Thursday, March 17, 2016

The People vs. Larry Flynt (Columbia, Filmhaus, Illusion Entertainment, 1996)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The People vs. Larry Flynt, which I was somewhat startled to realize was made 20 years ago in 1996 — something that becomes apparent in the where-are-they-now titles in the closing credit roll. The credits list Jerry Falwell as still alive and preaching (he died in 2007, though the name “Jerry Falwell” recently surfaced in public discourse again when his son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., endorsed Donald Trump for President) and say that the assault on Flynt in Lawrenceville, Georgia in 1978 that left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair ever since was unsolved (serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin confessed to the shooting of Flynt and was eventually executed for eight unrelated murders in Missouri in 2013 — though Flynt, an opponent of capital punishment, had called on Missouri to spare his life; Franklin was also an avowed white supremacist who said his motivation for shooting Flynt was an interracial photo spread in Hustler). I had thought the movie, based on its title, focused mainly on his legal battles in various courtrooms across the country, and especially the famous libel suit Falwell filed against him over a parody ad in Hustler for Campari (the Italian liqueur manufacturer had done a series of ads called “My First Time,” which looked like they were going to be about the first time various celebrities had had sex and was really about the first time they had drunk Campari; Flynt and his staff came up with a parody ad showing Falwell saying that his first sexual experience had been with his mother in an outhouse).

It actually begins in Kentucky in 1952, where Flynt was born and where he (Cody Block) and his two-years-younger brother Jimmy (Ryan Post) sell moonshine to people driving through. (They explain that they make the stuff from potatoes, which would make it bootleg vodka instead of bootleg whiskey.) When they catch their dad (John Ryan) drinking too much of the merchandise, Larry throws the jug containing it at him. The film then flashes forward to 1972, when Larry and Jimmy Flynt are running a strip club in Cincinnati called The Hustler Club — the film makes it seem like they’re just scraping by but according to Flynt’s Wikipedia page the Flynt brothers actually had a number of clubs in various Midwestern cities and were doing quite well with the business — and Larry decides to put out a newsletter to help promote the club. Only he wants it done on “that shiny paper” (“slick,” his printer tells him it’s called), and he wants it full of nude photos of women despite the printer’s warning that that might get both of them prosecuted for obscenity. When he starts getting inquiries from people who want to subscribe to his magazine, he decides to launch it as a full-out publication with national distribution, and his rationale is that Playboy is already successful but people who don’t want to wade through all the ponderous articles to get to the hot pics, and who don’t make anywhere near enough to live the “Playboy Philosophy” lifestyle, would flock to a more out-front competitor. (Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s there were jokes about people who said, “I read Playboy just for the articles,” and Realist editor-publisher Paul Krassner once said the Playboy Philosophy was “more rationalization per square tit than any other magazine.”) Hustler becomes an immediate hit and, of course, attracts unwelcome attention from the authorities — especially when he started running explicit photos of women’s vaginas in November 1974 and in August 1975 ran a series of photos that were claimed to be Jackie Kennedy Onassis in the nude.

In 1976 he was arrested at his office in Cincinnati and charged with obscenity by local prosecutor Simon Leis (James Carville) as part of an anti-porn crusade funded by corrupt savings-and-loan owner Charles Keating (James Cromwell). (Ironically, the judge who sentences him to 25 years in prison after he’s convicted — though it’s later reversed on appeal — is played in the film by the real Larry Flynt.) In 1977 he goes through a brief conversion as a born-again Christian, recruited to the faith by President Carter’s sister Ruth Carter Stapleton (Donna Hanover) — though his wife Althea (Courtney Love — more on her later) suspects he’s just pretending to convert so he can get in Mrs. Stapleton’s pants. He’s busted again in Georgia in 1978 and his attorney, Alan Isaacman (a young Edward Norton in one of his earliest roles — the character is actually a composite of several attorneys that represented Flynt over the years), arranges a plea bargain — only we don’t find out what it is because Flynt obscenely rejects it and insists on going to trial. He’s shot after leaving the courthouse during one of the trial sessions, and like Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi, Edith Piaf and quite a few people nowadays, he starts taking medications to control his pain and soon becomes addicted. He’s helped in his destructive spiral by his wife, Althea Jane Leasure Flynt (played by Kurt Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, who according to showed up to interview for the movie under the influence of drugs; director Milos Forman offered her the role but only if she stayed clean and sober during the shoot — which she did, and later she credited him with having enabled her to get out of the self-destructive loop she’d been on and restart her career as both musician and actress, though through many of the scenes showing both her and Flynt as addicts it does look like she’s playing herself!).

The drugs render Flynt both manic (after the events in the movie Flynt later publicly “came out” as bipolar) and virtually incoherent, turning his court appearances into bizarre, contemptuous rants — in one scene (and apparently this really happened) he comes into court wearing nothing below the waist but a diaper fashioned from an American flag — though the scenes of Flynt in court in the Falwell case conflate his two appearances in that case, one of which was a pre-trial deposition in which Flynt scared his lawyers by an incoherent presentation that made it seem like he was actually alleging that Falwell’s first sexual experience had been with his mom (of course, it was crucial to his case to establish that he’d published that as a parody and had not intended anyone to take it seriously as an allegation of incest between Falwell and his mom!) and one was his actual trial testimony, in which he was coherent, lucid and said what he needed to say to win the case. In the end, Flynt is acquitted of libel but found to have “inflicted emotional distress” on Falwell, and he insists on taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court — which he does, eventually winning a unanimous verdict (the idea that any highly charged, publicly controversial case could be decided by the Supreme Court unanimously these days seems pretty unbelievable in and of itself) that awarding a judgment against someone for “inflicting emotional distress” on a public figure through something they published about him is a violation of the First Amendment. (I was especially impressed with the actor who played Justice Antonin Scalia, Rand Hopkins, and after the movie I joked that the Republicans could hire him to impersonate Scalia on the bench, say, “Oh, he didn’t die — that was just a rumor,” and use that as an excuse not to hold confirmation hearings on Obama’s appointee to replace him, Merrick Garland — “We don’t have to fill the vacancy because there isn’t one — Justice Scalia is still alive!”)

The People vs. Larry Flynt is as quirky in its credits as its story — the director, Milos Forman, is best known for his Academy Award winners One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, and while going from a biopic of Mozart to a biopic of Larry Flynt may seem like a major step down, both were figures who often cheekily defied the powers that be of their times and both were highly sexual (Carter Harman’s history of classical music wrote that when Mozart was on tour he often wrote his wife Constanze telling her how much he missed her, “and the content of the letters made clear the way in which he missed her most”). The screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, had previously written Tim Burton’s biopic Ed Wood, and though Larry Flynt was a commercial success instead of a commercial failure, they bring the same sensibility, the same love of the uniquely American oddball, to this film. Though much of The People vs. Larry Flynt is trying — the long sequences of Larry and Althea at home in their mutually destructive relationship that ends with her drowning herself in their huge, ornate bathtub (production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein deserves credit for making the Flynt home as monumentally tasteless as usual for people from their background who suddenly come into money) are like watching the proverbial slow-motion train wreck — but the film is stunningly directed and beautifully acted. (Woody Harrelson in particular is as right for this part as he was wrong for Haymitch Abernathy in The Hunger Games and its sequelae.)

Charles noted that The People vs. Larry Flynt is not just a good movie, it’s an interesting history of how social attitudes towards explicit sex in the media changed over the decades from what they were when Hustler started to what they were when the film was made — even though since then porn has been democratized by the Internet, to the point where Flynt himself has said that someday the Internet will put Hustler out of business (and he’s claimed to have diversified so much that 90 percent of his company’s revenue today is non-porn). There are also artful touches like having Flynt speak an (uncredited) quote from Lenny Bruce in his rally for “Americans United for Free Speech” (a Flynt front group to support his case) that “if you believe anything you can do with your body is wrong, then blame God, because the fault lies with the manufacturer”; having Flynt refuse to swear on a Bible to tell the truth in court because he now regards himself as an atheist and won’t take an oath on a book he doesn’t believe in (he’s instead allow to “affirm” that he’ll tell the truth, an exception to the oath requirement originally made for Quakers, who aren’t allowed to take secular oaths); casting Woody Harrelson’s real-life brother Brett as Flynt’s brother Jimmy; and dramatizing the $1 million offer Flynt made as a reward for finding the real killers of John F. Kennedy. (According to an “trivia” poster, the Harrelsons’ father has been a prime suspect in the assassination by some conspiracy theorists.) Kudos also to cinematographer Philippe Rousselot for shooting the film colorfully instead of forcing it into the abominable past-is-brown look that seems to have become the movie world’s default visual style for everything. At times The People vs. Larry Flynt is a bit of a trial, but for the most part it’s a superb entertainment that balances social comment and sleaze better than Flynt’s publications ever did!