Pushing porn to the fore

Times Staff Writer

His hands flying above his spiked hair, Brian Grazer is flinging metaphors, connecting dots across three decades, trying to explain why for years he's been obsessed with the cultural significance of the 1972 porn classic "Deep Throat."

On first reckoning this is hard to fathom: One of the most profitable movie producers in history ("8 Mile," "A Beautiful Mind," "Apollo 13," "Splash") is talking your ear off about a crude, 62-minute, unfunny sex farce that starred a mousy young actress named Linda Lovelace whose sole talent was one endlessly repeated sexual gimmick. How quaint in today's sex-soaked culture, when a porn star is the central attraction of a new teen comedy (20th Century Fox's "The Girl Next Door"), when a three-story billboard of porn queen Jenna Jameson looks down upon family-friendlier Times Square, when ads for Viagra appear superimposed on the backstop during World Series games.

But then Grazer, 52, tells you the story about his grandmother and the night in 1973 she came into her 21-year-old grandson's room.

"This little 4-foot-10 Jewish grandmother, she lived with her husband, Sy," he says. "Sy and Sonia Schwartz. She comes in, closes my door and says to me, 'Sy and I saw it.' I go, 'Saw what?' 'We saw it, we went.' 'You went to what?' 'Deep Throat.' 'You gotta be kidding.' 'No, we stood in line,' she said. 'We went.' 'Where?' 'Hollywood.' 'Well, what'd you think?' And she said, 'It was quite a film.' I said, 'Why did you go see it?' 'Well, everyone was talking about it ...'

"My grandmother," Grazer says, delighted both by the absurdity and the point it helps him make, "turned me on to 'Deep Throat.' "

Grazer may wind up telling that story on camera because the two documentarians he hired to research and direct "Inside Deep Throat," Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, consider it a charming example of how the film created a furious sexual curiosity in America. "Deep Throat," made for $22,000 and financed by two men regarded in law enforcement circles as organized-crime figures, was the highest-grossing picture in Los Angeles during the 1972-73 seasonThe next year it finished sixth. It played here for more than 10 straight years and is believed to have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide.

HBO liked Grazer's search for deeper meaning enough to split the $2-million cost with him and give the documentary a theatrical release before its pay-cable debut next year.

That one of the kings of mainstream moviemaking is betting he can make you contemplate an oral-sex film speaks volumes about the way pornography has insinuated itself into pop culture. Porn has gradually morphed from taboo to a ubiquitousness that can make the girls of the Vivid Video porn empire seem hardly more threatening than the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders used to be.

There are two ways to think about "Deep Throat's" role in this.

One is to dismiss the film as an aberration, a death rattle of the libertine '60s. It was the first porn film to draw mass audiences, including many married couples, titillated by the kooky theme, the obscenity prosecutions that nagged the film in city after city, and the film's relentless celebration of an act unmentionable in polite company. By 1976, Sony introduced the VCR, making private porn convenient and soon destroying more mass communal experiences in adult theaters. Within another decade the AIDS epidemic made the casual-sex ethos of "Deep Throat" a distant memory. Today many Americans get their porn on a computer, spending $1 billion a year on 100,000 sites.

The other way to look at the legacy of the film -- the way Grazer, Bailey and Barbato look at it -- is to marvel at the way it shattered sexual mores and to ruminate about the connection between that revolution and today's porn chic. When you see a porn actress running for governor, when you find hard-core porn routinely offered on TVs in middle-brow chain hotel rooms, when a sports talk-radio host invites a different female porn star to make NFL picks every Friday -- when porn is that common, the filmmakers suggest, thank "Deep Throat" for helping to set the tone.

"So many things weren't the same after 'Deep Throat,' " says Barbato, who has collaborated with Bailey for more than a decade on eclectic, provocative documentaries on subjects ranging from Tammy Faye Bakker to Monica Lewinsky to a New York City "club kids' " murder to the history of pornography. "There was almost like a genuine, innocent curiosity about pornography, about sex and sexuality. It's almost like 'Deep Throat' and its commercial success was the beginning of pornography being co-opted by big business" -- the "commodification of sex," as the directors are fond of putting it.

During the past year, Barbato and Bailey have filmed interviews of scores of people -- porn actors, directors, prosecutors, cultural commentators -- who lived through "Deep Throat." "There're endless tales of the sexual revolution, and every one makes you want to make a left-hand turn and go into someone's personal story," Barbato says.

There's Annie Sprinkle, a teenager who'd run off with a guy on a motorcycle, found herself making popcorn in a Tucson theater where "Deep Throat" was playing, and headed west to join the fray. To this day she is a sexual-performance artist. There are male lawyers from the obscenity trials remembering the fear of having to pronounce "clitoris" for the first time in their lives.

There's also Linda Lovelace, whose celebrity first drew Grazer's interest in "Deep Throat." Half a dozen years ago he decided to make a biopic about the actress, who was reportedly coerced into porn by her husband, was paid $1,200 for her work and spent much of her life after "Deep Throat" impoverished or ill, variously condemning porn and basking in its notoriety.

Lovelace (nee Boreman) died in a Denver traffic accident at 53 in April 2002. Soon after, Grazer -- who said he had already commissioned a script and interviewed several well-known actresses to play Lovelace -- decided he'd been moving in the wrong direction.

Changing the focus

"The more I learned, the less interested I got in Linda Lovelace and the more interested I got in the profound effect the movie had on the culture," he says. "Johnny Carson would talk about it every night.... It crossed every barrier, it entered the zeitgeist. It was in our grammar." (In 1973, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post would code-name a key Watergate source "Deep Throat.") The once-unspeakable was suddenly part of casual conversation. "It wasn't shocking anymore. Then you say to yourself, 'How does that affect all the other art forms that think they're going to shock you by saying something sexy or showing those images that don't have the same impact anymore?' "

This is how Grazer often talks -- a whoosh of leaping notions fueled by an engaging intellectual restlessness. He went to New York to sell his idea to HBO's documentary executive, Sheila Nevins, who asked skeptically -- as many people seem likely to do -- why "Deep Throat"? Out rushed Grazer's hypothesis, and Nevins, who figures she was a bit intimidated, agreed to a deal. "He displayed this enormous passion for the project, and I thought, 'God, he's so smart, he must know.' "

Creatively and financially, Grazer can afford the risk. From a job as a twentysomething law clerk at Warner Bros. in the '70s he started developing TV pilots, then hooked up in 1980 with director Ron Howard, who was trying to overcome his "Happy Days" image. Together they've made three dozen movies that have grossed an estimated $10 billion worldwide, most under the banner of Imagine Entertainment.

Grazer, raised in the San Fernando Valley, operates out of a lush seventh-floor suite in a Beverly Hills office building on Wilshire Boulevard with a squad of young assistants. The New Jersey-bred Barbato and the British-born Bailey, both 43, met at NYU's graduate film school. They base their World of Wonder production office in a building on Hollywood Boulevard and Cherokee Avenue, which they bought three years ago. Their ground-level tenants include a Spanish-language church and a sex-accessory store. Dozens of writers and producers work at small pods. Aluminum air-conditioning pipes stretch across the ceiling. The environment is a tribute to Andy Warhol's Factory, the New York office, art studio and filmmaking center where Warhol and his contemporaries helped change the face of '60s pop culture.

Even as Grazer was planning the Lovelace biopic, Barbato and Bailey were lobbying to direct. But they started getting serious consideration only when Grazer switched to a documentary. They'd worked on a dozen projects with HBO's Nevins, winning her confidence for breaking the sober mold of many documentaries with their intellectual playfulness.

When they met in the late '80s, Barbato and Bailey envisioned feature-film careers. (After grad school they formed a band, the Fabulous Pop Tarts, to gain fame as a springboard to filmmaking; it didn't work.) Gradually they gravitated to documentary storytelling. A key moment came after the 1992 L.A. riots, when they gave small cameras to 10 inner-city residents and wove the results together. "At that point, we realized there are all these different ways of telling stories," Barbato says.

As they sort through a couple of hundred hours of interviews, the filmmakers are wrestling with how to show that what they consider a sexually dysfunctional culture was turned upside-down by one movie, and what's changed since. It's hard for film to capture these abstractions, such as Bailey's assertion that the adventurousness that drew people to see "Deep Throat" has been replaced by an artificial, sterile sexuality. "It's a philosophical shift about sex -- from being something to experiment with and that is ideologically sound, to the notion that it is fundamentally unsound," he says. "We find it a loony idea that people thought you could [copulate] your way to freedom and enlightenment, but people did believe that then and they were going down that path -- wife-swapping, orgies, a whole range of behavior." Consider the Madonna-Britney Spears kiss during the MTV Video Awards show -- a phony moment of sexuality between pop-culture icons as opposed to sex between real people of "Deep Throat."

The movie catches on

Until "Deep Throat," most porn films had been 10-minute hard-core "loops" for adult bookstores or back rooms. "Deep Throat" was positively glossy by contrast. As it started making money and generating word-of-mouth, local and federal authorities began confiscating prints of the film and prosecuting theater owners in scores of cities -- Riverside, Buena Park, Miami, New York and, most prominently, Memphis, Tenn., where federal prosecutors charged 60 people, including some cast members, with conspiring to show the movie, even though it had yet to be exhibited there.

"Deep Throat's" rise collided with the Nixon administration's appeal to traditional morality and a new Supreme Court ruling that said obscenity prosecution could be based on an individual community's standards, which ultimately made cases more difficult to prove. Some trials featured arguments by defense experts who contended "Deep Throat" was a socially significant story about female empowerment, since its plot involved a woman with a physical problem (her clitoris was located in the back of her throat) seeking fulfillment on her own terms.

Odd behavior sprouted in the movie's first year. A Huntington Beach school superintendent got in trouble for allowing "Deep Throat" to be shown at a summer conference of administrators. The Texas legislative committee on pornography wanted to see "Deep Throat" but put it off, fearing arrest.

The sprawling variety of characters Barbato and Bailey are trying to splice together to capture this era include sexual-politics pundits such as Gore Vidal and Hugh Hefner; director Wes Craven, an example of how filmmakers with legitimate ambitions entered the business through sex films; director Paul Mazursky, whose "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" from 1969 shows Hollywood gingerly trying to capture late-'60s morality; Harry Reems, "Deep Throat's" male lead, a serious actor who turned to porn when his stage roles evaporated; and author Erica Jong, whose uninhibited 1973 "Fear of Flying" struck some critics as the literary cousin of "Deep Throat."

Beyond the agony of paring material, some tough choices remain for the documentary-makers: How much footage from "Deep Throat" should their film use? Should "Inside Deep Throat" show the act itself? If it does, would it risk an NC-17 rating rather than an R?

"Ask Jack Valenti," Grazer jokes over lunch. "I don't want it to be X-rated [the rating that preceded NC-17.] I think you can show what gets you to the act. It's absolutely important to get to that."

And with that, Grazer is talking about "Girls Gone Wild" and female reporters who look like actresses and Snoop Doggy Dogg's new porn career and how he wants the documentary to contain " 'Ice Storm' stories," anecdotes of couples who went to see "Deep Throat" out of boredom, only to have one suddenly inspired partner stray.

"I'm just so interested in it, I can't tell you," he says. "I'm obsessed with it. I'm obsessed with granulating the culture in relation to 'Deep Throat.' "

Whoosh -- he transposes "Deep Throat" to today's Big Thing: "I said to these guys [Barbato and Bailey], it's like the ultimate reality television experience. Linda Lovelace was very normal-looking. She wasn't the girl next door like a discovery of Hugh Hefner. She wasn't hot and sexy like any girls in porno. She was this modest, just beige girl, this modest-looking sort of grocery-store-clerk-kind-of beige character that could do this miraculous thing. She became enormously famous for that. If you look at any successful reality show, they're all based on the same drug: 'This can happen to you.' "

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°