Rarely has a movie seemed so out of place in the marketplace. It's being hyped like a big-budget "issue movie," much like Dead Man Walking was, or like such older, sort of dopey but well intentioned efforts like Gentleman's Agreement or Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Fair or unfair as that categorization might be to those films, it's downright weird when applied to The People vs. Larry Flynt. First of all, Larry Flynt does not succumb to anything like the kind of "nice," emasculated storytelling that makes everybody feel good. The issue it's supposed to address is censorship and the First Amendment, and it does, sort of, but that's not the crux of the story.
The real story is a great, twisted love/hate affair between Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson) and the United States of America. How does this country, which praises free speech and morality in public while condemning pornography, but buys pornography by the millions in private, deal with a native son who wants to be acknowledged as legitimate in public? Does standing up for free speech and freedom of action mean endorsing perversity? How does a capitalist society praise Flynt's entrepreneurial spirit without condoning his views?
Milos Forman, one of only two working directors to have won the Best Director Oscar twice (for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus), along with Oliver Stone, Flynt's producer, takes the tactic of telling Larry Flynt's saga like a documentary, while at the same time using a sort of simplistic symbolism to portray the forces at work in America at the time. In Forman's schema, Larry Flynt is the quintessential American. All he wants is to get ahead and to live his life with no compromises. His wife Althea Leasure Flynt (Courtney Love), represents the libertine who becomes a victim of her own destructive instincts, succumbing to drug addiction and falling victim to AIDS after years of sexual promiscuity.
The forces of good line up on the opposite side. Charles Keating (James Cromwell) represents the hypocritical capitalist, who panders to another mass taste which happens to differ from Larry Flynt's, but is essentially the same force. Flynt gives them unthinking sex, Keating unthinking anti-sex. Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul) represents the complete hypocrite (which he is), preaching love while inculcating a visceral hatred for sexuality which doesn't follow his rules.
One of my favorite scenes is when some of Falwell's students bring him the Hustler parody which mocks Falwell--he never asks the pertinent question: "How did you find this?" It reminds me of when my sister used to tell on me for having my eyes open during family prayers. The perfect defense: "How does she know?"
The most potentially fascinating character is Ruth Carter Stapleton (Donna Hanover Giuliani, yes, the New York City mayor's wife), Jimmy Carter's evangelical sister, who proposes liberating sexuality from the world of smut and Christianity from the prudes. This development is violently interrupted, as all great movements are.
All of these competing ideologies and forces are never reconciled, which is painfully obvious from looking at American society today. People are still hysterical over other people's sexuality. Congress is locked in some kind of sexual frenzy, prematurely legislating all over the House floor. Falwell's ilk have hijacked the Republican Party, making it impossible to nominate a presidential candidate who can be elected. The movie has no easy answers, but it certainly raises all the right questions.
And the best thing is Harrelson's performance. If Larry Flynt has a soul, Harrelson has captured it on film. To take a person as unlikable as Larry Flynt and make you root for him is sheer magic. With every movement, every word, Harrelson leads us there. While Courtney Love's performance is not quite the triumph some critics have hailed it as, it certainly remains amazingly true to character. It makes the point that however ugly sex can be, and however unlovable a person can be, it is love that makes things bearable.
But the real point of the film is America's own hypocrisy. Larry Flynt is a native son. America buys millions of his magazines a year. But he shouldn't be anybody's hero. The man admits having had sex with a chicken, for heaven's sake! It's hard to come back from that to hero status. Why did America make Larry Flynt a martyr, then, by persecuting and prosecuting him just for holding up a mirror to our society? We've got some serious issues to deal with.
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