By Saul Austerlitz

Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace in Lovelace

The myth of Hollywood is dying. The days of the American filmmaker as outlaw extraordinaire have receded into history. The American New Wave of Altman and Coppola and Scorsese has been replaced by the likes of Star Trek Into Darkness and The Lone Ranger. Hollywood studios occupy vast swaths of the physical and mental landscape of Los Angeles while their flashiest products shrivel into irrelevance. Meanwhile, across town, in a series of nondescript buildings, its locations mostly the interiors of McMansions, pornographic film production is a vast industry. The porn industry, Hollywood’s mutant offspring, now demands an ever-growing degree of attention from Hollywood itself. Pornography has become a favored topic of American films, with Lovelace only the latest exemplar.

The glamour and allure of Hollywood is continually being diminished — by television, by an audience distracted by the Internet, by the perils of too much knowledge about our favorite stars. As a response, Hollywood has borrowed plot lines and performers from porn in the hopes of perking up their product. Films like Boogie Nights, The People vs. Larry Flynt and The Girlfriend Experience use porn as a trampoline, propelling Hollywood into the realms of outlaw chic that it once naturally inhabited. Larry Flynt and Dirk Diggler and John Holmes are the antiheroes of choice, their transgressive embrace of porn as a career and lifestyle emblematic of their badassness. They are also — none of them — blessed with happy endings to their stories. Porn is exciting and terrifying in these films, outrageous in all senses of the word, a gateway to relaxing inhibitions that also serves as the portal to Hell.

It is no coincidence that the stories Hollywood has chosen to tell about porn have been so stark and unforgiving. The reason that there has not yet been a Hugh Hefner biopic is that his story lacks the requisite unhappy ending — no would-be assassins or drug robberies or murders to muddy a life devoted with single-minded absorption to the pursuit of hedonism. (He does show up in Lovelace, though, and plays himself in the sweet Playboy Bunny comedy The House Bunny.)

Lovelace, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, literalizes the split personality of these films, sheared as it is into two separate overlapping stories. In the first, an appealing ingenue makes use of pluck, vigor and an unerring desire to please to transform herself into a star; in the second, a frail young woman is physically and psychologically abused by her husband, forced into a life of sexual violence. That both of these women are Linda Lovelace (played with impressive range and delicacy by ex-Mean Girl Amanda Seyfried) speaks to the essential schizophrenia of Lovelace and its colleagues. A breezy sex comedy and a tragic melodrama awkwardly inhabit the same film.

As a movie like Lovelace might indicate, though, Hollywood is not content with merely borrowing; it also seeks to critique. So many of these films are morality plays about the dark side of porn, about how its promise of easy living contains a hidden edge that wounds. Porn may be attractive, these films suggest, but it is also terribly, terribly dangerous.

Hollywood's treatment of porn has perpetually enacted this dance of simultaneous attraction and repulsion. Lovelace is the clearest expression yet of that schizophrenic allure. It is a desire to simultaneously celebrate and punish the world of porn for its revelry in excess.

If there is a single scene that summarizes the Hollywood film’s take on porn, it is the legendary “Sister Christian” sequence in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film Boogie Nights. Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler, having borne helpless witness to the dissolution of his incestuous surrogate family, is convinced to join a half-assed scheme to rob a jittery drug dealer (the unforgettable Alfred Molina). Molina shimmies to Night Ranger’s deathless rocker and Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl,” a mute boy tosses exploding caps in the background to add to the already unbearable tension, and Wahlberg smiles softly to himself, as if in acknowledgement that he has, at long last, touched bottom. Porn is the gateway drug to tragedy, and those who choose to indulge in it are inexorably fated to suffer.

Boogie Nights is the Urtext of the Hollywood porn film, the initial pleasure it takes in the comic excess of San Fernando Valley culture undercut by its inevitable fracturing. Hints of tragedy are speckled throughout Boogie Nights, narrative equivalents of Anderson’s favored canted frames. Every time we settle into the story, content, like Dirk, to embrace his new family of oddballs and rejects (kindly father Burt Reynolds, nurturing mother Julianne Moore, squabbling brother John C. Reilly), Anderson tilts the camera to take in the terrible sadness lurking just past the edge of the screen. The triumphant night out at a club is immediately followed by the comedown at home: Amber (Moore) shouting into the telephone about her missing child, Dirk creeping back into his airless teenage bedroom, cinematographer Little Bill (William H. Macy) walking in on his wife (played by real-life porn star Nina Hartley) in flagrante delicto with another man.  

The pianissimo notes of discord build and build to a shrill fortissimo roar of anger, frustration and despair. The porn set, like any other impromptu movie family (Boogie Nights bears more resemblance than initially acknowledged to movie-set films like Truffaut’s Day for Night and Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore), offers only temporary respite from the demons lurking beyond the camera’s reach. Little Bill walks in on his wife again and shoots her before himself swallowing the gun, Amber loses custody of her child, Dirk fails to transform himself into a pop star, and Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) cannot secure a loan for his nascent stereo business. Dirk winds up back where he was before he started, offering to jerk off in front of strangers for $10. Porn is a shelter from the unforgiving harshness of the world, but is also a scarlet letter of shame barring them from any other asylum. Dirk, shattered, returns to the welcoming embrace of his family, but the reunion is bittersweet. We are pleased to see the old gang reunited, but know that they have returned home only because they have nowhere else in the world they might go. Boogie Nights is less judgmental about sex than many of the films to come, but its equation of porn with crime provides the template they generally work from.

Larry Flynt is not exactly a criminal in the common sense of the term, but 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt, Milos Forman’s biopic detailing his rise and fall and rise, is as much legal thriller as sexy romp. Flynt is a Kentucky moonshiner who deftly transforms himself into a strip club owner and magazine publisher. In one notable moment early in the film, Larry (Woody Harrelson) makes a religious argument for his anatomically detailed brand of realism, insisting to a photographer that he is merely respecting God’s creation while winching a model’s legs open.

The early sequences of the film are a joyful splash in the deep end of 1970s hedonism, with copious nudity from Courtney Love to ease the way. But Flynt must pay the cost for his embrace of filth. Appealing but not entirely likable, proud of his own lack of good taste, Flynt literally wraps himself in the flag for defense, delivering an illustrated lecture composed of both nude women and corpses: “What is more obscene: sex or war?”

After one court case in 1978, Flynt is shot by a sniper and paralyzed from the waist down — a particularly cruel fate, as the film emphasizes, for a man devoted to sexual libertinism. The second half of the film treats Flynt’s decline as pitch-black comedy, Larry’s wild mood swings a reflection of the costs of intemperance. “I’ve turned the whole world into a tabloid!” he crows after all three broadcast networks switch over to live coverage of the police approaching Flynt’s home to arrest him.

Flynt is the kind of man who will accuse the Reverend Jerry Falwell of having his first sexual experience with his mother in an outhouse. In his defense, he casts himself as a protector, by default, of First Amendment rights: “‘Cause if the First Amendment will protect a ... scumbag like me, then it’ll protect all of you — ‘cause I’m the worst.”  The film does not dispute his assertion, while still leaving us room to admire him for his gumption. Flynt ends up winning his Supreme Court case by a unanimous majority, but we last see him beached atop his bed, alone, his eyes puffy and red-rimmed, watching old videos of Althea (Love), now dead of AIDS. “I’m never gonna be old and ugly, Larry,” Althea tells him on the video. “You’re gonna be old and ugly.” She is taunting him, but her insult has become a curse, his punishment for a life lived in the defense of excess.

2003’s Wonderland, directed by James Cox, is like the second half of Boogie Nights sliced cleanly away from the first: all downfall and no rise. John Holmes (Val Kilmer), the real-life inspiration for Dirk Diggler, is a once-popular porn star reduced to a life of drug-addled penury and moneymaking schemes. Possessed of nearly as many music cues as Anderson’s film (if without any of the wit or insight), Wonderland is like a feature-length music video about “what happened once the legend was over.” Holmes is a tragic wreck, a man with only one purpose in life, now passed by. His legendary endowment — echoes of Dirk Diggler (himself echoing the real-life Holmes) — is his blessing and his curse.  

We glimpse his prowess in an early scene where he and his junkie girlfriend (Kate Bosworth) have sex in a stranger’s bathroom, with Bosworth’s eyes rolling back in her head as he thrusts forcefully into her. But this is a film about the business of pleasure that takes no pleasure in anything but business. In one of the film’s lone tender moments, John reminisces with his estranged wife (Lisa Kudrow) about measuring his penis in the bathtub long ago: “I finally found what I wanted to do with my life.” She retorts angrily that anyone who sells their body for money is nothing but a whore. John’s new world of grimy flophouses and nouveau riche mansions echoes her judgment, with one of his associates forcing him, at the point of a gun, to expose himself at a party for his guests’ amusement. Wonderland styles itself a Rashomon/Pulp Fiction-style thriller, revisiting the same crime scene from a number of perspectives, but its taste for gore overwhelms its strange squeamishness about matters sexual.

The siren call of pornography is an alluring but ultimately tragic one, leading inexorably, in these films’ simplified moral universes, to crime, self-destruction and death. Even a fluffy comedy like 2004’s The Girl Next Door, directed by Luke Greenfield, with Emile Hirsch as the buttoned-up high school senior looking to break free of his good-student shackles, and Elisha Cuthbert as his voluptuous blonde surrogate id, subscribes to this line of argument. Danielle (Cuthbert), feeling burned after Matthew (Hirsch) attempts to seduce her in a cheap motel room, storms out his life and back into the arms of her sleazy producer, as somber music fills the soundtrack. “This is what I am,” she tells Matthew. Porn is a setback and a letdown.  

Hirsch and his doofus buddies head to Las Vegas to rescue Cuthbert from an adult film convention. Hirsch pushes his way to the front of a gaping maw of sad-sack aficionados with a message: “I just want to let you know, I know who you are, and you’re better than this.” The Girl Next Door coasts on the frisson of outlaw allure it hints at — the girl next door is a porn star! — but sex itself is a risky endeavor here. Hirsch mortally insults his love by merely suggesting they have sex. A trip to a strip club contains some wildly unerotic nudity, Hirsch and a middle-aged friend of his parents’ getting matching lap dances as they make awkward small talk about college applications. Only Hirsch’s friends (including Paul Dano’s unfortunately named Klitz) are allowed to actually enjoy the spectacle of an adult film convention in Las Vegas or the shooting of a movie featuring erotic stars at their high school prom.

Taking a similar tack with different material, Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, from 2009, casts a genuine porn star, Sasha Grey, as a high-class Manhattan call girl. Its glass-and-brushed-steel surfaces mirror its star: lovely, alluring and flat. Chelsea (Grey) visits clients, listens attentively to their concerns, muses on her outfits and the likelihood of future bookings. Her story is balanced by that of her live-in boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer also looking to improve his freelance gig. Everyone, it seems, is making their living off the bodies of rich men.  

Set against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis, the background chatter of Girlfriend Experience is all nervous discussion of failing businesses, decreased revenues and bailout packages. The life of the call girl, in this denuded world, is like a clothing-optional form of therapy for the anxious one percent. “I should probably see a shrink,” a new client tells Grey, “but it seems like a lot more fun to see you.” For a film about sex workers, The Girlfriend Experience is notably demure, limiting its nudity to a brief shot of Grey rising from the bed of a client and padding off to the bathroom.

Chelsea, too, is punished for her excesses, losing her doting boyfriend and wrecking her professional reputation after getting romantically involved with a client. Unlike her compatriots, though, her punishment feels less moral than economic. She is just another freelance employee in our all-too-flexible economy, destroyed by the unthinking hand of the free market. We all prostitute ourselves to someone.

Lovelace is like a computer-generated amalgam of its predecessors, down to the Boogie Nights disco beat over its credits. Linda is a prudish twenty-something living at home with her parents in Florida when she meets Peter Sarsgaard’s charming Chuck Traynor.  “Good girls don’t do that stuff,” Linda chirps in her little girl voice when Chuck shows her a stag film, but his lusty enthusiasm for her body convinces her each time he requests more: oral sex, erotic home movies, a starring role in a porn shoot. “Don’t forget to breathe,” he says to her as he shoves her head down toward his crotch, serving as a heavy-handed foreshadowing of the horrors to come. But the primary tone of this first film — call it “A Porn Star is Born” — is genial and gently funny. One of Deep Throat’s producers calls Linda “a sexy Raggedy Ann.” He rejects her out of hand for a role until Chuck puts on one of his home movies, and his attention is riveted. “That,” he intones with a kind of delirious awe, “is art.”

On set in Miami, Linda films her first sex scene as a young woman who discovers that her clitoris is located in her throat, and the director and producers tilt their head in unison to take in the action with relish — echoes of Boogie Nights’ cast and crew goggling at Dirk Diggler’s anatomical blessings. “We’re all going to win Oscars,” Butchie Peraino (Bobby Cannavale) tells his colleagues. Lovelace’s costar Harry Reems (Adam Brody) offers Linda a more intimate vote of confidence: “What is this, your junior prom?” an onlooker jeers at Harry, but when Linda asks if she has done anything wrong, a unanimous chorus of male spectators insists that she carry on. The entire scene is a feminine inverse to Dirk’s first day on a porn set in Boogie Nights, in which he proves his masculine mettle by being able to immediately begin a new take after accidentally failing to provide visual proof of completion.

Lovelace’s first half has its glum moments, like Linda’s mother (played by an unrecognizable Sharon Stone, another performer famous for exposing herself onscreen) turning off the television when Johnny Carson cracks wise about her daughter. But the overall tone is of an ascent into the light of stardom, culminating with Linda’s taking what appears to be an endless series of bows before a delirious audience at a screening of Deep Throat. Therefore, it comes as a shock — or no shock at all, really, having seen this transition in most of Lovelace’s predecessors — when the action picks up six years later, and a haggard Linda is taking a polygraph test demanded by the publishers of her tell-all memoir.

Lovelace returns to already familiar scenes in order to rub our noses in what we have missed. What had appeared to be a sweet romp in a motel bed after Linda and Chuck marry now culminates in Chuck choking his wife, then sodomizing her. Chuck sells Linda’s body to traveling salesmen and Hollywood producers, brandishing a pistol when she dares to complain. The loud sex that Deep Throat’s cast and crew listen to through the walls of an adjoining hotel room turns out to be Chuck slamming Linda’s head against the wall for perceived insubordination onset. Even Hugh Hefner (James Franco in a velvet suit and a leer) is praising Linda’s star potential to the skies primarily to convince her that “life imitates art” — Deep Throat style, in a movie theater balcony seat.

Eventually, Chuck is ritually flagellated by a possibly Mob-linked but fundamentally decent producer (Chris Noth), punished for his crimes against Linda’s body. Righteous violence answers violence. Pornography leads inexorably to violence, the good cheer of the early sections of the film irrevocably tainted by the horrors to come. We are meant to be chided by what has been kept from us, disgusted by the personal cost of our pleasure.  

Lovelace is a reflection of Hollywood’s pornographic schizophrenia: Porn is alluring and despicable, exciting and deplorable, but the diametrically opposed pieces never fit together. Instead, Lovelace prefers to uneasily exist as two wildly differing takes on the same story. Linda Lovelace’s story appeals to Hollywood because it so perfectly captures the film industry’s puritan attitude toward its competitor. Hollywood wants to co-opt porn’s outlaw allure while remaining free to critique it as a cesspool of deviancy and criminality. Lovelace is both wholesome sex goddess and tragic heroine, success story and testament to the wages of sin. It is a retelling of the classic American tale of triumph and calamity: turn us on, tune in, wipe out.

Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy and the forthcoming Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes From I Love Lucy to Community. His work has been published in The New York TimesThe Los Angeles TimesThe Boston Globe, The New Republic, Slate, The Village Voice and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @afmess.