A savagely funny burlesque/courtroom drama based on real trial transcripts, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Miloš Forman’s latest film, wrings a hard bargain from the contradictions of American culture—and to maximum effect. With Rabelaisian flair and an unerring nose for irony, the film cleverly manages to satirize the grotesqueries of capitalism represented by Hustler, the hypocrisy of the religious right, and to pay homage to the First Amendment in one breath, somehow without ever falling prey to the scuzz that Flynt exemplifies. The film may well reap another slew of Oscars for its formerly Czech director.
Partly a wrenching love story between shock/schlockmeister Flynt (wickedly played by Woody Harrelson) and his fourth wife Althea Leasure (Courtney Love in a dazzling turn) who died of AIDS, and part ode to the Supreme Court, the first-rate, incisive script tracks the rise and fall of the Kentucky-born rebel’s fortunes across three decades, from bottomfeeding smut peddler to First Amendment hero by default.
Flynt’s outrageous challenges to authority (he famously wore the U.S. flag as diapers in court) and his constant need to outdo himself in print, eventually taxed everyone’s patience, including his wife’s and his lawyer’s, and sparked intense opposition, not only from the moral majority. But the arc of his life, with his rags-to-riches ascent as porn king, obscenity trials, attempted assassination, religious “conversion,” and tenacity in the face of growing opposition, has all the ingredients for raunchy comedy and high drama. Having been permanently paralyzed by a sniper’s bullet, Flynt takes his fights to a more exalted plane when the Reverend Jerry Fallwell sues him for libel in a Virginia court for a satirical lampoon (Fallwell having sex with his mother in an outhouse) and is awarded damages for “emotional distress.” Flynt and his indefatigable lawyer Alan lsaacman appeal the case in Washington, D.C., make the Supreme Court laugh, and win a unanimous ruling in his favor.
In its heyday, Hustler easily outstripped its peers Playboy and Penthouse by being the first glossy to “show pink” (porn lingo for women’s most private parts). It quickly escalated in sensationalism and sheer grossness, with graphic sections like “Assholes of the Month” and “Beaver Hunt,” blending crude humor with debasing imagery and broadening the scope of its targets to cultural icons like Santa Claus and the Wizard of Oz (shown in the film), then focusing on prepubescent nudity and coprophilia (not shown in the film).
In a very different way, Forman’s life has been as dramatic as Flynt’s: he lost both his parents at the hands of the Gestapo at an early age, made his first three, internationally-shown films in Czechoslovakia, and, after moving to New York, won Academy Awards for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984). The People vs. Larry Flynt, with Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love and Edward Norton as Alan lsaacman, premiered at the 1996 New York Film Festival and opens nationwide in December. With the fate of the Communications Decency Act—declared unconstitutional by a three-judge court—pending, and censorship, actual and implied, threatening the untrammeled exchange of protected speech on the Internet, the film’s release couldn’t be more timely.