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Telling the tale of porn star Linda Lovelace

Rob Epstein (left) and Jeffrey Friedman, the creative team behind the biopic “Lovelace.”

Julia Cumes for The Boston Globe

Rob Epstein (left) and Jeffrey Friedman, the creative team behind the biopic “Lovelace.”

PROVINCETOWN — While researching his biopic on Linda Lovelace, filmmaker Rob Epstein came across an eye-opening line that the “Deep Throat” star once uttered in an interview: Despite her notoriety as the world’s first mainstream porn star, renowned for her considerable capacity for a certain sex act, Lovelace said she spent a total of only 17 days working in the hardcore porn industry.

“She felt in her own mind and her own sense of self that she was branded for that. She never really was able to fully let go of the fact that she was Linda Lovelace. She was the genie that brought it out of the bottle, and she thought she had to pay a price for that,” said Epstein at the Provincetown International Film Festival in June, where “Lovelace” screened as the opening night selection. The R-rated film, which stars Amanda Seyfried as the title character and Peter Sarsgaard as her husband and manager, Chuck Traynor, opens at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Friday.

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In a time when porn is just a click away, celebrities promote their sex tapes alongside their shoe lines, and adult film stars like James Deen get cast in Hollywood movies, Lovelace and “Deep Throat” can seem like a strange artifact from a bygone era.

“Now she’d probably be embraced and she’d be on ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and have a reality show. She could claim it in a whole other way,” said Epstein, who directed the film with his longtime collaborator, Jeffrey Friedman.

“Lovelace” tries to make sense of the contradictions surrounding this enigmatic woman. In the early 1970s, Lovelace found herself in the middle of the phenomenon known as “Deep Throat,” the first skin flick to achieve mainstream success. The trailblazing movie helped usher in the era of “porno chic,” with middle-class couples, celebrities, and curious suburbanites flocking to theaters to see what all the fuss was about.

Linda Lovelace in an undated press photo for “Deep Throat.”

AFP PHOTO/file

Linda Lovelace in an undated press photo for “Deep Throat.”

‘Linda is very emblematic of the times because she really lived out a lot of the drama that was going on in the culture in terms of sexual politics.’

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With her wide-eyed, girl-next-door looks, Lovelace (born Linda Boreman) became the unlikely face of the sexual revolution and the poster girl for the burgeoning porn industry, much to the chagrin of her strict Catholic parents. She appeared on the cover of Esquire and at the Oscars. Johnny Carson even invited her on “The Tonight Show.”

But less than a decade later, Lovelace dramatically overturned the image of uninhibited sexual liberation she represented. In her controversial 1980 memoir, “Ordeal,” and its follow-up “Out of Bondage,” she told a shockingly different narrative to the world — one of harrowing abuse at the hands of Traynor. Lovelace, who died in a car accident in 2002, claimed that Traynor was a domineering and violent figure who coerced her into making “Deep Throat” and kept her a virtual prisoner for years. Scarred and broken, she eventually transformed herself into a committed feminist and ardent anti-pornography crusader.

“For a lot of women, that newfound sexual freedom was a double-edged sword,” said Epstein, who captured his first Oscar in 1985 for his groundbreaking documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk.” “It was very romanticized at the time, but for some there was a considerable degree of sexual exploitation. So we tried to show the contradictions in all of that.”

Said Friedman, “Linda is very emblematic of the times because she really lived out a lot of the drama that was going on in the culture in terms of sexual politics.”

Nestled inside the lounge of a quiet Provincetown inn, the shimmering waters of its backyard pool visible through sliding doors, Epstein and Friedman project a tranquil, Zen-like air befitting the relaxed vibe of the festival. The team behind documentaries such as “The Celluloid Closet” and “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt” (another Oscar winner), they also directed the 2010 experimental narrative “Howl,” about the obscenity trial surrounding the landmark poem by Allen Ginsberg.

In telling Lovelace’s story, the filmmakers wanted to figure out a way to show her shifting psychology and perspectives on her own experience over time. So their structural conceit was to present Lovelace’s meteoric rise to adult film queen in the first act, then in the second act reveal the harrowing underbelly of what was really happening behind closed doors.

Amanda Seyfried, who portrays her in “Lovelace.”

millennium films

Amanda Seyfried, who portrays her in “Lovelace.”

The big challenge, Friedman said, were the tonal shifts and “how to depict a credible version of these events that could conceivably be looked at from the two points of view she presented and not have it become a completely different event — to have the two versions be consistent with each other.”

Indeed, critics of Lovelace have struggled to reconcile a woman who appeared to be the picture of sexual liberation in interviews she gave at the height of the “Deep Throat” craze, who walked the red carpet, posed for fashion spreads, did several other softcore films, and wrote two autobiographies detailing her enlightened views on sex.

In her later tell-alls, she claimed that Traynor forced her into prostitution and porn, often at gunpoint, and that she feared for her life. But people who knew and worked with Lovelace in the industry contended that they never saw Traynor threaten her with a gun (he later admitted to physical abuse) and that she always seemed to be an enthusiastic and willing participant.

“The hardest thing is to watch her in ‘Deep Throat’ and really try to understand that she’s feeling like a prisoner,” Friedman said. “The theory I developed is that when she was in front of the camera, surrounded by the crew, it was one of the few times she felt safe and protected from Chuck. That’s how I was able to understand how she appeared so untroubled.”

In their research, the filmmakers spoke with Gloria Steinem, who had reached out to Lovelace after reading her book and seeing her on “The Phil Donahue Show” in the early ’80s. The two struck up a friendship and later campaigned against the porn industry and what they saw as its systematic exploitation of women. It was during the appearance on “Donahue” when Lovelace was confronted with skeptical audience members who had trouble reconciling her story. One exchange is depicted in the film.

Seyfried in "Lovelace."

Dale Robinette

Seyfried in "Lovelace."

“The woman says, ‘I don’t believe you. Why couldn’t you just get away from him? Why didn’t you leave?’ Or people would say, ‘Why are you blaming it on your parents? A lot of us have strict parents, and we didn’t end up as porn stars,’ ” Epstein said. “People would constantly come up with reasons for why they thought Linda was being disingenuous.”

The filmmakers, like Steinem, marveled at her reaction. “Linda never got flustered by those questions or upset by them or impatient with them,” said Friedman. “She just very calmly and with a lot of empathy explained what happened as best she could. Gloria was very taken by that.”

Seyfried, in a phone interview, said it helped to remember that Lovelace was barely out of her teens when she met and married Traynor and got swept up in his seedy world. She said she identified with Lovelace’s need to experiment and to find out who she was as a person and what she believed.

“In terms of the contradictions, we don’t know everything that happened. But when you’re playing somebody, you kind of have to leave your cynicism at the door and go on the ride with them, because I am telling her story and only her story,” Seyfried said.

The filmmakers also faced the sometimes comedic challenge of contextualizing what Epstein dubs “the big whoop” in “Deep Throat” — Lovelace’s fitness for fellatio.

“In our movie we can’t actually show the act that she’s most famous for,” Epstein said. “So there was the challenge of, how do we dramatize that? We knew that ultimately it’s the men who were going to have to sell what she was so great at.”

For many people, including the filmmakers, Lovelace remains a legend wrapped in an enigma — and that’s just fine with them.

“I think that’s what drew us to the material: How do you dramatize an enigma and not have it feel either confused in terms of its point of view or be too simplistic?” Epstein said. “We didn’t want to explain the contradictions. We just wanted to make them credible, so that an audience would be intrigued by them and would think about them and start to talk about them.”

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.

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