Even the staunchest defenders of the First Amendment must reach pretty far down into their belief to come up with Larry Flynt as a poster boy. An unschooled Kentucky hillbilly with a big mouth and a gift for manipulation, he stuffed Hustler magazine, a phenomenon of the Seventies, full of raunchy porn, schoolboy satire and cartoons straight out of a toilet stall. While bogus sophisticates like Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione airbrushed the warts off their girls-next-door and cunningly packaged male sexual fantasy with promises of perfect martinis and exotic sports cars, Flynt held to his lowdown bootlegger roots, even after a sniper paralyzed him with a rifle bullet outside a Georgia courthouse. Even today, the skin shots in Hustler are one part crime photography, two parts gynecology. Some of the jokes would offend a merchant seaman. Their blustering perpetrator remains an unlikely hero for civil libertarians--or anyone else.
What a wonder, then, to behold a swift, highly entertaining oddity called The People vs. Larry Flynt. In chronicling Flynt's rough passage from strip-joint proprietor to millionaire publisher to petitioner before the U.S. Supreme Court, director Milos Forman has captured not only his subject's quick wit and pigheaded ferocity, but also the larger issues that bind him so weirdly to the American enterprise. In his first film in more than seven years, the expatriate Czech filmmaker also manages to infuse the proceedings with the kind of dark, surreal humor he brought to The Fireman's Ball and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Larry Flynt may not be quite the freedom fighter the film makes him out to be, but he's a piece of work almost without peer--a fact not lost on all the TV talk-show hosts he's out-yakked in recent weeks.
Here he is played by Woody Harrelson, a native Texan with some chicken-fried credentials of his own, as a tireless con man with a feel for the main chance and delusions of grandeur. In 1972 Flynt is a sleazy Cincinnati club owner in a sky-blue leisure suit, bedding every stripper in his stable, drinking moonshine from a Mason jar and losing money fast. But there's an instinctual gleam in Larry/Woody's eye: He understands the raw appeal of the first little Hustler Club "newsletter" he turns out. Inside of a year, he's parlayed it into a national publishing scandal with skyrocketing sales and an army of enemies. None of those middle-class Playboy niceties for Larry: The bold, self-proclaimed redneck runs nude pictures of Jackie Onassis and a feature called "Asshole of the Month." All of this just as the nation's sexual revolution is boiling over.
Larry Flynt also has time to fall in love--kind of. The woman of his dreams (or at least of his hot tub) is one Althea Leasure, a bisexual stripper with a heart of brass and--once her Larry is gunned down and confined to bed--an insatiable appetite for painkillers of every sort. The fact that producer Oliver Stone (it's just as well he didn't have time to direct) and Forman have cast the unruly rocker Courtney Love in the part may strike some as pure typecasting. But no one could have anticipated the wild brilliance or depth of feeling the widow Cobain achieves here: Whether raving at Larry's wonderfully motley crew of magazine staffers or lurching through a junkie fog, Love is utterly convincing. Harrelson and Love, meanwhile, both convince us of the powerful bond between these two doomed outsiders. Assailed by squares and hypocrites, they at last have only each other--and a very easygoing family doctor--to depend on. One of them won't make it.
Among others, the movie's also got writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who pumped strange life into Ed Wood. Here they take just the right measure of another bizarre life--Flynt's off-the-wall dalliance with the evangelism of presidential sister Ruth Carter Stapleton (Donna Hanover), which our man promptly tries to slather onto the pages of Hustler as Christian pornography; his brushes with junk-bond felon Charles Keating (James Cromwell) and his battle royale with the smug villain of this piece, the Reverend Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul), which catapults them both into Justice Rehnquist's court. In a smaller but equally delectable moment, we catch Larry's bewildered country parents in a guest room of his over-decorated mansion while the music and the sex rage on just outside their door. Later, when Flynt has taken up the cudgel against the establishment he blames for crippling him, he outrages every one of the many courtrooms into which he's hauled by the forces of high morality.
His only sin, he tells one and all, is his bad taste.
He's got a bright, trusted lawyer, of course. Young Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton) has the unenviable task of enduring the Flyntian antics, fighting off every legal challenge and, in the end, prevailing in the name of the First Amendment. The clever marketing folks at Columbia Pictures have, in fact, summarized the lily-white gist of the film in a single slogan: "Free speech has its price." Which is to say that a society that means to safeguard its liberties must also put up with the brash, vulgar Larry Flynts it produces.
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That is, to be sure, the point of the picture. But for many, the point will not be the largest pleasure. That, I suspect, may lie elsewhere. In the unfettered gall of the guy, perhaps, as he helps foment a social revolution he only vaguely understands himself. Or in the shameless way he squanders his millions on revenge, which is, after all, the divine right of the American entrepreneur. Or the sheer, bitter joy of the man when he pulls up stakes and moves to Hollywood, "where perverts are welcome."
In the end, Larry Flynt is no hero, despite his burning passion to do something "important." What he really is, is a success, for having gotten away with giving a segment of the population the kind of smut they want without terminal interference from Jerry Falwell or anybody else.
That's the dirty yet triumphant little secret of The People vs. Larry Flynt and, I think, its darkest joke: When all is said and done, this is less a story about the grandeur of the law than about the perverse power of one man's will.
The People vs. Larry Flynt.
Screenplay by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski. Directed by Milos Forman. With Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton and Richard Paul.