Deep Throat at 50: the controversial film that pushed porn into the mainstream | Movies

It intrigued celebrities, mortified conservatives, divided feminists and changed pornography forever. Deep Throat, which premiered in New York 50 years ago on Sunday, is probably the most controversial – and profitable – film of all time.

The X-rated movie starred Linda Lovelace as a sexually unfulfilled woman whose long-lost clitoris is found by a doctor buried in her oesophagus, prompting long, surreal and, some would say, boring scenes of fellatio with a series of men.

Deep Throat provoked a fierce backlash from an unlikely alliance of feminists and religious groups and drew scrutiny from the FBI. Its director was arrested and it was variously banned, unbanned and rebanned during obscenity trials that ensured more people were eager to see it (it was not shown at a British cinema until 2005) while its star claimed she was violently coerced into making it.

Half a century on, some regard it as a milestone in America’s cultural and sexual revolution. Others, even before the internet and #MeToo movement, viewed the 62-minute film as paving the way for the mass proliferation of pornography, exploitation and objectification.

Andrea Dworkin, for example, a feminist who at one point allied with Lovelace in an attempt to outlaw pornography, argued in a 1993 speech about its dehumanising effects that “when a woman has a penis thrust down to the bottom of her throat, as in the film Deep Throat, that throat is not part of a human being who is involved in discussing ideas”. Erica Jong said she was “appalled at how offensive” the concept was.

The film’s director, Gerard Damiano Sr, never set out to change the world but did think he was on the right side of history. The former hairdresser used to listen to his female clients discuss how difficult it was to express themselves sexually.

He went into film-making but, lacking access to big studios, settled for the underground scene in New York (with some financial help from the mob). He died in 2008 at the age of 80, as surprised as anyone that Deep Throat would be his legacy.

Gerard Damiano Sr in 2005. Photograph: Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images

His daughter, Christar Damiano, 56, says via Zoom from New York: “He never thought that it would get the notoriety it did. He never set out to think that he was going to make this phenomenon and start what was known as the sexual revolution. He had no idea. He had a whim when he saw Linda and just took it from there.

Christar and her brother, Gerard Damiano Jr, 57, also a former director of adult films, are working on a documentary about their late father. They were six- and seven-year-old children when they accompanied Damiano to Miami, Florida, where he shot Deep Throat in six days for $25,000 (it would gross a reported $600m), and remember interacting with the cast and crew.

Christar, a sound healer and performance artist, says: “We were very privy to what our father did. We were on a lot of the film sets, although we were skirted off when there was the ‘nitty-gritty’ happening. We came from a very loving, tight, close-knit family; our mom was our dad’s secretary; she was like the backbone of him and his company.

“So we knew what was happening and were brought up with the idea that sex was something beautiful that happened between consenting adults and not something to be ashamed of. The human body is an artistic work that should be appreciated. People have a lot of fear against showing the human body but that’s not the way we were brought up.”

Deep Throat was the first pornographic film embraced by a mainstream audience, drawing fashionable viewers such as Warren Beatty, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson and Jacqueline Onassis. Film-maker John Waters recalled in the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat: “Deep Throat was a badge of the new freedom.” The trend was summed up as “porno chic”.

Christar reflects: “Seeing photos of our father in the newspaper and people talking about it was very enlightening for us. We thought there’s something special about being the children of our father. It was only when it wasn’t such good press, when they hauled him off to go to jail, that we asked questions.”

Linda Lovelace arrives at the Oscars in 1974.
Linda Lovelace arrives at the Oscars in 1974. Photograph: AP

A 1975 investigation by the New York Times found that the mafia helped bankroll pornographic films such as Deep Throat and reaped huge profits from their distribution. Gerard says of his father: “He first partnered with the mob and so there was some fear of retribution. He felt that he was lucky to get away with his life.

“Then he was prosecuted and pursued by the federal government. [President Richard] Nixon took him on to divert attention away from his own wrongdoing. Nixon had a very public campaign against pornography and so my father was arrested and surveilled and our phones were tapped. There was a lot of anxiety there.

“As the laws were being interpreted and reinterpreted, people were being arrested for making X-rated films. As much as he wanted to make better films, he was exposing himself to greater risks and we as kids picked up on that energy.

“We didn’t know all the details but I remember one time our father ripped the phone off the wall in the middle of the night. It woke us up and the next day there was the broken little plastic buttons everywhere. It was hard to keep his feelings of anxiety over persecution away from us.”

As Deep Throat was prosecuted under obscenity laws in conservative states, Damiano found himself dragged to courts in Memphis, Tennessee, and Covington, Kentucky, to defend himself and his work. Gerard recalls: “I remember when he was arrested and we were ushered off to our grandparents with strict instructions that they shouldn’t turn on the television because they would always watch the evening news. That night we didn’t watch the news because it was ‘The king of porn in chains’.”

Gerard first saw Deep Throat at 14 or 15 years old without his parents’ consent, buying a $5 ticket on 42nd Street in Manhattan. “I was more excited about seeing our family car than I was about seeing sex because by this time I knew what sex was. I actually did tell my father shortly thereafter because I just couldn’t keep it a secret. I had to say, ‘I saw the movie! I saw it, I saw it.’ Not that he was happy but he was like, ‘OK’ – he couldn’t keep it from us forever.”

Christar was in her late 20s when she finally caught the film and impressed that it tells the story from a woman’s perspective instead of being solely focused on male pleasure. But above all, she found it funny. “I saw my dad’s humour all over,” she recalls. “That was our dad. He was funny and liked to make people laugh and had a dry sense of humour. That was the takeaway for me. It was a funny film that had sex in it.”

But Lovelace – born Linda Boreman – had a complicated and troubled relationship with Deep Throat. She said later she only made the film because her husband at the time, Chuck Traynor, threatened her with violence. In 1986, testifying to Congress about the dangers of pornography, she said “virtually every time someone watches that movie, they’re watching me being raped”.

Linda Lovelace in 1975. Photograph: Araldo Di Crollalanza/Rex Features

Shortly before her death in a car crash in 2002, at the age of 53, Lovelace seemed to be making peace with the film, however, or at least accepting of it as a way to make ends meet. She signed Deep Throat souvenirs for fans and took part in a soft-focus lingerie shoot for the magazine Leg Show. “There’s nothing wrong with looking sexy as long as it’s done with taste,” she said at the time.

Gerard observes: “People like to think of it in black and white but it was really 50 shades of grey. She wrote four autobiographies – all actually written by men – that have conflicting viewpoints. I’m not saying that she changed her story but her story evolved and, at the end of her career, she actually said the anti-porn feminists had taken advantage of her and abused her for their own ends.

Among Lovelace’s contemporaries was Gloria Leonard, a pornographic film actor and activist who died in 2014. Her daughter, Robin Leonardi, a principal at Damiano Films, is joining Gerard and Christar on an interview tour to mark the golden anniversary of Deep Throat. She insists that Leonard never felt she was being exploited or objectified by the adult film industry.

Leonardi says via Zoom from Sarasota, Florida: “I don’t think my mother ever had a moment of regret. If she had the opportunity to do it again, she would. She was a member of Mensa; she was a Wall Street trader; she could have done anything with her life.

“She realised early on with the hypocrisy of this country how disingenuous we are as a culture. That was the impetus for her to take this on where she said, ‘You know what, I’m going to do this but it’s not about the money, it’s about the principle.’ Once she stepped foot into the ring, there was nothing she could not do.”

Leonardi, 58, an estate agent, goes on: “This was in a time where women were seen and not heard. They were barefoot and pregnant. One of my mother’s classic lines is: ‘To be in an X-rated film is not degrading to women but, when a woman’s pinnacle choice for the day is stuffing or potatoes, that’s degrading to women.’

“There was this dichotomy because she was a porn star and a feminist and she wound up debating Women Against Pornography who claimed that they were feminists too. She changed the way that women can be comfortable in their power in this industry.”

If Gerard Damiano Sr was starting his career and making Deep Throat today, he would presumably being doing it online. But in the age of the internet, which can often resemble the wild west, are choice and consent always possible? Can you still be a pro-porn feminist? Gloria Steinem would say no; these interviewees say yes.

Christar argues: “Everyone has a right to choose what they want to do with their life and with their own body. Going forward, we should always have that choice. A lot of women love being a porn star and love doing that work. They do it by choice and not because they have to.”

Linda Lovelace. Photograph: Araldo Di Crollalanza/Rex Features

Her brother Gerard expresses a view that some might find idealistic: “Pornographers knew their audience: there were guys jerking off in the theatres down the block and that’s who they were making their films for. But now, with the internet, we have cam girls by the millions. A young woman doesn’t need a studio system. She doesn’t need Damiano Films.

“All she needs is a computer with a webcam and she’s in business for herself to make her own content and reap all the rewards of it and take her own responsibility. It’s really opened up the possibilities so it’s not controlled by a few men. It’s now controlled by anybody: male, female, non-binary, transgender. Anybody that wants to participate can express themselves sexually and, in some cases, get paid for it.”

Christar and Gerard are restoring their father’s films such as The Devil in Miss Jones, Memories within Miss Aggie, Let My Puppets Come and The Story of Joanna. To celebrate 50 years of Deep Throat, they are taking part in screenings and panel discussions across America and the world. They cannot quite be sure how it will be received in the era of #MeToo.

Gerard comments: In America, people are very skittish about talking about anything that has to do with sex. We feel that the MeToo movement is long overdue. We’re all feminists. My father was a feminist. He put females first and foremost in all of his most important films but unfortunately there’s been a bit of a backlash.

“People today are so afraid of anything sexual because they don’t know what to do. We’ve seen a lot of the wrong that has been done but there’s not a lot of sex positivity and we’re hoping to reintroduce that with this film.”

The debates will rage on but Deep Throat’s name is assured immortality thanks to the man who waged war on pornography: Nixon. When reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein found a secret FBI informant for their investigation of the Watergate break-in and cover-up, which also marks its 50th anniversary next week, a Washington Post editor gave the source an alias: “Deep Throat”.

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