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Monday, June 18, 2018

The People vs. Larry Flynt

Milos Forman's third and last Oscar nomination for Best Director came with 1996's The People vs. Larry Flynt. The script was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who have written many scripts about real-life oddball characters (and also wrote That Darn Cat). This time they take on the bilious pornographer, Larry Flynt, who seemed to be in court as much as anywhere.

Woody Harrelson plays Flynt, who began his empire owning strip clubs in Ohio. He began a newsletter, which turned into Hustler, a magazine that broke several taboos. The script gleefully recounts some of them, such as a cartoon with Santa Claus sporting a large erection, or a pictorial with Dorothy getting gang-banged by the Scarecrow, The Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion (I remember that one--it was pretty hot).

Of course, in a nation first settled by Puritans, that did not go over well with bluenoses. Flynt was tried for obscenity and convicted, with the case overturned. "All I'm guilty of is bad taste," he cries at one point. Eventually he would be paralyzed in an assassination attempt, and go all the way to the Supreme Court in a battle with evangelist Jerry Falwell, whom Hustler parodied in a Campari ad stating that his first time was with his mother in an outhouse.

The film rests on irreverence, as Harrelson as Flynt evolves into a kind of First Amendment hellion. But I think the film is really a love story. Courtney Love is Althea, a stripper he married and stayed with until the end of her life (she drowned in a bathtub after an overdose, and she also had AIDS). The film ends with him, after his Supreme Court victory, watching videotape of her in happier, better times.

This film is over twenty years old now and Flynt isn't so shocking anymore. You have to hand it to him, though, while Playboy and Penthouse are on their last legs as print magazines, Flynt's magazines are still going strong, and he's outlived Hefner and Guccione. The film paints him as a rival to those men, though he lives in similar gauche luxury.

The People vs. Larry Flynt is pretty much a straight-forward biopic with an affection for its subject, despite his outrageousness (at one trial, he wears a "Fuck This Court" t-shirt). The audience's stand-in is Edward Norton as his long-suffering attorney, who despite his misgivings sticks with him (and won the Supreme Court case). The prologue shows Flynt at about thirteen, selling moonshine to hillbillies--an old man buys a thimble-full of the stuff for two dollars--and Flynt isn't judgmental; he just wants to make an honest buck, and hits his father in the head with a jug for drinking up his profits.

Forman doesn't employ too many tricks here, as Flynt and Althea are larger than life as it is. He continues his use of amateurs as performers, starting with Love, who is really very good. It's a shame she didn't keep up with her acting career. In roles as judges or attorneys are James Carville, real-life civil liberties attorney Bert Neuborne, and Flynt himself as a judge who sentences the man playing him to 25 years in the penitentiary. Flynt's longtime friends and factotums at the magazine are played by Crispin Glover, Vincent Schiavelli (as Chester, whom  I suspect was the cartoonist behind "Chester the Molester") and Brett Harrelson, Woody's brother, as Flynt's brother, Jimmy.

Woody Harrelson received an Oscar nomination in what was the first part to really separate himself from the friendly, dim-witted bartender on Cheers. It is a tour de force as a man with no scruples and no taste who ends fighting for the American way. This film goes to show that the right to free speech is only as strong as we are willing to allow the most repellent people to use it.

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