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Pushing porn to the fore

'Deep Throat' (1972) rattled cultural taboos. A documentary peeks at its lasting influence.

November 23, 2003|Bob Baker | 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.

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