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Doing The Porn Hustle

Woody & Love
The Right to Be Offended: Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love strike a blow for bad taste and rampant nudity in Milos Forman's "The People vs. Larry Flynt."

Photo by Sidney Baldwin



Flynt biopic manipulates feelings about romantic love and free speech

By Richard von Busack

IN THE BEGINNING, The People vs. Larry Flynt is a bubbly, coarse comedy about a hillbilly in south Ohio who makes a mint through the innovation of issuing hard-core magazines on slick paper instead of cheap newsprint. In these early scenes of bumpkins dueling with prudes, director Milos Forman returns to his peasant-comedy roots in such comedies as Taking Off.

Woody Harrelson's broad, well-timed clowning is ticklish; he loves playing a tasteless millionaire of the early 1970s, who lives for the pleasures of the flesh and infuriating the burghers. Harrelson's never been this good; his timing, never the best on television, has a screwball-era spring to it here.

Flynt is surrounded by a team of beat-looking apostles (particularly the one and only Crispin Glover, wonderfully evocative of some of the more hopeless cases of the era, as a strangled-voiced, one-eyed pothead). Against this grubby band, the forces of morality look all the more ridiculous.

James Cromwell (Farmer Hoggett from Babe) manages to get a laugh every time we see him as Charles Keating, the famed savings-and-loan boodler who was at one point also a decency crusader. Just as ripe is Richard Paul, all bathed in buttermilk, metaphorically speaking, as the equally noted televangelist Jerry Falwell. The "them vs. us" first half of the film makes porn seem like a naughty business--which, on the whole, it hasn't been in a long time.

And then it's time to pay the price for the fun. Flynt is shot and left paralyzed, and small-minded moral crusaders close in for the kill. In the second half of the film, Oliver Stone's influence as co-producer comes out strong as boredom itself, in an assassination conspiracy subplot. (Flynt was shot under cloudy circumstances, and The People vs. Larry Flynt does more to cloud them. The evidence, such as it is, suggests a drive-by shooting instead of a sniping from a tower; the sniping is what we see.)

The preachiness of the second half makes The People vs. Larry Flynt feel like two different films jammed together. Ideally, Forman should have done a biopic of Flynt ascendant, leaving him in triumph (perhaps at the hilariously gaudy 1976 bicentennial party scene, in which the pornographer is dressed as George Washington, complete with wig). Then, someone else could have done (preferably for cable) Flynt's Supreme Court trial. It's two different forms of madness, and put together, we're left with the rebuked Flynt, like those who have witnessed sin punished.

Both of these films don't do justice to Flynt's antics. His rampaging sexuality has been laundered in the first half into a tame hot-tub foursome. You get the impression that Althea (Courtney Love), Flynt's wife, was Hustler's only model. The People vs. Larry Flynt avoids the whole touchy subject of how porn is made; it's like watching a movie about a meat-packing plant strangely empty of carcasses. And women's reactions to Hustler--how infuriated they were by the magazine during its most screamingly bad-taste era--are only referred to in passing.

The trial scenes themselves, because of time limitations, stint a lot of what Flynt had to say; his were some of the most trenchant mutterings since the last words of Dutch Schultz.

Flynt had printed a parody of a Campari liqueur ad, with Jerry Falwell confessing to losing his virginity to his own mother in an outhouse. Falwell decided to sue for libel, despite the easily legible disclaimer (which Flynt claimed he didn't want to print). It was obviously a joke--Campari is far too chi-chi a drink for Falwell.

At the trial, Flynt put on a better display than could be seen in his magazines, stating among other things that a committee including David Lee Roth, Ted Nugent and Congressman Larry McDonald had helped him write the parody, and that he, Flynt, had witnessed affidavits that Falwell had indeed slept with his own mother.

TRULY, FLYNT is the most berserk figure the south has produced since Jerry Lee Lewis. And as Rodney A. Smolla noted, in his book Jerry Falwell vs. Larry Flynt, "Only in America can a country boy from Kentucky with a grade-school education run for president with the campaign slogan, 'A Smut Peddler Who Cares.' " And he ran as a Republican, and with Russell Means as his vice-presidential candidate, yet.

I'll never forget the way Flynt used to print full-page pictures of cancerous lungs as an antismoking warning; at a high-school friend's house, his mother put the torn-out page on the refrigerator door to discourage her children from smoking. (Her children used to retaliate by turning over the picture; on the other side was one of those plummeting fluorescent-pink chasms that paid for Flynt's Lear jet.)

We owe him for taking his First Amendment rights to the Supreme Court, but thinking this great loon poignant is a bit thick. After the shooting, the movie becomes a ceremony for Flynt's humanity larded with the added sorrow of the degeneration of Althea.

Love, already skinny as a Grünewald Christ at the movie's opening, turns into a Technicolor wraith--10 pounds of flesh, 90 pounds of rainbow-dyed hair--as she wastes away from opiates. Love is, it goes without saying, a convincingly scary and filthy junkie, but she has to be more than just that in the course of the film, and her wobbly acting skills make her part of the film enervating. She helps turn The People vs. Larry Flynt into a long film, and by the end, a hopelessly sentimental one.

In the old days, hustlers conned you with motherhood and the flag; The People vs. Larry Flint celebrates Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler, who made a mint defiling both. But the film hustles you by manipulating your feelings about romantic love and the First Amendment. I'm used to manipulations about the former, and I didn't mind the latter--a scant few things, in the end, are sacred. But Ambrose Bierce was right--patriotism isn't the last refuge of the scoundrel, it's the first.


The People vs. Larry Flynt (R; 130 min.), directed by Milos Forman, written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, photographed by Philippe Rousselot and starring Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love.

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From the January 9-15, 1997 issue of Metro

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