It has taken considerable time for me to get to this review of Traci Lords biography, Underneath It All, first mentioned two months ago, and read shortly after. There are a couple of reasons for this.
I’m not much of a book reviewer. I don’t know why. I read a ton. I was reading back in nursery school (no exaggeration). I’ve written books, as well. But I can riff off a movie review in a few minutes, complete with citations to movies and movie (and other art) history while I tend to brood over books.
Also, this is a biography. So, at some level, I’m probably overly cautious about what I say. This may stem from knowing celebrities who have been mistreated in the media. (It’s a mainstream sport these days to abuse celebs.)
But here we are, so let me see if I can capture the experience of reading this book. At first, it felt like a Hallmark movie. Then it sort of segued into a After School special. Then it goes into ‘80s B-movie territory. And then, briefly, becomes a sort of espionage thriller.
And then, you realize, this is somebody’s life!
After that, it plays out as a fairly standard Hollywood bio, and Traci’s led a pretty normal life for a B-list actress. If that sounds dismissive, it shouldn’t. That’s quite an achievement, really.
Traci was born into the sort of poverty that arises from bad judgment and shuttled between a violent father and a flighty mother, to say nothing of a number of creepy stepfathers. She was an early bloomer, of course, and this led to being assaulted, molested and just generally not allowed to feel safe from about the time she was ten.
This predictably leads to early sex, drugs and alienation from her mother. A creepy stepdad leads her into porn. First centerfolds, then movies.
It sounds cliché, yes, and is. And yet I think to read it as a parent and not be moved is to be made of stone. How could there be no one to help a little girl? Early on in the book, I wanted to punch a lot of people.
The story doesn’t feel like it’s ghost-written. It’s told in a very plain style and is really the antithesis of Linda Lovelace’s books. Lovelace’s books were outrageous and designed to titillate. They are like the original nudies, which would feature an hour-and-a-half of debauched behavior bookended by a doctor explaining how horrible venereal disease was, or something.
Lords spends just a tiny fraction of her book on her time in the sex biz, presumably reflecting the proportion of attention she’d like that part of her life to get. (I think she said six months of doing blue movies.)
I find her credible (unlike Lovelace). She describes a naive child who is desperate for money, finds a way to make it, but keeps hoping to get caught. She doesn’t actually run down anyone in the industry (except to say that a few were sleazy and, well, duh); the impression one gets is that she barely knew anyone. Also, she never says it outright, but she was probably pretty bitchy.
I don’t think she credits the drugs enough, either. She goes from “never gonna” to “ok, here I go” in a few minutes with some chemical help. She describes being freaked out by being on a porn set for the first time, then taking drugs, then saying “I don’t know why” she had sex with one of the guys there, and never says, “Oh. Maybe it was the drugs.”
Ultimately, though, she takes responsibility for what she did which was not necessarily what I was expecting.
For me, the real kick to the crotch was when she gets busted by the Feds. If you remember the ’80s, you’ll remember the shrill hysteria that was the Reagan-era embrace of censorship. In an attempt to roll back the sexual floodgates of the ’70s, pornography in the ’80s was attacked from the angle of “protecting the children”. (I’m told the Feds were the number one purveyors of child porn during this time, so determined were they to stamp out the perverts.)
Apparently, though, they had been monitoring Traci since she was a centerfold. In other words, they watched as an underage girl was put through the sex-industry meat grinder in the hopes of being able to use her against consenting adults! In the process, they endangered her life, both in the sense that she might have ODed or committed suicide, and in the sense that they put her in the cross-hairs for porn thugs to threaten.
This is the government. This is the government protecting children. Any questions?
This is also the brief foray into thriller territory which, fortunately for Traci, doesn’t last long. She exits this section of her life as an adult with a notorious past, a few bucks from the one legal porn she did, and a hope to make a legitimate career.
A far cry from the mastermind that the news media and some porn insiders have made her out to be. And, if that were her genuine personality, she probably could have made a ton of cash and become a(n even bigger) porn legend, just on the free press she was given.
She explains, convincingly, that she tried to give up the Traci Lords name during her model days, but that when potential employers found out, as they almost invariably did, they felt deceived. So she embraced the name.
Again, the porn industry narrative that they were poor, gullible, good-hearted folk who were duped by a Machiavellian teenager is as silly as Lovelace’s earlier contentions that there was a literal gun to her head during the filming of Deep Throat, just you couldn’t see it and nobody else could remember it, or they had all concocted a cover story they managed to keep straight for decades. Etc.
Other than just being the porn industry, Lords doesn’t actually accuse anyone in it of doing wrong. Meanwhile, she’s popular and talented enough to have gotten steady work for over two decades. (Including her most recent gig in a Kevin Smith movie–and Smith doesn’t seem to like working with unpleasant women.)
And the rest of her book (most of it) is tales of her non-porn work and life, though always with that shadow in the background. Even late in life, she’s hounded by the spectre of whether or not people’s actions are informed by her past, though she seems to have adopted a healthy “who cares” attitude with regard to her fans.
Her grown-up struggle is not particularly original, otherwise, and has some interesting bits (such as her association with John Waters’ ensemble on Cry-Baby) and some other stuff that is less interesting. Her foray into music (techno!) is interesting and was apparently pretty successful. She has little epiphanies throughout which are cute and still reflect a certain naivete. (She apparently entered into therapy and was shocked–shocked–to find that issues she thought resolved still emerged in times of stress.)
But it’s a quick read, and it’s hard not to root for her. According to her website, she’s recently had a son, and I suspect (given her background) that this was not an easy decision for her.
I think, at 40, she’s about to face a new challenge. Unless she plans to retire (which a lot of actresses do at her point in life, not just age but having a new baby) she’s facing the no-woman’s-land of middle-age actresses. This trailer is promising, though, deliberately playing down her looks, and so far she seems to be able to handle what life throws at her. So who knows?