In one scene from "The People Vs. Larry Flynt," the Hustler Magazine
publisher appears at a self-staged free speech rally. As graphic photos
flash on a huge screen behind him, Flynt strides confidently across the
stage, delivering a rousing speech over what really constitutes obscenity.
The spectacle was reminiscent of the scene in "Patton" where the General
spoke in front of a giant American flag. Both scenes were stirring,
larger than life, richly entertaining, and felt totally like contrived
set pieces for big Hollywood movies. Overall, that sums up "The People Vs.
Larry Flynt." The film is a wildly entertaining hoot which, despite
being based on fact, feels like a big, phony Hollywood movie.
The son of a Kentucky moonshiner, Flynt (Woody Harrelson) ran away from
home and ended up operating strip clubs in Cincinnati. There he met
Althea Leasure (Courtney Love), a bisexual stripper who became his fourth
wife and the love of his life. To bolster interest in his clubs, he
started a sexually explicit newsletter that grew into Hustler magazine.
Flynt, along with the magazine's rag-tag management team, headed by his
brother Jimmy (played nicely by Woody's real-life brother, Steak & Shake
commercial veteran Brett Harrelson), viewed Playboy magazine with
contempt. They mocked its slick articles and airbrushed photos, striving
to keep Hustler focused on "what guys really want," explicit photos that
would make a gynecologist squirm, and extremely crude humor. The film's
prime example of Hustler's attitude is a cartoon depicting characters
from The Wizard Of Oz in an orgy, giving the audience an opportunity to
giggle at Flynt's "naughtiness." Director Milos Forman conveniently
ignores the magazine's frequent attempts to derive humor from child
molestation, racism, and endless scatological cartoons.
Flynt's rag labored in well-deserved obscurity until he published nude
photos of Jacqueline Onassis, which brought the magazine international
attention, big money and the attention of conservatives. An obscenity
bust followed, the first in a long series of battles between Flynt and
the law. Lawyer Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton) enters the scene, hired by
Flynt's wife. Norton, an exceptional actor, is wonderful as the
beleaguered lawyer trying to navigate the legal system while dealing with
Flynt's increasingly childish and bizarre behavior. In court, we meet the
sputtering conservatives, headed by Citizens For Decency leader Charles
Keating (James Cromwell.) As Keating blathers about Flynt's immorality,
the camera slowly moves in for a close-up of his name tag, inviting the
audience to gloat at the notion of morality being trumpeted by Keating,
who was later convicted in a $2 billion S&L fraud. Flynt's other prime
foe is Rev. Jerry Falwell, who sues over a Hustler parody involving him
and his mother having sex in an outhouse.
Tragedy strikes as Flynt is shot by a would-be assassin, leaving him
paralyzed from the waist down. A dark period follows, as Flynt and
Leasure hole up in an L.A. suite, strung out on pain killers. Flynt
eventually kicks drugs, but Leasure succumbs to addiction, and later,
AIDS. After watch Falwell on TV, describing AIDS as a punishment from God,
Flynt directs his lawyer to take the Falwell case to the Supreme Court,
leading to the film's climactic courtroom scene.
"The People Vs, Larry Flynt" is at its weakest when moralizing on free
speech and lionizing Flynt. "If they'll protect a scumbag like me, then
they'll protect all of you," declared Flynt. He's right, of course, but
the director Forman cheats in portraying the opposition as little more
than hypocritical buffoons. He also cheats in casting Woody Harrelson as
Flynt. Harrelson is an attractive, charismatic man, and his strong
performance paints Flynt as a colorful folk hero. Even a cursory look at
the real Flynt, who is making the talk show circuit, and plays the judge
in an early courtroom scene, shows a bloated, morose and bitter man. An
accurate portrayal of Flynt would have made a more difficult film to
watch, but a richer one.
Despite its flaws, "Flynt" is a fast moving, rousing movie with some
terrific acting, especially by Courtney Love, whose vibrant performance
will likely garner an Oscar nod. The story may be candy-coated, but it's
still delicious candy.
Copyright © 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott