Porn King Finds New Life as Free Speech Hero
BY John Prizer
Jan 26-Feb. 1, 1997 Issue | Posted 1/26/97 at 2:00 PM
Most Catholics may be too put off with this movie's “hero” to consider viewing the film.However, it holds, for the prepared viewer, some important lessons.
Like it or not, Larry Flynt is an American original. No other culture, past or present, could have produced such a creature.His rags-to-riches success as a multi-millionaire pornographer is only possible in an open society like ours where, as Flynt himself comments, “everybody gets their shot, even a pig.”
But The People vs.Larry Flynt has grander ambitions.Director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus) and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood) contrive to inflate Flynt's significance and mold him into a folk hero.They've reinvented him as a cutting-edge First Amendment warrior, fighting courageously for free speech against censorship.
The movie begins in 1952 in the woods of East Kentucky where 10-year-old Larry and his 8-year-old brother Jimmy are scratching to make a buck as moonshiners. With a display of vindictiveness unusual for a child, Larry physically attacks his drunken father for “drinking my profits.”
Two decades later Larry (Woody Harrelson) and Jimmy (real-life brother Brett Harrelson) have graduated to owning a string of strip joints in Southern Ohio.Larry starts a newsletter about his dancers to promote his clubs that he calls Hustler, and its unexpected success inspires him to expand the format into a national magazine to rival Playboy and Penthouse.Its selling points are articles and photo spreads raunchier and more offensive than its competitors
Larry falls in love with underage stripper Althea Leasure (alternative rocker Courtney Love) whose sexual appetites and ambition match his.She proposes to him in a hot tub after extracting a promise that marriage won't mean monogamy.
Meanwhile, the national edition of Hustler is losing money until Larry publishes exclusive photos of a nude Jackie Onassis, generating extensive publicity for himself and the magazine.This catches the eyes of millions of new readers and makes local law enforcement authorities sit up and take notice.
A Cincinnati prosecutor (political consultant James Carville), encouraged by the soon-to-be-discredited savings and loan tycoon Charles Keating (John Cromwell), charges Larry with obscenity, hoping to put him in jail and out of business.Harvard-educated civil liberties lawyer Alan Isaacson (Edward Norton) takes the case and raises Flynt's consciousness about the importance of the Constitution. “I don't particularly like what you stand for,” he tells the porn king, “but you represent something bigger.” According to the filmmakers, it's the beginning of Larry's metamorphosis from a sleazy promoter into an embattled defender of free speech.
To achieve this, the movie stacks the deck in Larry's favor in several ways.First, his personal lifestyle, though depicted as tasteless and gross, is sanitized to make him appear as nothing more than a lovable rogue.There are no references to either his bizarre sexual proclivities or his use of physical intimidation as a business tactic.
Furthermore, the audience is rarely shown the actual contents of Hustler (they're usually only talked about), so it's difficult to understand why anyone would want to ban it.His opponents are all caricatured as hypocritical, right-wing Christian extremists.We're never told that secular women's groups led by radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin lobbied against Flynt with equal vigor.
The movie portrays Althea as a sympathetic figure, a free spirit who goes too far.In fact, she has an agenda that includes a strong hostility to Christianity.She alleges that she was abused by the nuns who raised her in an orphanage.
The pornographer is shot by an unknown assailant while leaving a Georgia courthouse in 1978.The attack leaves him paralyzed from the waist down.He becomes addicted to painkilling drugs which Althea also consumes.
“We ought to move somewhere perverts are welcome,” Larry proclaims, and the entire Hustler empire re-establishes itself in Los Angeles.Eventually he kicks his drug habit, but Althea remains hooked, contracting AIDS and dying in her bath.
The legal battles continue as Larry's behavior becomes more erratic.He shows up in court wearing a diaper made out of an American flag and throws oranges at the judge.
The porn king's wrestling with religion remains a major issue in his life.He now describes himself as an atheist and refuses to put his hand on the Bible and swear an oath.Furious at the continuing opposition from evangelical Christians, Larry runs a satirical piece that fantasizes about the Rev. Jerry Falwell having sex with his mother in an outhouse. The Moral Majority leader sues for libel and loses.But a Virginia court awards him substantial damages for emotional distress.
Larry resents Falwell because the preacher characterizes AIDS as God's retribution for our sins. Perceiving this perhaps as some kind of judgment on Althea, Larry is motivated to fight the damages award all the way to the Supreme Court where the justices rule 9-0 in his favor.Although a significant First Amendment victory, the high court decision isn't the ground-breaking legal precedent the filmmakers claim it to be except in publicity value.
If Flynt has a place in our cultural history, it should not be as a reluctant champion of free speech.Instead he should be remembered as a high-profile profiteer of America's decay.The success of his magazines represents a lowering of moral standards that have weakened the nation's social fabric to the point of chaos.
John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.
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