The People vs. Larry Flynt (1997)

After being paralyzed by a would-be assassin in *The People vs. Larry Flynt*, the pornographer ponders his future: "We ought to move somewhere where perverts are welcome," he announces. In case anyone still had any doubts about where that might be, director Milos Forman (*Amadeus*) delivers the punchline, gliding his camera lovingly along the full, tattered length of the Hollywood sign. And lest anyone think that Flynt is actually as appealing as actor and hemp crusader Woody Harrelson, the film reminds them otherwise: the toad-like Flynt makes an appearance as an unsympathetic judge in the first of many court battles in *The People vs. Larry Flynt*, an audacious movie about the life of the trash porn publisher.

Flynt, child bootlegger, adult porn-meister, has led a rather too interesting life, but *The People vs. Larry Flynt* is as much a history of the First Amendment as a biography of the *Hustler* publisher. The underlying joke of Flynt’s career is that the more extreme Flynt became, the more whacked out, drug-addled, reckless and vulgar, the more he became a self-serving champion of free speech and First Amendment rights. As portrayed in *The People vs. Larry Flynt*, Flynt is the ultimate anti-hero, a man with a revolutionary soul and an adolescent mind, gleefully thumbing his nose at the establishment every chance he gets, and relentlessly testing the limits of the law. Flynt is only too happy to prove that you must take liberties to test liberties. That combination of prurience and rebellion reflects the divided soul of America, at war with itself over Puritanical mores and libertine desires, obeisance and insurrection.

*The People vs. Larry Flynt* takes the same subversive pleasure in taking liberties, tweaking the establishment, pointing out hypocrisy. This Larry Flynt isn’t *just* a sleazy scumbag, and the men who challenged him in court (Jerry Falwell, future S&L swindler Charles Keating) aren’t *just* community standard-bearers, but people with their own self-serving agenda as well. Forman, after living through both Nazi- and Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia, knows a thing or two about censorship, and it is censorship more than pornography that his film is about. Flynt’s crude style of porn is treated as a joke, an outgrowth of his hillbilly roots and admittedly lower-class tastes. The R-rated nudity throughout *The People vs. Larry Flynt* gradually becomes part of the background, challenging the viewer to ignore it as nothing more than the tacky lifestyle of a tacky man. Likewise, *Hustler* isn’t so much demonized for its exploitiveness as ribbed for its adolescent tastelessness, because the film hardly cares about *why* Flynt was persecuted and prosecuted. For a Hollywood film to object to tastelessness and the exploitation of women would itself be a laughable act of hypocrisy, even if Forman isn’t likely to be counted among the hypocrites. In one of the film’s most effectively subversive moments, Flynt stands before a huge screen, flashing alternating images of nude women and explicit violence, and asks which is more obscene. It’s a moment designed to question and undermine decades of media socialization, and it works brilliantly to confuse and confound.

*The People vs. Larry Flynt* also ignores the objections to Flynt voiced by feminists, including the outcry that has made *Hustler*’s infamous meat-grinder cover an anti-porn icon for decades. Instead, it focuses its scrutiny on the legal battles Flynt faced, which had nothing to do with feminism, but much to do with the religious right. If you lose sight of the fact that Flynt, whether he intended to or not, fought and won a battle for everybody’s freedom of expression (including feminists and the religious right), then you’ve missed the whole point of *The People vs. Larry Flynt*.

Instead of the women who hated Flynt, *The People vs. Larry Flynt* looks at the woman who loved him, Althea Leasure (Courtney Love, in a raw and affecting performance), Flynt’s wife, business partner and soul-mate. From their first meeting, when the bisexual Leasure was a 17 year old stripper, it is clear that Larry and Althea are a perfect match, and their relationship, right up until Leasure’s untimely AIDS-related death in 1987, is fascinating and unconventional. Though never prosecuted herself, Leasure was, as much as Flynt, responsible for the content of *Hustler*, and kept the magazine alive during Flynt’s brief fling with born-again Christianity (when he attempted to make *Hustler* an organ of religious porn). *The People vs. Larry Flynt* is at its most effective and surprisingly touching in its portrayal of the odd couple’s intense, complicated and devoted relationship, and it rightly recognizes that the role of women like Leasure in pornography is much too complex to discuss, or dismiss, with slogans and dogma.

Scripted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (*Ed Wood*), *The People vs. Larry Flynt* takes the tragic, stranger-than-fiction and spontaneously ironic life of an outrageous American bottom-feeder and turns it into an exuberantly satirical, often hilarious, always fascinating lesson in law and disorder. Has there ever been a more entertaining defendant in any court, real or fictional? Hardly, but the film also keeps sight of the heavy price Flynt paid for his unwelcome crusade: imprisoned, paralyzed from the waist-down and finally, losing the love of his life, he does suffer for his sleazy art. Despite the comedy and high drama of *The People vs. Larry Flynt*, the film’s respect for Flynt ultimately remains uneasy: his unrestrained vulgarity makes Flynt more a joke than a hero, but his fight for the right to be vulgar, without restraint, in public, is heroic. We are reminded by Flynt that freedom has its price, however bad the aftertaste, and part of that price is to make a virtue of necessity, and abandon the necessity of virtue.