The People vs. Larry Flynt
Directed by Milos Forman
A Columbia Pictures Release
In the early scenes of the rollicking biographical comedy The People vs. Larry Flynt, the protagonist (Woody Harrelson) is the owner and emcee of a cruddy Texas strip club. Radiating smarm in a robin’s-egg-blue suit (it’s the 1970s), he mechanically introduces each topless woman who parades across his stage; later, he fondles a dancer, lets her know that he’ll be paying her a call, then muses to a crony, “If we could let people know what great lays these ladies are, we’d have something.” The character is familiar from club scenes in other movies: He’s the piece of smug white trash who gets roughed up by the detective, the scuzz ball we view through the eyes of the dazed, manhandled ingénue. Yet here he stands, the hero of a Hollywood biopic, a genre that has come to be dreaded for its surfeit of good taste. Well, to paraphrase an old tuna commercial, I’m sick of biopics with good taste; I’m ready for a biopic that tastes good. Or, at least, a biopic that tastes like tuna.
Flynt, of course, invented Hustler magazine, where he pioneered the open-vagina or “pink” shot, along with the gleeful use of “satirical” illustrations that raised the hackles of liberals and conservatives alike: Naked females being fed into meat grinders or tied to the tops of hunters’ cars; photos of politicians’ heads pasted on male models, their phalluses thrust into women’s mouths. Not an easy man to make palatable. But that’s the challenge, eh? The screenwriters of The People vs. Larry Flynt, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, also wrote Ed Wood (1994), and they delight in spinning wide-eyed, Horatio Alger-style yarns, except with upside-down morals and less-than-wholesome heroes. (Alger penned a novel about one “Ragged Dick,” a name that would rather suit Flynt.) Prosecuted for obscenity, sued for libel, jailed, shot and paralyzed by an unknown assassin, the indefatigable smutmeister finally ends up before the U.S. Supreme Court, a constitutional guinea pig, even Our Champion: “If [the First Amendment] will protect a scum bag like me,” declares Flynt, “it will protect all of you.”
There’s something exhilarating–to me, at least, if not, perhaps, to Andrea Dworkin–about the way in which the filmmakers fly in the face of political correctness. They don’t soften Flynt’s aggressive lack of taste–they don’t resort to fig leaves. (Well, actually, they do resort to something like fig leaves during the Hustler photo shoots: gauzy cinematic Band-Aids over the parts of the female anatomy that, if shown, would have earned the movie hard-core status.) Blithely ignoring the gnarlier issues (say, “Does porn inspire violence against women?”), they wrap themselves in the Bill of Rights as if it were a luxurious diaper. And they unload.
The People vs. Larry Flynt often plays like a goof on the rally-’round-the-flag genre–and then again, it often doesn’t. The more sanctimonious passages suggest co-producer Oliver Stone, who offered up his own free-speech martyr in Talk Radio (1988), and who has lately been denounced by no less a personage than John Grisham for allegedly inspiring serial mayhem with the vile Natural Born Killers (1994). Stone has some tub-thumping to do. A sequence in which Flynt decries an Establishment that tolerates images of violence while repressing those of sex features an atrocity montage, with footage from German concentration camps and Cambodia. Thanks for sharing, Ollie. You can also detect the influence, for good and ill, of director Milos Forman, a Czech who had his first blockbuster with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and who has built every one of his subsequent films around martyred rebels–even when, as in Amadeus (1984) and Valmont (1989), the connection is a mite tenuous.
T he guiding spirit belongs to the screenwriters, though, and they work in an impish, anecdotal style. The movie is a breeze, and Forman wisely goes with the flow. The acquisition of naked Jackie Onassis photos is presented as a rags-to-riches triumph, devoid of moralizing; the sequence climaxes with Flynt’s girlfriend, Althea (Courtney Love), who has been hovering over an adding machine, turning to Flynt and announcing: “Take off your pants. I never fucked a millionaire before.” Orgies ensue. Around the Hustler headquarters, various amiable counterculture weirdos (Crispin Glover, Miles Chapin, Vincent Schiavelli) fashion ever more outlandish pictorials. When the hammer of the law descends, it’s James Carville who plays the prosecutor, and Flynt himself appears as the pitiless judge–his speech slurred as a result of the failed assassination, his body like Jabba the Hutt’s. (Weirdly therefore, the more Harrelson–playing Flynt–ages, the more he comes to sound like the judge who first sentenced him.)
As Laura Kipnis points out in a book that came out in 1996, Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America, “Like your boorish cousin, [pornography’s] greatest pleasure is to locate each and every one of society’s taboos, prohibitions and proprieties and systematically transgress them, one by one.” Fittingly, it’s not dirty pictures that get Flynt into his most serious fix; it’s his penchant for kindling outrage. A bogus liquor ad, which features the Rev. Jerry Falwell reminiscing about his “first time” (in an outhouse, with his mom), gets Flynt bludgeoned with a multimillion-dollar libel suit. (The jury said it wasn’t libel, but did give Falwell $200,000 for emotional distress. It’s this award that Flynt battles all the way to the Supreme Court.)
Fight for your right to piss people off, the movie says. After Flynt is paralyzed, he blames the Establishment for taking away his manhood; he comes to exult in his madness, a warrior-clown. His Harvard attorney (played by Edward Norton, who has a great fresh-faced look and jabbing delivery) can only watch in horror. When a judge tells him he can’t leave the state, the movie cuts to his wheelchair as it’s rolled onto his private jet; fined by the court, he hires semiclad women to dump sacks of $1 bills onto the floor; remonstrated, he curses and spits; his mouth taped shut, he pelts the judge with fruit.
I confess to laughing so hard at this courtroom scene that I choked, but the genius of the film is that it doesn’t stop at gonzo comedy. Carted off to a mental hospital in a straitjacket, Flynt beats his head against the van’s wire mesh in despair, the raging bull in him unbound. With this performance, Harrelson finally transcends his television roots. He doesn’t play Flynt as sneaky and lewd–the way, say, Rip Torn might have. He’s beefy, primal, slablike–and at first, the actor doesn’t seem fully engaged. Neither does the character, though. “As much as I like you,” Flynt explains, when the subject of marriage to Althea arises, “I want a variety of different vaginas.” He underestimates Althea, who is a one-woman variety show.
C ourtney Love is the real headliner of this show. Early on, I was overly conscious of her groping-for-words readings, her druggy naturalism (before the character is addicted to drugs). But even then, she explodes off the screen. This is a 3-D, both-barrels-blazing, tits-in-your-face piece of acting by a performer who always seems on the brink of losing control but never topples over. Throaty, with blue eyes that surge and then retract into the ether, she’s a startling mixture of show-biz vulgarity and fearless soul-baring. She and Harrelson make a marvelous physical match. They have prominent brows and goofily exaggerated features; they’re like beautiful cave people, and they fill each other in and round each other out. When they sit on opposite sides of a window at a prison, unable to touch, you can feel the ways in which they’re smaller apart, and the dialogue, in which she quizzes him on whether he burns for her, is bliss:
“You got calluses on your hands?”
“You know it.”
What might be most radical about The People vs. Larry Flynt has nothing to do with the First Amendment. Pornography and promiscuity, it has been clucked, breed lovelessness, isolation, and despair. Here, we find a battered but unbroken faith. Crippled, obese, sexually dysfunctional, atheistic, around the bend, this Flynt is a man who has stayed true (in his fashion!) to one woman. And what a woman, by the end: Wizened, stuporous, morphine-addled, she clings to him unto death. The image of Althea in her bathtub evokes the floating Ophelia of the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Millais; Love has earned the lyrical send-off. It’s hard to recall a finale more mordant, more heartbreaking, more confounding than Flynt watching a videotape of his now-departed wife as Tännhauser swells on the stereo, as he says, “We won, baby. … Strip for me … “