That Old Feeling: When Porno Was Chic

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The working title had been The Sword Swallower. But "deep throat" (Damiano's coinage) was the picture's key phrase. So he changed it. Damiano: "When we finished the film, the Perainos objected to the title. 'No one will understand it! It's not catchy enough!' 'Don't worry,' I told them. 'Deep Throat will become a household word.'" He got his way, for which Woodward and Bernstein will be forever grateful.


Deep Throat opened at the World Theatre on 49th Street in Manhattan, around the corner from the Time + Life Building. The date was June 12, three days before a break-in at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. Thanks in part to a rave review from Al Goldstein in Screw magazine, and to a catchy ad campaign that ran in New York dailies ("If you like head, you'll love Throat"), word of, shall we say, mouth spread quickly. The first week's gross was a robust $30,033. What did the audience find? A mildly bright, good-natured comedy with some appealing performers. Among the supporting players, I like Dolly Sharp, who has some screen presence as Linda's friend and confidante. As a man gives her cunnilingus, she nonchalantly lights up, then asks, "Mind if I smoke while you're eating?" He laps away, and the perky song "Great Big Magic Bubbles" is heard.

Damiano squeezed a lot of production value out of his $25,000, including the underscoring, which is full of jolly, ironic pop music, including a version of Mickey and Sylvia's "Love Is Strange" with raunchier lyrics. The comedy is not cruel but sympathetic. Dr. Young loves the deep throat but it exhausts him; an old Jewish guy is one of Linda's most ardent patients, pleading, "Money is no object. Look —I got Blue Cross!" Once Linda locates her tingler, she need only find Mr. Right, a nerd named Wilbur (William Love). The plot dilemma: Linda needs a man with a nine-inch cock, and Wilbur frets that "I'm just four inches away from happiness." Turns out his cock is ... 13 inches long. Ladies and gentlemen: comedy!

I hear you: this isn't porno chic, it's porno shtick. But it was fun and funny in a slummy way. That helped make Deep Throat the American public's ideal induction ceremony into hard-core. Sex-film history was repeating itself. The break-out soft-core film, Teas,, had been a comedy with a gimmick (a man is able to see women naked); Throat had a more ingenious twist, was a cleverer film and a genial buoyancy. And where else were audiences going to see a woman with such control over her gag reflex? Granted, when they saw the film, some viewers couldn't control theirs, but most were diverted. It soon became the date movie du jour.

Before Deep Throat, the mood in a sex-movie theater was solitary, drastically monastic, with patrons seated as far away from one another as possible. The Damiano film turned porn-going into a communal experience. If you were going to see a hard-core movie, this was the one. You could slake your curiosity and amass opinions that would sustain hours of cocktail-party chatter. Celebrities stood in line. Comedians worked the fellatio film into their monologues. Johnny Carson: "This is kinda strange country, isn't it? Judges can see Deep Throat but they can't listen to those [Nixon] tapes." Bob Hope: "I went to see Deep Throat cause I'm fond of animal pictures. I thought it was about giraffes." Bob Hope made a Deep Throat joke on TV! It was like a papal blessing.

Legalized porn had a sister trend in the early 70s: feminism. Deep Throat benefited from that as well. The movie did acknowledge the existence of a clitoral orgasm, though by transporting it to a part of the body where friction would give men equal pleasure. In real life, fellatio can be deemed an act of submission for the woman (and emission for the man). In this movie's life, it brings a woman to ecstasy. "Guess what?" shouts Erica Jong in Inside Deep Throat.. "It's not true!" What is true is that erupting sperm is the money shot of porn films. It's not just that porn is made for the sexual excitement of men; it's that the arousal of the penis is easier to display visually than arousal of the clitoris. As Gill noted in the "Blue Notes" essay: "Simply as theatre, cunnilingus isn't a patch on fellatio, and it is difficult to see what even the most ardent Women's Lib maker of blue movies can do about it."


Until the 70s, New York state had one of the country's stricter film censorship boards. And although Mona and School Girl were shown without incident in Manhattan theaters, the success and attendant news coverage of Deep Throat required police action. (Though the cops interviewed in Inside Deep Throat are among its most receptive critics. "It was stunning, testifies John Goodman of the NYPD. "The cinematography, for a porn movie, was very good. The movie was funny. We knew that this was something different.") On the order of Mayor John Lindsay, the police closed down the film, and in March 1973 Judge Joel Tyler upheld the ban, writing, "This is one throat that deserves to be cut. I readily perform the operation by finding the defendant guilty as charged..." The World Theatre rose to the occasion. Its marquee read: "Judge Cuts Throat —World Mourns."

The Fenton-Barbato documentary makes much of the judicial and law-enforcement politics surrounding Deep Throat. The Nixon Administration tried prosecuting the film from every angle —not surprising, since it was a popular porn movie produced by the Mafia. 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." The movie reports that "Deep Throat was made for just $25,000. It grossed more than $600 million." (That last stat is a flexible one, like a guy's street-corner boast about his penis size. It's a tough sell, considering that the movie was banned in 27 states and didn't play the major theater chains.) Whatever the gross, Damiano didn't see much of it. The Perainos told him he was cut out of his one-third share of profits. And you don't argue with the made men. In the documentary, three decades later, Damiano is still afraid to discuss the movie's mob connection.

There's some amusement in statements from 70s moral guardians —such as "It's a floodgate of filth that's engulfed the minds and hearts and souls of America like nothing else ever has" —especially when the speaker is convicted savings-and-loan embezzler Charles Keating. It's a pleasure to watch Reems stalwartly defend his work against the ferociously righteous Roy Cohn (later to die of AIDS after a life of secret gay sex). What isn't so funny is that a Memphis jury found Reems guilty of obscenity for appearing in Deep Throat. "For the first time in U.S. history," narrator Dennis Hopper notes, "an actor had been convicted for merely playing a part." His conviction was overturned on appeal (during the Carter Administration), but booze and drugs took their toll. Within a few years Harry ended up panhandling on Sunset Boulevard

I don't question Inside Deep Throat's emphasis on the Nixon Administration's attempt to muzzle pornography. What I do know is that it didn't work. Publicly exhibited porn flourished for the next decade. New York City, certainly, was much more open in the Lindsay-Beame-and-Koch 70s than it would be in the Giuliani 90s. In the early days you could see such perverse eccentricities as Why, a Kronhausen documentary about a Danish farm girl, Bodil Joensen, who has sex with her livestock. That one I skipped.

But I did see most of the "major" porn films (a critic's got to do what a critic's got to do). And I found that the filmmakers were eager to explore all kinds of genres. The Mitchells made a Fanny Hill-style period comedy, Autobiography of a Flea. Low-rent auteur Zebedy Colt pornofied a Crucible-like period drama with The Devil Inside Her.) Peter Locke's It Happened in Hollywood was a Laugh-In-inspired skitcom; one funny turn featured a man-woman trapeze act called the Flying Fucks. These weren't always very good movies, but they were real ones, with earnest, sometimes accomplished actors, scripts that tried to be clever and increasingly professional production values. Just add screwing.

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