‘Inside Deep Throat’: Gimme Some Skin, By Kurt Loder

How the most profitable porn film of all time changed everything.

“Deep Throat” dragged hardcore pornography out of the scum-swamps in which it had traditionally festered and pushed it into the everyday world. So successful was the movie in doing this that, today, not only is porn of every sort available instantly to all who seek it, it’s also available — suddenly, startlingly, right there on a computer screen — to those who don’t. In this regard, the modern porn industry is as evangelical, in its way, as the religious groups that understandably revile it.

“Inside Deep Throat,” a funny and saddening new documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, takes us back to June of 1972, when “Deep Throat” opened without fanfare at a theater in New York’s Times Square. Up until that point, sex on film had been the illicit province of short, squalid “stag” reels and “loops.” “Deep Throat” was something new. The movie had been shot in Miami Beach the previous January, over the course of six days, by a stag-film entrepreneur named Gerard Damiano. Its star was a 23-year-old loop graduate called Linda Lovelace, whose then-exotic sexual specialty gave the picture its name. Her co-star was an awful but nevertheless aspiring 24-year-old actor working under the adopted moniker Harry Reems. The picture cost about $25,000 to make; Damiano had raised the money from certain flush associates, men with names like “Butchie” and “Joe the Whale.” Lovelace received $1,200 for her enthusiastic efforts, and Reems strutted away with 250 bucks.

“Deep Throat” was an immediate sensation. Unlike the short black-and-white 8-millimeter loops of the past, the movie was shot on 35-millimeter color film, and it ran a little over an hour. It also had a cornball story line (or at least a beginning and an end), and some wheezy laughs, too. It was a low-grade comedy. Municipal authorities, clueless as always, rushed in to give the picture a huge publicity boost by shutting it down, and then shutting it down again, and again. This attracted the attention of celebrities and intellectuals — the kind of people who normally wouldn’t have been caught within skulking distance of a stag movie, but who could fearlessly enjoy the same arousing experience in the guise of adventurous hipsters. There they all were, in the papers, on the news, lining up to see “Deep Throat.” They also rallied around the picture as a First Amendment issue, which of course it was, and Lovelace and Reems began popping up on TV talk shows discussing the free-speech aspect of their work. (The documentary contains a clip of the sweet but hapless Lovelace telling a reporter, “The last person who started censorship was Adolf Hitler, and look what happened there.”)

When “Deep Throat” began pulling in spectacular amounts of money, Damiano says, the mob cut him out of the profit picture and began marketing the movie directly to theaters around the country on a cash basis. This may have led in some cases to the sort of Better Business Bureau infractions usually memorialized in headlines like “Theater Goes Up in Flames” and “Owner Washes Up on Shore.” Despite unrelenting official hostility, however, “Deep Throat” got seen. It’s impossible to say how much the film has made over the last 33 years, but some estimates put the total as high as $600 million. That’s more than any of the “Lord of the Rings” movies has earned in this country, more than any of the “Star Wars” movies, and is almost exactly the amount taken in to date by “Titanic,” the highest-grossing Hollywood movie of all time.

“Deep Throat” didn’t enrich its stars. Linda Lovelace went on to a life of drugs and destitution, claiming in later years that she’d been forced to perform in the movie at gunpoint. (No one else remembered it that way.) She died, penniless, in 2002. Harry Reems made several more porn films before spiraling down into alcoholism and vagrancy. He was at one point reduced to panhandling for spare change on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. (Eventually he sobered up, though, got born-again, and today, as we see in the documentary, is a very cheerful realtor in Park City, Utah.) As for Gerard Damiano, he continued churning out sex movies into the mid-’90s. He’s now an old man living in Florida with his gold medallions and his white toupee, and he says he never saw a penny from the most profitable porn film of all time.

“Deep Throat” was banned in 23 states, and in 1975, infuriated federal prosecutors, in the service of a conservative Republican administration, tried, but ultimately failed, to put away virtually everyone involved with the movie on conspiracy charges. It was too late to stem the porno tide, though. In 1977, home video arrived, a whole new venue for sex movies, free from government prohibition. And glimmering on the horizon was the Internet, the ultimate pornotopia. Today, rock musicians routinely consort with porn starlets, and hot outfits that might’ve been lifted straight out of a vintage skin flick can sometimes be spotted on 13-year-old girls, emulating the chosen styles of their favorite pop stars. Porn is so thoroughly dispersed in the cultural mainstream, its secondary effects have become almost invisible.

There may be changes in the wind, though. In Washington, posturing congressmen continue their mad crusade for media “decency,” and clamor ever more loudly to extend their control over the fading broadcast media into the uninhibited precincts of cable TV. Large segments of the population cheer them on. Sensing a cultural shift, perhaps, Arrow Productions, the company that currently owns “Deep Throat,” and is about to reissue the movie on DVD, is being very shrewd. The picture will be released in two versions. One will be full-X, but the other will be trimmed to qualify for an “R” rating. Imagine. That’ll leave … what? The corny plot? The wheezy jokes? The afterglow?

(“Inside Deep Throat” isn’t a porn film, exactly, but it does contain some explicit footage, unavoidably including the titular sex act. The movie is therefore rated NC-17. Those under the age of 17 will just have to stay home with their computers.)