Tuesday, November 23, 2010
THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (1996): Fairy Tale about Free Speech
The People vs. Larry Flynt is a moderately entertaining movie (also moderately dull) that is a fairly typical lackluster attempt by a media source to make a defense of the First Amendment. These “defenders of the truth” generally are reluctant to say everything and tend to cherry-pick the facts to make their free speech darling appear in the most admirable light. When books are censored from the library, these lovers of free speech are quick to defend books such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird and stay away from really controversial works such as Mein Kampf or hardcore porn. Now Hustler magazine is admittedly a bit racier than what most of us would like displayed on our magazine racks, and Larry Flynt will never receive favorable references from the church deacon. But the film The People vs. Larry Flynt never makes us appreciate the truly controversial aspects to the magazine, and never dwells in depth about the notoriety of its founder, Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson).
Larry Flynt and his wife, Althea (Courtney Love), are just two lovable kids trying to get their small porn magazine into publication. Flynt, who began his professional career as a moonshiner in Kentucky, is faced with pending litigation in many jurisdictions concerning obscenity violations for the graphic depictions in his publication. Flynt faced a variety of criminal charges, and once was even jailed and then institutionalized for contempt (when wearing a United States flag as a diaper into a courtroom). The most tragic outcome concerning his number of court appearances was when a sniper shot at Flynt while Flynt was being escorted into a courthouse. As is public knowledge, Flynt has since that time remained paralyzed from the waist down. Partially as a result of the pain that he experienced, Flynt became addicted to pain killers which may also have contributed to a bout with mental illness. At one point, shortly before the assassination attempt, Flynt “converts” to Christianity at the behest of Ruth Stapleton Carter (Donna Hanover), who also happens to be the sister of President Carter, but when he comes back to his senses (after he had been shot) he declares there is “no God” and goes back to publishing even more graphic material than ever before (perhaps provoked by all of the opposition and hardship that has been thwarted upon him by the general public).
Flynt was supported in his endeavors all along by Althea and his lawyer and loyal friend, Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton). Althea struggled with as many demons as Flynt. A bisexual stripper (played convincingly by Courtney Love), she proposed to Flynt while the two were in a hot tub. Flynt was that one individual with more money than she could ever imagine. Isaacman as his lawyer (not played so convincingly by Norton) makes Flynt proud by appealing one of their cases all the way to the United States Supreme Court (Hustler Magazine vs. Falwell). In that suit, Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul) had sued Flynt and his magazine for libel, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Without question, what Hustler had written about the famed evangelist was not flattering. The magazine parodied Falwell unsuccessfully trying to have sex with a goat inside of an outhouse before performing a more successful copulation with Falwell’s own mother. Not surprisingly, the Supreme Court ruled that Falwell was a public figure making it more difficult for him to recover for reasons of slander, and also ruled that the depiction of Falwell in Hustler could not be taken seriously by any reasonable person as it was intended as a parody.
Though Flynt is eventually able to kick the drug habit, the story does not have a completely happy ending. Althea eventually dies due to AIDS related complications. Althea never lives to see her beloved husband victorious in the highest court in the land.
The People vs. Larry Flynt is 129 minutes long and directed by Milos Forman. Forman it may be remembered directed and won Best Picture Oscars for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. The first film was well done (though it borrows heavily from Coolhand Luke that came out about ten years before it). The latter film I’m convinced would be completely forgotten if not for the fact that the Academy Awards Committee felt sorry for it and awarded it an Oscar. The People vs. Larry Flynt would be somewhere in between as far as quality is concerned, but it’s not a particularly well thought out movie. For all the hoopla depicted in the film of this controversial purveyor of smut bringing a suit to the Supreme Court, apparently the court members were not all that outraged because they voted 8-0 in favor of Flynt (with one justice abstaining). And one can’t imagine such a naïve and gullible kid as played by Norton ever having the knowledge or street-smarts to have negotiated his client’s case all the way to Washington, D.C. (let alone having graduated from law school) as such a character has been pulled right out of a Grisham’ novel. (Incidentally, this is probably the worst role Norton ever played.)
Woody Harrelson as Flynt does not appear any better cast. Harrelson plays Flynt as an eccentric clown that is just having fun with the reading public by poking fun at hypocrites like Jerry Falwell. He just wants to make a bit of money and have a variety of sexual adventures with first his many conquests and finally his wife, Althea. At no point are we ever convinced that he is capable of serious emotion. Even the religious conversion is posited as a product of a temporary mental aberration rather than as a genuine attempt to seek the truth. (The religious conversion in actuality was probably Flynt’s attempt to gain leniency from whatever prosecutor happened to be trying him at a moment while Flynt was facing actual jail time.) The character that Harrelson plays is as much a parody of Flynt as is the depiction of Falwell in Hustler magazine. We don’t get the real Flynt. That’s too bad because it was the film’s only chance of turning into something riveting. The filmmakers seemed afraid that if we did get an authentic picture of Larry Flynt, we may have been turned off by the man and (wrongly) convinced that censoring of him would not have been such a bad idea. For Flynt was something that the movie portrayal of him was not: a truly controversial figure with an extremely malevolent side.
Keep in mind that Flynt may have remained merely a high priced pimp if he had not published nude photos surreptitiously taken of Jackie Kennedy. Flynt has also been accused of selling sex videos to an under-aged youth. Flynt as the lovable husband may not have been an accurate portrait as we never learn of his other wives or his children. (His oldest daughter claimed that he sexually abused her and one of her sisters.) Flynt has even been accused of abusing his wife, Althea (one of only five of his wives), on several occasions. And Flynt certainly wasn’t adept at endearing himself to the public. In 1983, while actually in court, Flynt referred to the Supreme Court as “eight a**holes and a token c**t.”
Hustler magazine, Flynt’s magnum opus, teetered on the edge of soft-core and hard-core porn. We need to keep in mind that we don’t tolerate the magazine and allow it to be sold because it provides benefits to society. Arguably, it provides no benefits whatsoever because: (1) prolonged viewing of the publication is as likely to be depressing as pleasurable; (2) it’s rather doubtful that it stimulates a healthy attitude towards sex; (3) it likely demeans women rather than help one appreciate their beauty; and (4) it certainly doesn’t make anyone feel more youthful or vital. Nobody should argue that pornography is anything a free society can be proud of (though I’m sure there are those that would). We only allow the magazine its existence because the worse alternative is to allow the government to make the decisions for us as to what is and is not beneficial for each individual. If we ban Hustler, we then set the precedent for society to ban other things as well.
Something the makers of this movie failed to note was that the decision in Hustler Magazine vs. Falwell was penned by one of the “eight a**holes” on the court, the notoriously conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Milos Forman directed this movie for a movie audience that shared his liberal aspirations as evidenced by the fact that he attempted to make every individual with obvious conservative leanings in the movie seem humorless, vindictive and prudish. Forman probably would not have known how to deal with speech delivered by the likes of tax protestors or even Birchers, and would have been dismayed if someone had attempted to glorify someone like Rush Limbaugh in film – though Limbaugh no less likely believes in his own right to free speech than does Larry Flynt. Now there probably is nothing more shameful than the fact that Larry Flynt was the victim of a bullet for what he published. Equally shameful was that it took more than two years for an arrest to be made of the would-be assassin. One had the feeling that the authorities were not turning over every stone to find this individual. Neither Larry Flynt nor his attorney, Gene Reeves, who was also shot, deserved such a fate whatever their imagined crimes. Yet one has the feeling that those moved by the shooting scenes in The People vs. Larry Flynt may not have shed tears if the shooting victim happened to be Jerry Falwell rather than Larry Flynt. The hypocrisy goes in all directions.
Even as a piece of fiction (which it undoubtedly is), The People vs. Larry Flynt has its problems. Almost the only character in the entire film that is not a cartoon figure is Althea. At least with her we have an element of tragedy as she died the kind of death we would expect. The rest of the characters are types: Flynt as the lovable smut peddler; Isaacman as the crusading and idealistic attorney; Ruth Stapleton Carter as the naïve do-gooder; and Falwell as the blind and smug Puritanical hypocrite. To give them more human attributes would only have complicated this morality tale where the good guys are all conveniently on the side of the pornography industry. The problem with white washing Flynt as a human being and turning him into a First Amendment defender and icon is that it makes the convenient assumption that the First Amendment is in place to protect the free speech of the good guys. Actually, it’s not. It is in place to protect the good guy in that he can have access to the speech. But as every intelligent First Amendment advocate will tell you, the amendment is unnecessary to protect popular speech because that speech does not need protection. The First Amendment is there to protect unpopular speech and the thoughts and even ravings of unpopular and scurrilous people. The majority of individuals that enjoyed The People vs. Larry Flynt likely do not understand the degree of separation between Hustler magazine and soft-core publications that would also make them blush. I wish they did because they might understand what their idealistic notions of free speech were ultimately aiming to protect, and it might put the strength of their notions to the test. And the director of this film, Milos Forman, and the screenwriters were as self-deluded as the movie audience if they actually believed they were presenting an intelligent examination of First Amendment issues. Instead, they are romanticizing a pornographer.