June 12, 1972. The day America opened wide and said ahh. A movie starring a couple of no-name actors, directed by a middle-aged beauty-salon owner from Queens who’d cut more hair than film, with a script written over a single weekend, played for the first time at the World Theater in Times Square. The nation’s mouth gaped in a mixture of excitement, horror, fascination, and disbelief. Deep Throat was the X film that went mainstream. It became a genuine sensation, one of the most profitable films ever made, costing a mere twenty-five thousand and bringing in a whopping six hundred million. It was responsible, as well, for ushering in the era known as “porno chic,” middle-class respectable-types getting hardcore about hardcore. The New York Times Magazine devoted five pages of eggheady rumination to it. Johnny Carson and Bob Hope cracked wise about it. And Truman Capote’s high-society swans migrated down to low-life venues to see it.
If the mouth gapes watching Deep Throat these days, however, it’s likely as not because a yawn’s coming on. Deep Throat is no Ulysses or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s not even a Candy or an I Am Curious (Yellow). It is, as location manager Len Camp so succinctly put it, “a piece of shit” with actors who “are all shit.” Even Gerard Damiano, the director, when asked if he judged it a good movie, said (after a long pause, as if such an admission pained him), “No.”
Even by the diminished standards of the early-’70s hardcore world, Deep Throat was considered a modest venture. Linda Lovelace, a relative newcomer to the Adult scene, played the lead, a character named Linda Lovelace. Harry Reems, who had originally been hired as the lighting director, was cast opposite her as Dr. Young. And in the supporting role of Helen, Linda’s older, wiser friend, was Dolly Sharp. Ted Street played the Delivery Boy. It’s tough now to understand what all the fuss was about, the furor and the controversy and the endless legal battles. (Reems was prosecuted in Tennessee for breaking obscenity laws, and found guilty. He would’ve gone to jail for up to five years but for the grace of an Alan Dershowitz–orchestrated appeal and legal-defense fund-raisers thrown by the likes of Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson.) From a present-day perspective, Deep Throat looks like a junky little nothing of a porno flick, your garden-variety suck-and-fuck loop—well, suck-and-suck-some-more loop, if you want to get technical—too dopey and good-natured to inspire genuine offense.
It’s possible, I suppose, to be galled by the premise: a young woman suffering from extreme sexual frustration goes to her doctor. After a thorough examination, he discovers the reason. Her clitoris is located in the back of her throat, the kind of anatomical defect most men would rank alongside a woman’s breasts being too big, or her legs too long. The treatment he prescribes is as inventive as it is self-serving. He unzips his fly, she opens her mouth, and, just like that, she’s all better. The notion that a woman can be cured of her sexual frigidity only by performing a man-gratifying act like fellatio is a little insulting. But, really, the movie’s primary concern is with female pleasure. It wants “bells ringing, bombs going off, and dams bursting” for its G-spot-challenged heroine, which is actually sort of sweet, even if it’s misguided/wishful-thinking-y/in-your-dreams-buddy-esque in how it goes about providing said pleasure.
High claims have been made for Deep Throat’s wit. Sure, OK, if you think lines like the one Helen (Linda’s older and more experienced friend, an ur–Samantha Jones) drops on the delivery boy as he performs cunnilingus on her—“Do you mind if I smoke while you’re eating?”—constitute sparkling repartee. Its freshness, too, has been much vaunted. And I guess it is fresh so long as you don’t choke on the mothball stench coming off Reems’s Jewish doctor routine, replete with child’s toy stethoscope and Borscht Belt–emcee Yiddish accent. So how did this inept, lame-brained, spoofy, goofy bit of nebbishy celluloid thrust itself so deeply inside the popular consciousness, hitting the country’s elusive sweet spot every bit as adroitly as Dr. Young hit that of his lovely patient?
Maybe I’m being too rough on Deep Throat. The fact of the matter is, I’d probably take a more charitable attitude toward it if its cultural importance wasn’t already so absurdly inflated. (It was dubbed “porno chic” by New York Times journalist Ralph Blumenthal, and Nora Ephron, who otherwise took a hard line with it, declared in Esquire that not to see it “seemed somehow… derelict.” And Roger Ebert pronounced it “the first stag film to see with a date” in the Chicago Sun-Times.) In truth, the movie did have a few things going for it. It had a great title, an inspired ad campaign—“If you like head, you’ll love Throat”—and a lead who wasn’t the typical porn starlet with blond-bimbo hair and run-amok secondary sexual characteristics, but a skinny brunette with Raggedy Ann freckles, an impish grin, and a very, very special talent. Al Goldstein, founder and publisher of Screw, a magazine James Wolcott would describe as looking “like something to line a sex offender’s litter box,” was especially impressed by Linda’s gifts, claiming he was “never so moved by any theatrical performance since stuttering through [his] own bar mitzvah,” and giving Deep Throat the highest possible score on the Peter Meter, his tried-and-true system for rating a film’s erection-inducing ability. Deep Throat also featured an erotic act that was new to the scene; or, rather, new to the mainstream scene; or, rather, new to the heterosexual mainstream scene. It offered a setup that had something in it for the misogynist crowd as well as the feminist: yes, Linda Lovelace could achieve satisfaction only by catering to a man in the most slavish of fashions, but respect was shown for the essential mystery of feminine sexuality—Linda’s “tingler,” Harry Reems’s puckish term for it, was located inside the body, in the recesses of her esophagus, still a private, tucked-away location—and a profound interest in her having as much fun as any of her partners. And, most important of all, the movie was lucky. The timing of its release couldn’t have been better: two years after Anne Koedt’s influential essay “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” appeared, and the same year the birth-control pill became available to unmarried women in all states. Not only was attention being paid to the female climax, but, for the first time in history, said female was free to chase that climax, could screw around as much as she wanted without fear of pregnancy. In fact, screwing around was practically her patriotic duty, what with anti-Vietnam make-love-not-war sentiment at its height. Luckiest of all, perhaps, the film incurred the wrath of that counterculture bogeyman and bad-daddy supreme President Richard Nixon—who, with his imperfect grasp of child psychology, decided to order a nationwide crackdown on the smut business. At his indirect behest, the New York City police shut down theaters showing Deep Throat, which only served to increase its popularity and au courant–ness among the under-thirty crowd.
Ultimately, though, it was just a dirty movie, an exploitation picture meant to provoke release rather than reflection, and timely rather than good. In the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat, directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato use public intellectuals the way Woody Allen used them in his 1983 mockumentary, Zelig. Get them, in other words, to parody themselves, satirize their own ideas. When Camille Paglia refers to Deep Throat as “an epochal moment in the history of modern sexuality,” or Norman Mailer characterizes pornography as “a mid-world between crime and art,” you can practically hear the huffing and puffing sounds behind their words. The two are attempting to puff up this pipsqueak, rinky-dink topic—Damiano’s minimum opus—until it’s achieved dimensions worthy of their magisterial attention.
My suspicion is that Deep Throat caught on as it did precisely because it was so piddling and inconsequential, so unsophisticated and sophomoric, so easy to laugh with and at, a harmless bit of filthy fun, just enough to inspire a giggle and a jerk and nothing more. “See,” guys could say to their wives or girlfriends, “porn, this thing that occupies my time and imagination and from which you are excluded, isn’t scary or threatening.” But porn is scary and threatening to wives and girlfriends, and will always be scary and threatening to wives and girlfriends, because it’s not about relationships or attachment, it’s about the opposite—alienation and detachment; humans objectified, reduced to their parts, to a set of fleshly swells and sucking holes. (I’m generalizing, I realize. There are men who don’t respond to movies like Deep Throat, women who do. But in the main, hardcore was, in the words of Eddie Murphy, a dick thing, at least at the time of Deep Throat’s release, the work of feminist pornographers like Dian Hanson and Candida Royalle still years away.) Scary and threatening, too, because it’s so powerful, connected as it is to dark, murky feelings that go way deep down—sex and pain and shame and desire and violence and death—feelings so powerful and elemental most people can’t even bear to think about them in a sustained fashion.
If Deep Throat was such a dud and a fraud as an evocation of sexual experience, there was another movie released at around the same time that wasn’t. In the October 28, 1972 issue of the New Yorker, Pauline Kael, a critic with a Peter Meter every bit as excitable as Al Goldstein’s, and a lot more discerning, declared Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made.” If Deep Throat was the X film that went mainstream, Last Tango was the mainstream film—Hollywood-movie-star lead, internationally celebrated director, the financial backing of a major motion-picture studio—that went X. The film opens with two strangers, a man—Marlon Brando—and a woman—Maria Schneider—a girl, really, looking at the same apartment in Passy. Exchanging scarcely a word, they come together. It’s anonymous sex—fucking, I suppose, is the proper term for it, on the floor in most of their clothes—in an anonymous space. The man, Paul, then rents the apartment, and for the next three days, he and the girl, Jeanne, rendezvous there. She asks her lover’s name, but he refuses to reveal it, insisting that their identities, circumstances, backstories remain undisclosed. His idea is for them to continue on as strangers, for their relationship to be “stripped of romance and personality,” for their connection to stay purely carnal, separate and distinct from the rest of life. In other words, he wants them to collaborate on a porno together.
With every encounter, the erotic stakes are raised, the clashes build in fury and intensity, the fantasies being acted out take on an increasingly sadomasochistic edge. What keeps Last Tango from devolving into the conventions of pornography is the emotion that informs the sex, the psychic trauma it stirs up. Paul and Jeanne might know each other only in the apartment, devoid of context and frame of reference, but the spectator has a more expansive view of the characters; has spent, by the end of the film, considerable time with both in their natural habitats. Jeanne is twenty, a member of the petite bourgeoisie, engaged to be married to a young TV director. Paul is the forty-five-year-old owner of a flophouse, a journalist and actor and revolutionary, a gigolo and a bum, with an adulterous wife who slashed her wrists, turning the bathroom a dripping crimson, the day before he met Jeanne. So the spectator understands why he feels the need to degrade Jeanne, to degrade himself—sodomizing her with the intercession of a stick of butter, having her sodomize him with a pair of nail-trimmed fingers, demanding that she promise to eat vomit to prove her devotion, ranting about how “we are all alone until we look in the asshole of death”—why he’s self-glorifying and self-abasing in equal measure. If it were not for these glimpses of his reality outside the apartment, he’d just come off as a macho hard-on with a philosophical turn of mind, an eighth-rate Henry Miller. Jeanne’s behavior, too, would be inexplicable, her willingness to obey her lover’s every sexual command merely creepy or grotesque, if the viewer didn’t understand who she was, the circumstances of her life, what she was reacting against: the suburban villa she grew up in, the dead military father who taught his dog to detect Arabs by scent, the charming but lightweight fiancé following her around adoringly with a camera, rejecting the flat she finds because “it’s squalid. It smells. It makes [him] sick.” Of course she would respond to Paul’s emotional intensity—Paul’s emotional ferocity—his insistence on the carnal, the physical, the real.
Deep Throat and Last Tango share a cinema verité quality, as well. While Brando’s character in Last Tango is not called Marlon, the scenes in which he reminisces about his past, his family, where he comes from, are all heavily autobiographical. “I don’t have many good memories,” Paul confesses to Jeanne. The actor (and close friend—Brando named one of his sons after him) Christian Marquand said, “Forty years of Marlon’s life experiences went into that film. It was Marlon talking about himself. His relations with his mother, father, children, lovers, friends—all come out in his perfect performance as Paul.” Even if, as a spectator, you lack access to such privileged inside information, you can feel that something intensely personal is being revealed in these rambling, backward-looking monologues of his. More personal than he intended, certainly. After viewing the completed film, he declared, “For the first time, I have felt the violation of my innermost self.” In the years following, he refused to speak to Bertolucci, who said in a 2011 interview, “I called a great friend of his, and she told me that in doing the film he wouldn’t realize how much of his truth was delivered for the camera. He felt tricked. When he saw the movie, he realized he went much further than he thought. I’m not talking about sex. But how much of his real humanity I’d been able, let’s say in quotes, ‘to steal from him.’”
Clearly Brando felt taken advantage of by his director. In every one of the movie’s coupling scenes, however, the forty-seven-year-old actor remained fully clothed. Schneider, on the other hand, a barely legal nineteen at the time of filming—her figure lovely but faintly pubescent, with lingering traces of baby fat; her face pretty but still unformed, perfectly round and with no visible cheekbones—did not. And when Bertolucci asked his two stars to take actual carnal occupation of one another, not simply go through the usual dry-run movie-sex motions, Brando refused, saying he didn’t want his and Schneider’s genitals to “become characters in the film.” The question appeared not to have been put to Schneider, or if it was, her response wasn’t considered worth recording. And yet it was her front on full display, her breasts, ass, and pubic hair that the audience was really coming to see, no matter that she was paid $4,000 to Brando’s $250,000 (plus 10 percent of the world gross). The movie turned her into the thinking man’s pinup. No less an authority than Norman Mailer would anoint her a “sexual heavyweight,” and the possessor of a musk so pungent that she had “nose appeal.” At the time of Last Tango’s release, Schneider talked wild and tough, smoking a joint in front of a reporter from the New York Times, bragging that she’d “had more men lovers than women.” Later in her life, though, after long bouts with drug addiction and depression, a stint in a mental institution, and at least one suicide attempt, she would claim to have “felt a little raped” by her leading man and director, most especially during the infamous butter scene, noting that the tears of rage and humiliation she shed were genuine.
Linda Lovelace went through a similar metamorphosis. When Deep Throat hit the big time, Lovelace portrayed herself as the porn-star-next-door, describing herself in Women’s Wear Daily as “just a simple girl who likes to go to swinging parties and nudists colonies,” a fun-loving, polymorphously perverse ding-a-ling. By the time she was testifying before the Meese Commission in 1984 (an investigation of pornography ordered by President Reagan), though, having written an autobiography detailing a life of forced prostitution, substance abuse, and domestic violence, she sounded considerably less bouncy, stating that “every time someone sees [Deep Throat], they are watching me being raped.” Whatever you make of the two actresses’ allegations, whether you believe them or not—and they are distinct, there’s a substantial difference between claiming you felt raped and claiming you were raped—it seems clear that the attitude they took, casual, cool, unfazed by the depravity and corruption around them, was a pose, and that being a bona fide sex sensation exacts a heavy emotional toll, even if the damage shows up later rather than sooner.
Deep Throat ends when Linda meets Wilbur, the twenty-six-year-old heir to a department-store fortune. He falls in love with her and proposes marriage. Unfortunately, because of the way she’s built, she requires a man with a nine-inch penis. Wilbur admits sadly that he’s four inches off the mark. It’s all tears and sorrow until he reveals he’s four inches off the mark in the right direction. The two are a match made in blue heaven.
The bells ring for Linda’s Linda, but they toll for Brando’s Paul. At the end of the three days, he’s buried his wife. He’s ready to reengage with the world, ready to humanize his relationship with Jeanne, dispel the pornographic mood he’s created so they can once again assume their identities and learn to love each other as people rather than abstractions. Jeanne, however, is less enthusiastic. Once Paul drags the fantasy out into the sunlight and open air, it doesn’t look so hot. Standing before her she sees a going-to-seed old guy with a shitty prostate and shittier prospects. She wants out. She wants away. Paul, though, won’t let her go, chasing her through the streets of Paris, back to her family’s apartment. He demands to know her name. As she tells him, she shoots him with the gun concealed in her hand, her father’s weapon. He staggers out onto the balcony to die, and she begins muttering to herself, rehearsing her story for the police: he was a stranger trying to rape her. It’s Paul, though, the American tough guy, the “good stick man,” physically dominant and aggressively plainspoken (his idea of sweet-talk: “Go get the butter”), who’s finally revealed as the romantic and sentimentalist—the innocent—believing sex means love, and love means a future together. It’s he who is what Jeanne claims to be: violated, the bullet that the soft-cheeked, doe-eyed girl fires into his gut the film’s true forced entry.
Whether you like Last Tango or not—and I believe that your response depends largely on how you react to the Brando character, if you regard him as primal rather than primitive, wounded and authentic and full of savage truths, or as a born loser, brooding and brutish, a mixture of crybaby and bully—it commands respect. Last Tango is everything Deep Throat was purported to be but wasn’t: a pornographic movie that transcended the genre, became art. Last Tango is art not because it has arty trappings—the Francis Bacon painting under the title, the music by Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri, the allusions to Jean Vigo and Le jour se leve and the nouvelle vague and even Bertolucci’s own earlier work, particularly The Conformist. It’s art because of its creative daring and the scope of its ambition, because of its headiness verging on pretentiousness, because of its excesses and messiness and patches that drag, that make it unforgettable rather than perfect. Because, finally, unlike Deep Throat, it’s an adult movie for grown-ups
Deep Throat and Last Tango exacted a high price from their performers. (The trials and tribulations of Maria Schneider and Linda Lovelace have already been detailed, and the male stars didn’t fare much better. Everyone knows what happened to Brando: he turned into a recluse and a weirdo imprisoned in his own flesh, a blimped-out Howard Hughes, with offspring both homicidal and suicidal. Harry Reems, after years of serious alcoholism, consuming up to half a gallon of vodka per day and blacking out for months at a time, became a twelve-stepper and a born-again.) Last Tango, though, exacted a high price from its audience, too. The battle between Paul and Jeanne has been a Battle of the Sexes, and they emerge from it barely alive; in Paul’s case, not even barely. Leaving the movie, you, the viewer, feel almost as ravaged, the violence you’ve vicariously experienced not just physical but emotional.
And it’s the emotional violence that truly scars. Last Tango is a hard movie to shake or recover from, the opposite of escapist entertainment. It lingers, and your feelings about it remain as unresolved as your feelings about certain episodes in your own life. Deep Throat, on the other hand, which contains real sex—real in the sense that that’s really Harry Reems’s dick going inside Linda Lovelace’s mouth—is, at the same time, not real at all. The people in Deep Throat aren’t people, they’re bodies masquerading as people, and their encounters are so detached, so impersonal, that, finally, it’s like watching pieces of machinery mate, pistons moving up and down. As soon as Deep Throat’s off the screen, it’s out of the mind. In no way does it impinge on your thoughts or feelings or memories. When it’s over, it’s over. And though it features penetration—penetration being hardcore’s thing, its raison d’être, why else would you sit through such dreck?—psychologically, it’s about the opposite of penetration. It’s about letting something out, not taking something in.