The People vs. Larry Flynt

A couple months ago I went to see a taping of George Strombolopolous Tonight (formerly The Hour) with special guest Larry Flynt. It was a pretty cool experience to see a bit of television magic behind the scenes (before interviewing Flynt Strombo taped intros for previously filmed sequences – i.e. introductions for his interviews with Bradley Cooper on Monday, Paul Martin on Tuesday, etc) and to see up close and personal the infamous publisher (and tireless defender of the First Amendment) of Hustler magazine.

Despite having difficulties speaking (his speech is quite slurred – presumably from a few years of painkiller abuse and the gunshot that paralyzed him), Flynt was a charismatic and controversial figure – calling Sarah Palin’s mentally-challenged child a “vegetable” and being completely unapologetic for his magazine’s more questionable content (Strombo brought up a spread that depicted a simulated rape based off of a real case – Flynt shrugged it off). It was an unforgettable introduction to the man and it instantly became apparent how polarizing he can be.

Milos Forman’s 1996 film The People Vs. Larry Flynt focuses on the publisher’s multiple legal woes and his steadfast conviction that he wasn’t doing anything wrong. An outspoken proponent of the First Amendment, Flynt found himself serving prison sentences and committed to a psychiatric institution, all in the defense of his right to shock and offend. In one of the most thought-provoking scenes of the movie Flynt speaks at a rally for “Americans for Free Press” (his brother: “Nice of them to invite you,” Larry replies: “You idiot, “Americans for Free Press” is me. Who do you think is paying for all this?) about the supposed “obscenity” of Hustler’s photos:

“Murder is illegal, but if you take a picture of it you may get your name in a magazine or maybe win the Pulitzer prize. Sex is legal, but if you take a picture of that act, you can go to jail.”

It’s an interesting and conversation-spurring point. Why is pornography vilified as the work of Satan? Especially when God, as Flynt notes in the film, is the creator of the supposed “smut” – male and female genitalia.

Woody Harrelson does an incredible (Oscar-nominated) job as Flynt – acting as the rascally playboy mischievously thumbing his nose at the justice system and later as the broken, half-paralyzed man wondering if his antics were worth it. The cast is composed of well-known character actors – James Cromwell, Crispin Glover, Vincent Shiavalli, to name but a few – and the major roles are rounded out with solid turns from Edward Norton as Flynt’s put-upon lawyer and Courtney Love as herself. Scratch that – she plays Flynt’s wife, but most of her performance is spend in a drug-addled stupor with increasingly bizarre outfit choices – presumably Method acting.

This is an important but apparently underrated (and under seen – it only made $20.3 million against its $35 million budget) film about the importance of free speech laws – not only do they protect our right to express our opinions, but they protect the right to express unpopular opinions. Good thing for Larry too – otherwise he might’ve been in court again for that “vegetable” comment.

Grade: A

Side note: The People vs. Larry Flynt may be the best courtroom drama I’ve seen – mostly because the court sequences are unpredictable and actually interesting. The time the movie spends away from the courtroom dealing with the minutiae of running a pornographic magazine (always make sure the issues end in even numbers as pages have two sides) is frankly less involving than the heated legal debates, and probably purposefully so. The soul of the movie is asking why Flynt is getting punished when the worst crime he is committing is schooling lower-class Americans in female anatomy – and requesting the protection to do so.

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