"If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, it will
protect all of you," explains pornographic magazine publisher Larry
Flynt, played with bravado and panache by Woody Harrelson.
Two time Academy Award winning director Milos Forman (ONE FLEW
OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and AMADEUS) decided to make a red, white, and
blue film about protecting American freedom, and he chose the unlikely
person of Larry Flynt to be the protagonist. One wonders if Forman had
a list of candidates from David Duke on, but Flynt does fill the bill
as being a suitably unlikely hero. You may have never thought about
someone like Flynt being the guardian of your liberty, but in
Harrelson's sympathetic portrayal of Flynt, he makes a compelling and
The beauty of the film is that, even if you hate everything
"Hustler" magazine stands for and even if you disagree with Forman's
logic in the story, the film itself is so audaciously fun that it is a
certain crowd pleaser. No one has ever insulted people, especially
courts, with such intense bravado as Flynt does in the movie. You can
be sure that the picture will garner many an Academy Award nomination
as it has already made most 1996 top ten lists.
After a brief start showing Flynt selling moonshine as a kid, the
film skips ahead to Flynt in the 1970s running a sleazy strip joint in
Cincinnati. He falls for a new stripper named Althea Leasure and
brilliantly played by Courtney Love. She asks if it is true that he
has slept with every stripper in the club, and, when he concedes it is
true, she claims that she has too. She will go on to become his
lifelong business partner, lover, wife, and constant supporter, but
when she first comes into his life, she has all the markings of a
Larry starts up "Hustler" as an offshoot from the club. The
magazine almost goes under until an Italian photographer sells him nude
photos of "Jackie O." After that, he is as rich as Croesus for the
rest of his life. Although he will eventually be almost fatally
wounded and spend much time in seclusion like Howard Hughes, he will
maintain a fabulously wealthy lifestyle. When his parents first come
to visit his mansion during a party-turned-orgy, he explains, "These
are my friends -- lots of money, lots of friends." Since Althea and
two of her girlfriends are making love on the bed where his parents are
going to sleep, he sends the women to another room with promises to
join them later in their fun.
His magazine's idea sessions are provocative. They decide on
someone to ridicule that week in an offensive sexual parody. Their
targets range widely from the Wizard of Oz to Santa Claus to Jerry
Falwell, played by look-alike Richard Paul. Whenever someone suggests
that something is too sick to print, Flynt ridicules them and makes
sure that the obscene cartoon or story runs exactly as proposed.
Eventually, Larry runs afoul of the law and loses. His young
lawyer, Alan Isaacman, played with determination by Edward North, can
not pull this one out. "25 years!" exclaims Flynt. "All I'm guilty of
is bad taste."
As you can already see, the script by Scott Alexander and Larry
Karaszewski is full of deliciously funny morsels of dialog. The
wording manages to be simultaneously humorous, believable, and
insightful. Combine this with the tour de force acting by Harrelson,
Love, and North, and you have the makings of a great movie.
People prosecuting poor pornographer Larry are not shown in the
best of lights as this is a fairly one sided presentation. Typical is
one of his judges who looks exactly like Jabba the Hut and is just
about as reasonable. Still, Larry makes succinct and convincing
arguments. As he puts it, "If you don't like Hustler magazine, don't
read it." "I'm not trying to convince you to like what Larry Flynt
does," confesses his own lawyer in his summation to the jury. "I don't
like what Larry Flynt does."
Whenever Larry gets in trouble, and he gets in trouble a lot,
costume designers Arianne Phillips and Theodor Pistek like to dress him
in the flag or at least the colors of the flag. He also wears obscene
T-shirts designed to ridicule the judges during his trials.
In a large convention center made up to look like a Presidential
nominating convention, Larry address a crowd. Behind him is a huge
screen projecting images of death and sex, and the hall is filled with
red, white, and blue streamers. "What is more obscene?" he asks
rhetorically. "Sex or war?" He then goes on to point out that if you
take a picture of someone committing a murder and put it on the cover
of "Time", you may win a Pulitzer Prize. If you take a picture of
someone committing sex or just a picture of a completely naked woman
and put it on the cover of a magazine, you may be arrested and thrown
in prison for obscenity.
Easily the strangest episode in Larry's life is when the then
president's sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton (Donna Hanover), converts
Larry to Christianity. He decides he wants God brought into the
magazine. Even Althea thinks he has gone too far this time, arguing,
"Nobody on this planet wants their religion and their pornography
together." Eventually this phase will pass. "The reign of Christian
terror is over," screams Althea to the magazine's staff. "We're going
back to our roots. Porn is back."
Believe it or not, I have merely scratched the surface of this
epic drama. I did not get to the Charles Keating (James Cromwell) as
worse than Larry Flynt subtext, the funny role of Clinton aide James
Carville as an indignant prosecutor, the Supreme Court case, and the
many drug scenes.
In perhaps the best scene in the show, Larry's lawyer quits in
disgust at having such an unruly client. "I'm your dream client,"
argues Larry, laughing off his lawyer's resignation. "I'm rich, and
I'm always in trouble."
You may or may not buy Larry Flynt as the saviour of your
freedoms, his own daughter ridiculed the idea this week, but the movie
is great and compelling cinema. Words do not adequately describe its
scale or the effectiveness of its humor.
PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT runs 2:07, but its breadth made me think it
was much longer. It is rated R for sex, nudity, violence, profanity,
and hard drug usage. This is a hard R film and would be appropriate
for teenagers only if they are quite mature. Unbelievably, many
families in my audience brought their young kids. There were a dozen
kids ages 3 to 7 near me. Whenever lewd behavior would start on the
screen, the kids would ask their parents what was happening, but they
were consistently told to shut up. I felt like grabbing the parents by
their throats and asking if they had lost their minds. For adults and
mature teenagers, I recommend this film strongly to you and give the
picture *** 1/2.
Copyright © 1997 Steve Rhodes