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No Linda Lovelace lost?

The star of a porn cult classic is the subject of a new musical. But will the public embrace it more than her?

June 20, 2003|Rick Cipes | Special to The Times

Poor Linda Lovelace. No matter how hard she fought, she could never erase the public's image of her -- the girl-next-door who became a notorious porn star, popular for one specific act.

After the success of 1972's "Deep Throat," which grossed more than $600 million in sales from a $25,000 budget, Lovelace basked in the glow of a key moment in both film and cultural history. She was ubiquitous -- talk shows, magazines and hanging out with a veritable Who's Who of Hollywood royalty -- a modern-day goddess adored by all. But a goddess straight out of a Greek tragedy, forever cursed with the enigmatic question: Saint or sinner?

Lovelace died last year from injuries sustained in a car crash. She was 53, a sick and destitute divorced mother of two.

"From the time I read the obit, I became obsessed with personally trying to figure out her story," says Jeffrey Bowman, the writer-director of the new rock 'n' roll play "Lovelace: The Musical." "The idea that the most famous porn actress didn't really want to do it and was held 'hostage' by her abusive husband just seemed so surreal."

The husband in question was Chuck Traynor, the man responsible for introducing Lovelace to a career in pornography. She alleged that Traynor forced her to perform in sex scenes, using weapons to threaten her on several occasions.

The accusations were leveled in her third autobiography, 1979's "Ordeal." Backed by forces as varied as Gloria Steinem and the religious right, Lovelace went so far as to say that every time someone watches the film, "they are watching me being raped."


One nervous night

On a recent Saturday afternoon at the Key Club on Sunset Boulevard, the feeling of the first-day-of-camp jitters is in the air. Bowman's ensemble is gathering and, in some cases, meeting for the first time. They're here to do a read-through of the nine (out of a proposed 17) songs and combined dialogue that they'll perform at a one-night showcase Sunday.

The plan is to eventually mount a full-scale production in Los Angeles or New York, where negotiations are already underway with the Revelation Theater Company. "The project is in the very early stages, but we're very interested," says Revelation artistic director Leslie L. Smith. "We'd like to try to put it up at one of the edgier off-Broadway houses."

As Bowman cues up the music for the show -- a live band will be added -- and the troupe assembles around a rickety table in the middle of a dimly lit, hollow dance floor, New York seems a long way off. Yet the anxiety level is still palpable, perhaps as the players struggle with the inscrutable question: How far will Linda Lovelace take them?

Actor Jimmy Swan -- playing Lovelace's co-star Harry Reems -- must sense that the room is in need of a shot of pizazz, and upon hearing the cue for his character's big number, he takes the stage -- impromptu style -- and launches into song. It begins in a rockabilly fashion and explodes into a hard-core rock parody about his private parts. Swan is on fire, and by the last verse, has the entire cast and crew clapping along with him.

"Everything just took off from there; it was fabulous," says actress Mink Stole, a regular in John Waters' films who plays an anti-porn crusader in "Lovelace."

As for real-life crusaders, Robert Peters, president of Morality in Media, says: "If Hollywood had even a grain of moral integrity, it would leave Ms. Lovelace alone and spend its time exposing the hard-core pornography industry."

Bowman, 38, defends the show's integrity to his camp. "Mr. Peters overlooks the fact that the public may be able to learn something from Linda Lovelace's story."

"Who knows, it may bum a lot of people out," admits Anna Waronker, co-composer with Charlotte Caffey, a former member of the Go-Go's who wrote hits including "We Got the Beat" and "Vacation." "Linda had a lot of pain, which obviously comes from some kind of sexual abuse. Whether or not she consented, that's the question. In either case, this is a serious tribute to her torture."


Rock's good girl

Several years ago, producer Brian Grazer was getting set to cast a bio-pic on Lovelace, reportedly looking for an actress with a wholesome image for the role of a bad girl.

The picture was eventually shelved because Grazer felt the material too downbeat, but Bowman picked up on the same casting modus operandi.

Enter former "Family Ties" star Tina Yothers. "I had heard about the play a year ago," says the unassuming, now-brunet, 30-year-old, "and it was pretty intriguing at the time."

Yothers, who has been playing in a rock 'n' roll band for the last 10 years, was approached by a mutual friend of hers and Bowman's. "I read the script and listened to the music, and the next day, I thought, 'I have to do this,' " she says.

"I promised Tina that I wouldn't let her do it if it was embarrassing to her," Bowman says. "She has this amazing voice, though. Like Janis Joplin: it hurts you deep inside." This is evident during one of Yothers' solos at the read-through. The ballad, "Hide My Soul," is about Lovelace being raped by five men who bought her services from Traynor (played with slimy gusto by Willie Wisely). Yothers sings about how "If I close my eyes, you can't hurt me" and -- as she does throughout the reading -- taps into Lovelace's inner life with a natural grace befitting someone who has overcome her own struggles.

"It's the idea of finding ourselves in a bad situation and surviving" that audiences will relate to, Bowman says.


'Lovelace: The Musical'

Where: Key Club, 9039 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood

When: Sunday only, 7:30 p.m.

Price: Sold out

Contact: (310) 274-5800

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