The People vs. Larry Flynt
Screenplay : Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Woody Harrelson (Larry Flynt), Courtney Love (Althea Flynt), Edward Norton (Alan Issacman), James Cromwell (Charless Keating), Brett Harrelson (Jimmy Flynt), Crispin Glover (Arlo)
It's unfortunate that "The People vs Larry Flynt" is so drastically misunderstood by groups like the National Organization for Women. Their constant criticisms and even taking out pages in trade magazines against the film probably cost it several deserved Academy Award nominations. It's a classic example of not being able to see the forest through the trees, or hating the messenger so much you never hear the message. Good things can come from bad people, and Larry Flynt is a perfect example of this unlikely paradox.
Flynt (played in the film by Woody Harrelson) grew up poor white trash and later became rich white trash. He started out by running a series of strip clubs in Cleveland and wound up the head of a multi-million publishing empire.
The film traces the progress of his life, including his marriage to an underage stripper named Althea (Courtney Love), the origins of "Hustler" magazine (Flynt thought "Playboy" was too tame), his brief and very strange conversion to Christianity, the attempt on his life that left him paralyzed from the waist down, his following paranoia and addiction to pain killers and, most importantly, a series of court battles where Flynt fought to save his and our Constitutional rights.
The film, directed by two-time Oscar winner Milos Forman ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Amadeus") is very entertaining and often funny and even moving, all aspects that really irk its critics. They probably think that a film about Larry Flynt should be a depressing, sordid affair that is like pulling teeth to sit through. They can't get over the fact that Flynt, while unabashedly tasteless and crude, is also an incredibly charismatic and interesting person.
The critics of this film claim that the movie white-washes Flynt, making him less evil than he really is. It's true that the film illuminates Flynt and views him as a human being, but is that so wrong? Feminists like Gloria Steinam attack the film because she claims "Hustler" wasn't portrayed in its true light. She says the film left out aspects of the magazine such as pictures of women who have been shaved and raped, or pictorials featuring Nazi-like death camps and dead women, and it's these aspects that help foster misogyny and violence toward women.
The sad irony of this whole argument is that the main aspect of "The People vs Larry Flynt" -- the case that took him to the Supreme Court in 1988 and resulted in a historical verdict -- has nothing whatsoever to do with pornography. That case involved a satirical cartoon Flynt published suggesting that the Reverend Jerry Falwell lost his virginity to his own mother in an outhouse. Flynt was acquitted on subsequent libel charges, but he was found guilty of causing "emotional distress." It was this ruling that he took to the Supreme Court, and thanks to Larry Flynt, every political cartoonist in America can do his or her job without worrying about Hillary Clinton suing for emotional distress.
The point of the film is that, in America, Flynt has to have the right to publish the trash he does. Forman, a native of Czechoslovakia, understands this best of all because both of his parents died at the hands of the Nazis. His father was arrested for reading and distributing banned books, something that should never happen in this country. The First Amendment wasn't written to protect speech we want to hear -- if that were the case, it wouldn't be needed. The First Amendment was written to protect the kind of gross, vile speech that comes out of people like Larry Flynt.
The real hero of "The People vs Larry Flynt" isn't the magazine publisher of the title -- it's the Constitution of the United States, that piece of paper that allows me to do what I'm doing right now. Without the First Amendment to protect me, I would not be able to write what I'm writing without fear of being sued or thrown in jail. No journalist, cartoonist, or critics could openly speak his or her mind. What kind of country is that?
The whole debate is best summed up by Flynt's lawyer Alan Issacman (played by Edward Norton), when he says to a jury, "I'm not asking you to like what Larry Flynt does. I don't like what Larry Flynt does. But, what I do like, is that I live in a country where I can make that decision for myself."
©1997 James Kendrick