A famed pornographer shot from his good side
Directed by Milos Forman.
Starring Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, and Edward Norton.
Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.
Produced by Oliver Stone, Janet Yang, and Michael Hausman.By Stacey E. Blau
Editor in Chief
The People vs. Larry Flynt paints an absorbing and decidedly favorable portrait of the life of Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt.
The film's main focus is a chronicle of the righteous fight by Flynt (Woody Harrelson) and his young, clean-cut lawyer Alan Issacman (Edward Norton) for First Amendment rights as conservative forces across the country attempt to quash Hustler, generally considered the most appalling of the several American mainstream pornographic magazines.
The movie takes us from Flynt's early days through his rise to fortune with Hustler and his enduring relationship with his wife Althea Leasure (Courtney Love). While the film is not quite unflinching in its portrayal of Flynt's and Hustler's most unseemly characteristics (indeed, Flynt's real-life daughter Tonya Flynt-Vega has led protests decrying the film's white-wash of her father's life), it does portray a substantial cut of their raunchiness, from Flynt's beginnings as a sleazy, womanizing go-go dance club owner to his later wealthy and sexually decadent lifestyle. And with lines from Flynt like, "A woman's vagina has as much personality as her face" and Hustler greats like the now-infamous cover of a woman put halfway through a meat grinder, we aren't left to wonder terribly much about Flynt's ideas about women.
But the film in general gives a very friendly portrait of Flynt, focusing primarily on his legal fight against his attackers and painting him - particularly after he is paralyzed from the waist down by a would-be assassin's bullet in the late 1970s - as an intrepid crusader for free expression. From the beginnings of Hustler to Flynt's establishment as a publishing magnate by the mid-1980s, Flynt faces battle after battle in court against his inevitably silly conservative opponents (James Carville gives an excellent wry performance as one of the priggish lawyers who fights Flynt), who try to subdue him and his magazine with varying degrees of success. We grow to like Flynt in spite of his incredibly insolent behavior. Harrelson manages to play the part of a maverick crusader rather than a pornographer, although, to his credit, not entirely unironically.
In between court battles, we watch the relationship between Flynt and Althea evolve. The movie conveys without embarrassment Flynt's tremendous affection for Althea, to whom he remains steadfastly dedicated even as she deteriorates as a heroin addict and an AIDS victim later on in the film.
Love reportedly told the real-life Flynt (who makes a cameo in the film as an unsympathetic judge) that she would pose in Hustler is she wins an Oscar for best actress for her role. Her prestigious Golden Globe nomination may presage things to come, but whether she deserves the award is not so clear. Love is good in her role and does a great job at the beginning of the movie as a young but not-so-naive go-go dancer (Love also had a real-life stint as a stripper). She is whiny and effective at the beginning of her relationship with Flynt, and, disturbingly enough, she seems the most adept throughout the movie when she's acting the more vulgar parts of her role.
But there are some singularly ineffective and unconvincing parts, too, particularly the near-cliche insinuations that Althea is really the brains behind a lot of Hustler's success; at editorial meetings, she seems always to be coming up with Hustler's next new appalling idea, the next thing that's going to make Hustler more even more notorious, sell more magazines, and rile up conservatives again to arrest and sue her husband.
Unfortunately, we don't really get to see Love doing much of anything during the second half of the movie besides shooting up and falling over. While Flynt is in a psychiatric prison, Althea discovers that she has AIDS and thereafter deteriorates into an incoherent needle-bruised corpse as she gets sicker and continues using drugs. It is not so much that she doesn't play the part well during the second half as the fact that there simply isn't much of a role for her left to play once her illness sets in.
Flynt and his lawyer continue their fight for free expression - all the way up to the Supreme Court in 1987 over a case involving Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, who won a case in a lower court against Flynt for inflicting emotional distress for a parody of Falwell in an issue of Hustler that alleged Falwell had committed incest with his mother in an outhouse.
Flynt and Hustler's invective aimed at Falwell is nearly legendary in its seemingly unmitigated gall. But Falwell's host of radically conservative views - in particular his oft-preached belief that AIDS is a just punishment for sinful sexual lifestyles and drug use - must have been all the more personal for Flynt in light of the life of his wife. The court battles against Falwell, however, provide some of the movie's most amusing moments.
The People vs. Larry Flynt hardly disappoints entertainment-wise (although some parts may be a little too graphic for some) and moves so well that its more than two hour length never seems apparent. But it is a movie that often lionizes where it could and quite arguably should condemn. Flynt may have been a man who fought for free speech, but he is also a man who printed a feature in Hustler using The Wizard of Oz to depict a group sex scenario. The film shows both sides of Flynt, but the picture of him that emerges is much more of a crusader than a pornographer - perhaps disturbing, but almost certainly unconvincing.