Program Notes: The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
The People vs. Larry Flynt is a pretty wonderful film about a pretty despicable character.
Larry Flynt, of course, is the publisher of Hustler, the notorious skin rag whose main claim to fame was that in the early 1970s it moved female genitalia front and center. While Playboy was trying to pass itself off as sophisticated fare, Flynt concluded that what most guys really wanted were ambush photos of a naked Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
“It's like when people slow down at a car crash to take a peek” is how the smirking pornographer (cheekily played by Oscar-nominated Woody Harrelson) explains his approach.
But fate – or the U.S. Constitution – moves in mysterious ways.
Because of his taboo-busting efforts Flynt became a principal in several landmark court cases; ironically, this man motivated by little more than greed and libido became a champion of First Amendment rights, a tarnished knight in the battle against censorship and puritanical inhibition.
Flynt has made millions, done prison time, was briefly converted to born-again Christianity, and was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1978 shooting that remains an open case.
It's a heck of a life, and in the hands of director Milos Forman, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood), and a cast to kill for The People vs. Larry Flynt is a heck of a movie: funny, thought-provoking, outrageous and, against all expectations, truly touching.
Harrelson rarely lets us forget that Flynt is a genuinely smarmy guy, a one-time Kentucky moonshiner who has raised offensiveness to an art form, a living example of free enterprise gone bonkers, a defiant malcontent whose courtroom stunts repeatedly lead to contempt charges.
But if Harrelson's Flynt is not precisely charming, at least he's engagingly entertaining. (The real Larry Flynt, one suspects, is more paranoid bore than amusing cutup.)
The film's emotional resonance comes from a highly unlikely source. Grunge rock bad girl Courtney Love gives a scorching performance as Althea Leasure, the stripper who became Mrs. Flynt and an active partner in the publishing empire, only to descend into drug addiction and an early AIDS-related death.
It's largely through Love's efforts that Larry Flynt evolves beyond clever riffing on a scuzzy character into richly emotional territory. The Flynts' relationship is unconventional, certainly, overflowing with bisexuality, drugs, and conspicuous consumption. But in the hands of Love and Harrelson it emerges as a sweet, deep and abiding commitment that sticks with you after the film ends.
Edward Norton is very good as Flynt's long-suffering lawyer, perpetually exasperated by his loose-cannon client yet still capable of mounting an eloquent common-sense defense of this creep before the Supreme Court.
"I'm your dream client," Flynt tells the frustrated attorney. "I'm the most fun, I'm rich, and I'm always in trouble."
Ultimately The People vs. Larry Flynt asks us to cheer for a system that has determined, in Flynt's words, that "a pig has the same rights as a president."
And we do cheer. Director Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus) lost his parents in a Nazi concentration camp and grew up in Communist-dominated Czechoslovakia. He knows what it's like to live in a society where what you can read and write are proscribed by this bureaucrat or that party.
No doubt this accounts for his interest in Flynt's story and his canny seduction of his audience. He softens us with humor and a bit of titillation and then gets us to happily embrace a message that, under other circumstances, many would find dubious.
In truth, not every person who objects to porn is a political reactionary or pious hypocrite. But that's the power of drama – you can create your own facts and as long as it seems true you can get away with it. The People vs. Larry Flynt pulls us in, convinces us of its reality and makes us converts.
Flynt's adversaries were correct in noting that free expression (including sexual expression) is a dangerous thing. This film argues persuasively that it's not nearly as dangerous as its absence.
Other films in the series “Mondays with Milos”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- September 10: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Rated R
- September 17: Ragtime (1981) Rated PG
- September 24: Hair (1979) Rated PG
- October 1: Amadeus (1984) Rated PG
- October 8: The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) Rated R
- October 15: Loves of a Blonde (1965) Not Rated
- October 22: Man on the Moon (1999) Rated R
- October 29: Goya’s Ghosts (2006) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.