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The People Vs Larry Flynt (1996)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

If you have trouble believing that a publisher of pornography could be heroic in any way, then The People vs. Larry Flynt is not a movie for you (easily rated R, for many reasons). It is a biographical movie based on the life of Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson) and covers many aspects of his endeavors over a long and legally contentious career. I thoroughly enjoyed a recent viewing of the film, probably even more than I did the first time around, which was close to the time of its original release. However, I’ve always considered myself to be a very anti-establishment individualist, and no fan of the American “right.”

The movie begins Flynt’s story with him pursuing his success as a pre-teen moon shiner in the Appalachian foothills. This takes place long after the repeal of prohibition, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF, now add an E for Explosives regulation too) grew after prohibition was repealed and still attempts to suppress “illegally” produced (untaxed) spirits. Even at this early age Flynt was an enemy of the State. Later, along with his brother Jimmy (Brett Harrelson, Woody’s actual brother), Larry Flynt runs his Hustler Club (a “strip club”). It is while he is promoting his club that he comes upon the idea of a “newsletter.” This newsletter evolves to become the notorious Hustler magazine, famous for publishing things that Playboy would not.

It is at this time that he also meets Althea Leasure (Courtney Love), who was a dancer at his club. They have very complementary sexual proclivities and similar social attitudes and “hit it off” famously and later marry. Through Althea, Larry also meets civil liberties lawyer Alan Isaacman (Ed Norton, in a very early role) when he is arrested for selling Hustler. These early legal battles match Flynt and Isaacman with Simon Leis (James Carville) and Charles Keating (James Cromwell) and their Citizens for Decent Literature in Cincinnati. His legal destiny will carry him further than the Cincinnati case where the actual Larry Flynt plays Judge Morrissey who sentenced him at that early trial.

In the film Larry Flynt asks the question: “What is more obscene, sex or war?” I think the answer to that is simple: war. There should not even be a question. However, such a question seems to hint that there would eventually be a conflict with someone who has written an editorial named “God is pro-war.” It is Flynt’s case with Jerry Falwell which is really the centerpiece of the legal battles of the movie. It is these conflicts that lend an aura of the heroic to Larry Flynt and Alan Isaacman. Without Flynt’s publishing “empire” he would not have had the money or opportunity to take such a case to the Supreme Court to set precedents favoring the freedom of speech in the USA.

With The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Director Milos Forman ( One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) has made another great film. Larry Flynt’s life as depicted in the film is not all heroic legal battles. Also shown is the assassination attempt on Alan Isaacman and Flynt. The consequences of this lead to Larry and Althea developing a heavy dependence on pain relievers. Eventually, as a result of new surgical techniques, Larry recovers from this condition. Althea does not.

There are plenty of tragic elements to offset the heroic in Flynt’s story. However, I believe one thing is fairly uncontestable: Larry Flynt is a “self-made” millionaire. He saw opportunities to fill people’s peaceful wishes in the open market and pursued them successfully. In this he challenged established norms; however, he did no violence to people and did not force them to buy his magazine. In addition, he used his fortune to challenge the establishment and its State on several fronts in addition to censorship. I found The People Vs. Larry Flynt to be a thoroughly enjoyable film and have no trouble seeing the heroic elements in Flynt’s life.

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