People vs. Larry Flynt, The

The People vs. Larry Flynt is one of
Hollywood’s more typical propaganda
films—which is to say one which makes it too easy on itself. Unlike, say,
Dead Man Walking, which was a very untypical propaganda film, it does not
play straight with us. It stacks the deck in favor of its hero, Larry Flynt
(Woody Harrelson), whom it makes in defiance of all that we know about him, a
pretty lovable guy. The Christians who try to close him down, however, are all
sanctimonious hypocrites and, in the case of the S & L fraudster and
anti-pornography crusader Charles Keating (James Cromwell) crooks. The fine
words in favor of freedom of expression may all be true. I believe they are
true. But it is too easy to whip up enthusiasm for them when we find that it
puts us on the side of fun guys like Larry Flynt and makes us opposed to a bunch
of blue-noses and oily hypocrites.

In fact, Larry Flynt is not a fun guy. According to his daughter, whose own
rights of free speech he has tried to suppress, he sexually abused her, forced
her to pose naked for his magazine when she was only 19 and threatened to kill
her if she took her story public. From this film you would not know that he had
a daughter. I don’t quarrel with the
authors’ right to alter history so as
to make a better movie, but cleaning Larry Flynt up does not make a
better movie. It makes a worse movie. All the way through the argument is
basically this: that Larry Flynt is a scumbag (he proudly claims the title
himself), but if free speech means anything it means the right of scumbags to
speak too. It is an admirable point of view which the film then goes on to
obscure by making the man only a theoretical scumbag. We never see him actually
being one.

Oh sure, we know that he publishes very dirty pictures, but we never see any
(the film had to hang on to its
rating, after all). He loves his wife, Althea (Courtney Love), even though he
insists on his rights to sex with other women—a stipulation to which she
readily agrees. “Do you think
I’m talking about
monogamy?” she asks
incredulously when he draws back at her proposal of marriage. Yet it turns out
that, so far as anything we see in the film, they are monogamous, and
very much in love. When, after Flynt is shot and paralyzed and she contracts
AIDS, there is never a moment’s
discussion of where she got it. The only bad things we ever see Flynt doing are
cocking a snook at authority and having temper tantrums, most of them after he
has been shot and might be thought to have good reason for them. In short, a fun
guy—at least to watch.

I happen to think that the Christians, and the Rev. Jerry Falwell (Richard
Paul) were wrong to try to suppress
Flynt’s rights of free speech. It only
made him more of a celebrity and enabled him to say, as he does at one point in
the picture,
turned the whole world into a damn
tabloid.” Actually, he must share the
credit with a great many others, all of whom have the same instinct for stirring
up the opposition of the likes of the Moral Majority. But this does not mean
that the Moral Majority do not have a point, or that they are all hypocrites and
crooks. To pretend that they are is to sacrifice the serious point that a film
like this has to make to mere facile propaganda.

Edward Norton does a good job as his faithful attorney, Alan
Isaacman—another decent guy who, like Flynt himself, has his moment of
glory arguing and winning before the Supreme Court
Flynt’s case against a lower
court’s ruling that he pay Falwell
$200,000. But the courtroom triumph is, like the brave champion of free speech
himself, just another cinematic cliché.
“I would love to be rememberd for
something meaningful,” says Flynt
emotionally to his lawyer. And so it’s
on to the Supreme Court. He has made the world safe for pornographers! Is that
meaningful enough for you?

Althea’s death is also played for
its poignancy, even though she was a pathetic junkie. She hardly ever looks
pathetic here, and what we remember is a video tape of her telling Larry that
never be old and ugly” when he asks
her to pose for the camera so that she can remember what she looked like when
she was young.
be old and ugly.” And, lo! it came to
pass. She is forever young. They shall not grow old as we that are left grow
old. It’s all just a little too

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