaulted every night of shooting. Her co-star almost served five years in prison for acting in a movie. Deep Throat was embroiled in hyper-capitalist, misogynist, puritanical problems—all it needed was viscous racism and it’d have the four foundational quadrants of America sorted. And yet, it’s not just a film that’s issues warrant its fade into obscurity, or justify any polarized moral position. Just as it was rife with the same toxins still affecting every corner of the movie business (and the country at large), it was a pent-up release of sexual liberation, freedom of expression, and the ever-evolving capacities of cinema to reflect our lives. With its cultural cachet and impressive box office money-shot, Deep Throat undeniably changed the movies—hardcore, softcore and normcore.

The film world was already in the midst of the New Hollywood era, a time of countercultural boldness in the studios where hot-shit directors were pushing buttons nearly as provocatively as their porn peers on the other coast. Young people’s politics, musical tastes, sexual proclivities, drug use and personal connection to narrative irresolution was on the big screen—it wasn’t hard to see how Golden Age porns could be taken as regular ol’ movies with just a tad more penetration. Deep Throat’s success and the success of the films that followed it were artistically impactful because of what they were helping normalize, not because the movies were particularly incredible. “I find pornography by itself to be boring on the screen,” Damiano told Roger Ebert. “The only thing that perpetuates it is censorship; people like to feel they’re being slightly daring to go to a hard-core flick.” That people felt that they could be daring with their art consumption, en masse, was exciting enough—even if that impulse went dormant for a while.

The Golden Age was killed by the same censors that helped birth it with buzz. With Miller v. California, Justice Warren Burger returned “is this porn too nasty?” powers to the states—and all the antiporn activists, uptight prosecutors and conservative prudes therein. Porns were successfully prosecuted under this new ruling and their theaters rapidly shuttered when home video became increasingly viable. The desire for filmmaking artistry was quickly replaced by the mechanized need for supply-meeting quantity. “With the advent of the video camera, it got to be so easy to shoot X-rated video that everybody could do it,” Damiano said in Inside Deep Throat. “They were nothing. It was just one sex scene after another…I couldn’t make that kind of film because there was no reason to…It was over. You didn’t need filmmakers any more.”

There was little pleasure in cranking out films built solely for crankin’ it. As with so many corners of the film world, a factory mindset took over. Just as the Marvel movies draw from the same green-screened warehouses and massive digital libraries housing everything ranging from cars and buildings to fight animations, the world of porn perfected its money-printing formula and realized it didn’t need to do much more.

And yet, as its industry goes through the same kind of feminist reckoning as every industry—now as beholden to optics, investors and bad PR as any other—working conditions are improving and the talent behind the camera is becoming more diverse. Those same consent, financing and sexist troubles exist, updated and corporatized. Though our blockbusters are more prudish than ever, that stylish taboo-pushing still exists if you know where to look. The Golden Age’s ethos doesn’t just live on in movies like Boogie Nights, which blur the artistic and production quandaries of both the porn and New Hollywood set, but in the film world at large. The online film community has helped revitalize the artistic and historical merit of porn and sleazy exploitation movies; Letterboxd now lets you rate and review hardcore films. Modern porn industry drama Pleasure, porno slasher X, and camgirl films like PVT Chat and Cam mesmerize with their updated integrations of sex and mainstream moviemaking. Where the burgeoning porn industry was once symbolic of corroded American and masculine tragedy, the new wave analyzes technological isolation and career-focused ennui.

Deep Throat changed what could be in films, changed what was permissible in the mainstream (at least for a while, and now again) and changed the tenor of sexual conversation in the country. It made its millions for the mob, but it created a boom that’s still resonating. As critics and general audiences mourn the lack of erotic thrillers, romantic chemistry or sex scenes in movies, it’s a reminder of how comfortable we are complaining in public and harassing the mainstream for its prudishness. The moneymen may be self-censoring at the studios, but the out-loud horniness of the people hasn’t quieted since Deep Throat entered the vernacular. That my boss isn’t currently yelling at me for writing about a hardcore porn film is already proof that Deep Throat changed how we think about and accept porn—and how that attitude has bled into how we view all art. Fifty years later, the film’s final frame continues this standard-changing spirit: “The End, and deep throat to you all.”


Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

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