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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Porn's Pied Piper: Deep Throat Director Dies

By Richard Corliss

Actress Linda Lovelace dressed as a nurse and adjusting her stockings in the 1972 pornographic film Deep Throat.
Actress Linda Lovelace dressed as a nurse in the 1972 pornographic film Deep Throat.

The movie had no-name stars — in fact, fake-name stars: Herb Streicher was going by Harry Reems, and Linda Boreman by Linda Lovelace. The writer-director, a Bronx hairdresser who'd never done a porno feature before, called himself Jerry Gerard. This was early 1972, and the people making hardcore sex movies considered themselves lucky to exhibit their wares legally, let alone have their real names on them. All "Gerard" had was a cute idea for a porno comedy, and a leading lady with a special talent. He also wanted to change the movie's title, from The Sword Swallower. The producer objected that no one would understand the new title. "Don't worry," the director replied. "Deep Throat will become a household word."

Every once in a while, an artist gets an inspiration that changes pop culture. Even if he's a slop artist, and the inspiration is a movie about a woman with a clitoris in her throat. Such a one was Gerard Rocco Damiano, aka Jerry Gerard, who died this weekend in Fort Myers, Fla., at 80, from complications after a stroke. With Deep Throat and his second film, Devil in Miss Jones, Damiano launched the 1970s movie craze of porno chic.

Deep Throat — whose $25,000 budget was covered by Louis "Butchie" Peraino, the son of a made man in New York City's Columbo mob family — went on to earn tens of millions of dollars. Maybe more: the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat puts the take at an extremely improbable $600 million. Anyway, it was quite a haul. One federal agent quoted a Peraino underling as saying of the Deep Throat take: "We've got so much money ... we don't even count it any more.... We weigh it."

As important as the profits were to the Mafia boys, and to FBI sleuths tracking their loot, Deep Throat did more. Long before home video, it took the recently legalized porn films out of the gutter and into the mainstream. It was the Citizen Kane of porn. Because of Deep Throat, the hardcore movie became a must-see item for the glamorati, a topic for serious debate in newspapers and magazines (including TIME; see the 1973 article "Wonder Woman") and a fun date for ordinary couples who'd never seen a sex movie.

For TV comics, Damiano's film was a grail: a Buttofuoco- or Lewinsky-like solid laugh line. "This is kinda strange country, isn't it?" asked Johnny Carson at the time when the movie was challenging Watergate as the topic du jour. "Judges can see Deep Throat but they can't listen to those [Nixon] tapes." Bob Hope said, "I went to see Deep Throat cause I'm fond of animal pictures. I thought it was about giraffes." When Bob Hope makes a joke about your porno movie, you've arrived.

What was all the fuss about? An hour-long raunch fest that was part slapstick comedy, part carnal carnival: it's a burlesque routine (Reems as a doctor, wisecracking like Groucho Marx) wrapped around a sideshow freak stunt (Lovelace's bedroom trick of controlling her gag reflex so she could perform glottal fellatio — a glo-job). "You had to be there," he said in Inside Deep Throat. "I'm thrilled that I was there. And I thank God I had a camera." Damiano gave this movie the tone of a mildly bright comedy, with an underscoring full of broadly ironic pop music, including a version of Mickey and Sylvia's "Love Is Strange" with naughtier lyrics. The movie, for which Lovelace was paid $1,200, and Reems $250, made both of them famous/notorious. Reems was found guilty of obscenity by a Memphis jury; the conviction was overturned on appeal.

Lovelace, who died at age 53 in 2002 after a car crash, later claimed she performed under duress, telling a 1986 Congressional committee that "virtually every time someone watches that movie, they're watching me being raped." (These claims were widely disputed.) But Damiano did his best to make his leading lady look good. He gave her an alliterative, movie-star name and devised costumes, lighting tricks and cagey camera angles to hide her abdominal scar, a memento from an earlier car wreck. Linda was no goddess, but neither was she your standard porno skank; she was slim and freckled, and her inexperience on screen played like freshness, innocence. Moreover, the movie itself had such an easygoing good nature that audiences could enjoy it without feeling dirty — more startled and amused.

The Deep Throat millions never got to Damiano — how does a director put muscle on the Mafia? — but it did allow him to pursue his dream of being a respected film auteur, though still in hardcore. Most directors with a left-field mega-hit would instantly crank out another picture in the same genre. Not Damiano. He used his cash, and cachet, from his silly porno comedy to make a super-serioso drama: Devil in Miss Jones. And this time under his own name. Reading the script, Reems told his friend: "Gerry, it's a steal. This is No Exit in its thinnest disguise." To which Damiano replied: "Well, what do you expect? I wrote it in a weekend."

Georgina Spelvin (again, not her real name) plays Justine Jones, a lonely woman who slits her wrists in a bathtub. After dying a virgin, she tells a gatekeeper to eternity that she wants to live out her sexual urges, to be "filled, engulfed, consumed by lust." She briefly gets that wish — which includes intimate contact with bananas and grapes, a snake and (Damiano's favorite marital aid) a water tube. With plenty of boy/girl, girl/girl and orgy "action," Devil still takes itself solemnly enough to risk being laughable. But heaven knows it's intense, and an honorable attempt to blur the line between porn and "real" films. As for Spelvin, she isn't a slut; she is a theater-trained actress giving her all for her art.

Damiano said that after the success of Deep Throat, "If people wanted to interview me because I was a porno filmmaker, I just was not interested in talking to them." There had been gifted directors — Radley Metzger, Russ Meyer — making softcore in the '60s, but Damiano had higher ambitions. He wanted to be Ingmar F---in' Bergman.

He made a couple more ambitious porn films: the psychodrama ghost story Memories Within Miss Aggie (1974) and the dreamy, Marienbadesque The Story of Joanna (1975). But by then, porno was an industry, and it relied less on artistic pretension than on grinding out product. In the next 20 years, Damiano put his name on another three dozen or so hardcore movies, none of which made much of an impact. Like silent-film director D.W. Griffith in the talkie era, Damiano was a pioneer whom new trends left behind. According to the local News-Press, he "lived out his final years in Fort Myers quietly, enjoying theater, attending art openings, appearing at charitable events and reveling, especially, in the accomplishments of his two children....artist and filmmaker Gerard Jr., and performer, Christar, with whom he shared a vintage home."

This maker of indecent films was, by all accounts, a decent man. "He was...always very charming and dapper and suave," writes News-Press columnist Stephanie Davis, "always there with a kiss and a 'Hello, Gorgeous.'" In a 2005 interview, Damiano described himself as "just a nice guy, which is why I think I did pretty well. I mean, I'd meet an actress and have to say, 'Sit down, take your clothes off — I'm going to ask you to do some nasty things.' You have to be pretty nice." On his 80th birthday, adult-film stars flew in from around the country to surprise their old friend.

Sometimes it takes a smart softie to make a hardcore phenomenon.

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1 comment:

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