Milos Forman's powerful biopic of the notorious porn-Baron succeeds on
various levels. Larry Flynt is presented as a triumph of America's free
market, an uneducated man who rose from moonshine-peddling hillbilly to
command a multi-million pound business empire. Falling foul of obscenity
laws, he also becomes public enemy number one. The courtroom debate
between outraged far-right prosecutors and his lawyer's First Amendment
defence are the story's potent driving force.
Forman also digs deep to present his subject as a man of curious
contradictions. Capable of tenderness with his wife, Althea, he is also
a ticking time-bomb who can explode with indignation at the insensitivity
Woody Harrelson brilliantly portrays Flynt. Never a caricatured
sleaze-merchant, he is a complicated individual, who, during the transition
from Kentucky shack to Beverley Hills palace, runs a Cincinnati strip
club, marries a stripper, is sentenced to 25 years in jail, is shot and
paralysed by an assassin, befriends the President's sister and finds God,
finds heroin, assaults a judge with an orange, and finally takes on the
might of the Supreme Court. Harrelson uncovers the humanity within a
fairly loathsome degrader of women, giving strength to the film's
Edward Norton plays Alan Isaacman, a young lawyer, with lashings of drive
and the patience required to represent a grown man who often behaves
like a spoilt child. His eloquent court testimonies and calm assurances
are a perfect counterbalance to what he regards as Flynt's 'undiagnosed
Flynt's nemeses are Charles Keating (James Cromwell) and the evangelist
Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul). Neither of these characters are explored
very deeply; their views, however, are as rigidly black and white as
Alabama schools were not so long ago.
Ruth Carter Stapleton (Donna Hanover) is excellent as a white, liberal,
middle-class woman who takes the errant Flynt under her wings.
Courtney Love, as Flynt's wife Althea Leasure, also gives a good
performance, although occasionally she seems determined to play the part
as a rock chick should: latterly, being continually smacked-out and
falling about in court public galleries, with increasingly lurid Gothic
hairstyles, detracts from the main spectacle.
Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski's script bursts with energy. There
would surely be enough incidents in Flynt's life for a series of biopics,
but key events are satisfactorily condensed here without trivialising.
Flynt's initial business idea is simple. To get round obscenity
regulations, magazines displaying naked women must also contain stories.
The text in Playboy is high-brow nonsense. Hustler will give it straight,
featuring models in knickerless as well as topless glory. Initially,
the staff don't even understand basic page layouts. But this anarchic
free spirit carries the tale.
The narrative's main thrust is an impassioned plea against censorship,
and while Flynt may lapse into drug-induced lethargy and increasingly
eccentric behaviour, the power of its telling ensures we never lose
sight of this. This move deals with the lesser of 2 evils. People
disgusted with Flynt's magazines don't have to buy them. His right-wing
Christian prosecutors spread their bigotries over cable TV.
Each stage of Flynt's rise from Kentucky backwoods to corporate office-block
and Hollywood mansion is told with a meticulous eye. The fact that sudden
affluence rarely equates with happiness is rammed home: a marble bath
merely proves to be a plusher place to OD.
Larry Flynt has organised a rally to promote free speech. He makes an
impassioned plea about a society that finds pornography repulsive, while
having no similar qualms about warmongering. Behind him, on a cinema-sized
screen, images of nudity flash, interspersed with Belsen's obscene corpse
mounds. His point is driven home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer
(Oliver Stone is a co-Producer, after all), but it is still a very effective
For all Flynt's opulence, he is unable to get really close to the one he
loves. Despite marrying Althea he still wants an open relationship. He
is unused to limitless wealth and pays no heed to the dangerous levels of
Althea's drug addiction, contributing to her untimely death.
This movie delves into the life behind a porn Baron and reveals much more
than a sleazy individual. The real issue on the dock here is whether
ultra-conservative religious bigots should control any individual's freedom
to buy items from a newsstand.
The penultimate court sequences possess a glorious anarchy. You know it
is only a matter of time before the judge slams his gavel down and charges
him with contempt: amongst other things he curses, wears the American
flag as diapers, barks at predatory tabloid hacks, sports a 'F*** This
Court' t-shirt, and ambushes a judge with fruit.
Copyright © 2001 Mark Fleming