Culture

Sex Work: 'Lovelace,' Amanda Seyfried, and Actresses Who Weren't Afraid to Go There

Amanda Seyfried in 'Lovelace'/Photo by Dale Robinette © 2013 RADiUS-TWC
Amanda Seyfried in 'Lovelace'/Photo by Dale Robinette © 2013 RADiUS-TWC

In every young actress's career, there comes a time when she must sacrifice the innocent image of her teenage years on the altar of adult sexuality. It seems perverse, but the only way to be taken seriously as a grown woman in Hollywood is to prove to the world you're capable of playing a grown woman -- along with everything that entails.

Some attempt this disastrously (see Lindsay Lohan in "I Know Who Killed Me"), and some prematurely (Dakota Fanning's "Hounddog" just made everyone uncomfortable). Others wait to drop the nuke on their ingenue image until the last possible moment. After years of playing wholesome characters in movies like "Les Miserables" and "Mamma Mia!", Amanda Seyfried is about to enter a whole new phase of the Hollywood life cycle thanks to "Lovelace," one of the two competing biopics about "Deep Throat" adult film celebrity Linda Lovelace. The new trailer (scroll down to watch) announces Seyfried's arrival into a world of fuzzy 1970s hairstyles, bruised cheekbones, and explicit sex.

Robert Heinlein wrote that each generation thinks it invented sex; certainly the same now applies to sex biopics. Lynn Redgrave was older than Seyfried when she took on the role of  madam-turned-author Xaviera Hollander in "The Happy Hooker" (but just barely). Charlize Theron bet everything on her tribute to prostitute and serial murderer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster," and won Oscar gold.

What about those who told their own scandalous stories and had the nerve to put their own faces onscreen? Here are a few notable examples of women who attempted to pull a reverse-Seyfried, gaining fame and  acceptance by way of their seedy careers and personal lives.

Mae West was selling sex on Broadway back in 1926. No really: "Sex" was the title of her first show, which she wrote, directed, and starred in. As a result of the play's success, West was arrested on morals charges and served ten days on what is now Roosevelt Island. She was determined to titillate until the bitter end; in her bizarre final film "Sextette" (1978), she purrs racy double entendres as she seduces Timothy Dalton -- fifty years her junior.

Gypsy Rose Lee rose to fame on the burlesque circuit as a striptease artist who seduced with clever wordplay as well as carefully timed wardrobe reveals. Her 1957 memoir, Gypsy, was a hit and became adapted into one of the most beloved Broadway shows of all time; however, biographers such as Karen Abbott have found the book to be just another dazzling illusion, a cleverly crafted mythology that diverged wildly from the truth. Lee's meteoric rise all but guaranteed a Hollywood career, but as a general rule, her stage presence did not translate terribly well into screen presence.

Glenda Kemp deserves credit for sheer nerve. As an exotic dancer she was prosecuted for indecency in her native land of South Africa; in 1976 she attempted to tell her side of the story by starring in an autobiopic entitled "Snake Dancer" (alternate title: "Glenda!"). The film is outrageously silly -- despite purporting to be a true story about a living person, it literally ends with Kemp being strangled to death by her own python. Like Lovelace, Kemp later distanced herself from her adult entertainment background, now spreading the gospel of Jesus via her blog.

As long as female sexuality continues to be held to different standards of decency, there will always be bold women -- from either side of the stifling virgin/whore continuum of which pop culture remains so fond -- emerging to challenge them. What will "Lovelace" (or its rival, "Inferno") and Seyfried contribute to this tradition? One thing's already clear: Bill Paxton and Jeanne Tripplehorn's Mormon-esque little girl from "Big Love" is all grown up now.

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