Published January 1, 1997
The People vs. Larry Flynt is one of Hollywood’s more typical propaganda films—which is to say one which makes it too easy on itself. Unlike, say, Dead Man Walking, which was a very untypical propaganda film, it does not play straight with us. It stacks the deck in favor of its hero, Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson), whom it makes in defiance of all that we know about him, a pretty lovable guy. The Christians who try to close him down, however, are all sanctimonious hypocrites and, in the case of the S & L fraudster and anti-pornography crusader Charles Keating (James Cromwell) crooks. The fine words in favor of freedom of expression may all be true. I believe they are true. But it is too easy to whip up enthusiasm for them when we find that it puts us on the side of fun guys like Larry Flynt and makes us opposed to a bunch of blue-noses and oily hypocrites.
In fact, Larry Flynt is not a fun guy. According to his daughter, whose own rights of free speech he has tried to suppress, he sexually abused her, forced her to pose naked for his magazine when she was only 19 and threatened to kill her if she took her story public. From this film you would not know that he had a daughter. I don’t quarrel with the authors’ right to alter history so as to make a better movie, but cleaning Larry Flynt up does not make a better movie. It makes a worse movie. All the way through the argument is basically this: that Larry Flynt is a scumbag (he proudly claims the title himself), but if free speech means anything it means the right of scumbags to speak too. It is an admirable point of view which the film then goes on to obscure by making the man only a theoretical scumbag. We never see him actually being one.
Oh sure, we know that he publishes very dirty pictures, but we never see any (the film had to hang on to its “R” rating, after all). He loves his wife, Althea (Courtney Love), even though he insists on his rights to sex with other women—a stipulation to which she readily agrees. “Do you think I’m talking about monogamy?” she asks incredulously when he draws back at her proposal of marriage. Yet it turns out that, so far as anything we see in the film, they are monogamous, and very much in love. When, after Flynt is shot and paralyzed and she contracts AIDS, there is never a moment’s discussion of where she got it. The only bad things we ever see Flynt doing are cocking a snook at authority and having temper tantrums, most of them after he has been shot and might be thought to have good reason for them. In short, a fun guy—at least to watch.
I happen to think that the Christians, and the Rev. Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul) were wrong to try to suppress Flynt’s rights of free speech. It only made him more of a celebrity and enabled him to say, as he does at one point in the picture, “I’ve turned the whole world into a damn tabloid.” Actually, he must share the credit with a great many others, all of whom have the same instinct for stirring up the opposition of the likes of the Moral Majority. But this does not mean that the Moral Majority do not have a point, or that they are all hypocrites and crooks. To pretend that they are is to sacrifice the serious point that a film like this has to make to mere facile propaganda.
Edward Norton does a good job as his faithful attorney, Alan Isaacman—another decent guy who, like Flynt himself, has his moment of glory arguing and winning before the Supreme Court Flynt’s case against a lower court’s ruling that he pay Falwell $200,000. But the courtroom triumph is, like the brave champion of free speech himself, just another cinematic cliché. “I would love to be rememberd for something meaningful,” says Flynt emotionally to his lawyer. And so it’s on to the Supreme Court. He has made the world safe for pornographers! Is that meaningful enough for you?
Althea’s death is also played for its poignancy, even though she was a pathetic junkie. She hardly ever looks pathetic here, and what we remember is a video tape of her telling Larry that “I’ll never be old and ugly” when he asks her to pose for the camera so that she can remember what she looked like when she was young. “You’ll be old and ugly.” And, lo! it came to pass. She is forever young. They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old. It’s all just a little too easy.