It’s about the freedom of speech, the lunacy of corporate power and finally, the radical unpredictability of life itself.
“What is more obscene? Sex or war?” The question was posed by Woody Harrelson in The People vs. Larry Flynt and it remains relevant today. After all, we live in an era when search engines can find and destroy images of naked women before anyone can see them; when Instagram users can search the hashtag “gunforsale” but not “bra”; when a movement called “Free the Nipple” publicly challenges the censorship of women’s bodies. The battle over obscenity lives on—it’s simply moved from the pages of Hustler magazine to the depths of internet. But as director Miloš Forman repeated in interviews, pornography is not only what The People vs. Larry Flynt is about. Indeed, 20 years after its release, the film stands up as portrait of individualism, drug addiction, religion, hypocrisy and Americana. It’s about the freedom of speech, the lunacy of corporate power and finally, the radical unpredictability of life itself.
The film begins with Flynt as a little rascal, peddling moonshine in the backwaters of Kentucky. Seasoned screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, Big Eyes) evidently wanting to situate Flynt within the pantheon of American achievers who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. The film jumps ahead to the early ‘70s when Flynt is running a strip club in Cincinnati. It’s a seedy joint but money isn’t always pretty. He creates a “newsletter” of naked ladies to use as a promotion and when it gains traction, Hustler Magazine is born. As he describes it to his ragtag employees, it’s like Playboy—without the snooty articles. His boardroom of bumpkins includes such beloved character actors as Crispin Glover and Vincent Schiavelli, making Flynt and his venture into smut easy to root for.
Did I mention Courtney Love? It’s astounding that nobody talks about her in this movie. She’s one of the best things about it. From the moment she appears onstage, dancing to “Hang On Sloopy,” you can’t take your eyes off her. From then on, she’s by Flynt’s side wherever he goes. Whether giving pep talks in the offices of Hustler offices, pushing Flynt’s wheelchair or injecting him with painkillers, she’s a strung-out paragon of true love.
Halfway through the film, the success Flynt’s porno mag is exchanged for a national debate over censorship. A baby-faced Edward Norton arrives as Flynt’s humanist lawyer and together, they take on the charges against Hustler, which Flynt sees as an infringement of the First Amendment. If all this weren’t enough, he also gets shot by a bigot, paralyzed from the waist down, addicted to painkillers and for a brief time, converted to Christianity.
Though slightly sanitized into a Capra-esque morality tale, Harrelson’s Larry Flynt still has the signature verve of a Miloš Forman protagonist. Like Mozart in Amadeus (1984) or McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), the core of Flynt’s being lies in opposition to the status quo. In one of the film’s best scenes, he wears a star-spangled diaper to a mandatory court appearance. Forman, who is from the Czech Republic, has said that his admiration for rebels comes from having lived in a totalitarian society, where most people want to rebel but don’t. “And I am a coward, because I didn’t dare to rebel there and go to prison for that,” he said. “That’s, I guess, why I admire the rebels and make films about them.”
The People vs. Larry Flynt cannot be discussed without bringing up the many untruths Forman and writers Alexander and Karaszewski included in the script. They eliminated Flynt’s three wives to make room for Althea. They got rid of his children (Flynt has five) and cleaned-up his shady business deals. This 1997 Slate exposé uncovered virtually every angle of Flynt’s life and though interesting to read, it doesn’t inhibit our enjoyment of the film. Indeed, any good biopic requires fictionalization because allegiance to the facts simply doesn’t make for provocative storytelling. The best biopics ones are those willing to take risks, and like its protagonist, Flynt does just that. Forman, Alexander and Karaszewski succeed in turning a potential egomaniac into a plucky hero we can get behind.