Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Original American Hustle(r)

Film: The People vs. Larry Flynt
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Once upon a time, I worked in the computer and video game industry. One of the magazines that was a competitor of mine was called Video Games and Computer Entertainment. That magazine was printed by LFP, short for Larry Flynt Publications. What this means is that for about five years, I was a direct competitor of one of Larry Flynt’s magazines. One of the editors at VG&CE was a guy named David Moskowitz. At trade shows, a lot of the magazine guys hung out together. Moskowitz and I traded stories about our bosses to see who worked for the crazier guy. He won most of those competitions, although not all of them. So at some level, I have a personal connection to The People vs. Larry Flynt.

As the title implies, this is the story of pornographer Larry Flynt, best known for publishing Hustler magazine. While there’s a lot here about the early years of Flynt’s career and the building of his empire, the bulk of the film is about his legal troubles and the case that eventually carried him to the Supreme Court. We start with Flynt as a child and immediately jump forward to his strip club in Ohio. Flynt (Woody Harrelson) and his brother Jimmy (Brett Harrelso) aren’t doing well financially. Looking for a new way to publicize their club, they create a newsletter/magazine which eventually becomes Hustler magazine. On the brink of financial ruin, Flynt purchases nude photos of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and suddenly his fortune is made.

It’s not too long before we’re introduced to Althea Leasure (Courtney Love), who is dancing in the club. Larry figures out that she’s underaged, but that doesn’t stop him from almost immediately having sex with her or having her move in with him. And it’s not long after that when Flynt becomes the target of various forms of prosecution for smut peddling of various types. Flynt goes in and out of jail (amusingly, in one scene the sentencing judge is played by the real Larry Flynt), eventually forcing him to retain the services of Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton in one of his early roles). We get Flynt’s spiritual awakening at the hands of Ruth Carter Stapleton (Donna Hanover) and the attempted assassination that leaves him paralyzed.

All of this is well and good, but it really just leads up to the most interesting part of the film, which are his continuing legal battles. Ultimately, Flynt winds up in court for a published parody advertisement in which he has the Reverend Jerry Falwell admitting to a sexual encounter with his own mother. Sued for emotional distress and libel, Flynt loses the distress case but wins the libel suit. He presses Isaacman to take the emotional distress suit to the Supreme Court, and Isaacman initially refuses, citing Flynt’s past courtroom behavior (wearing a flag as a diaper, throwing fruit at a judge, and far more) as being the sort of thing that will not stand in the nation’s highest court. Eventually, though, buoyed by the strength of the case and the knowledge that a basic freedom is on the line, Isaacman acquiesces and takes the case before the Supreme Court.

I wasn’t kidding when I said that this was the film that in many ways started people thinking about Woody Harrelson as an actor seriously—seriously enough to earn him an Oscar nomination. He seems completely natural in this role, sliding into the persona of Flynt with considerable ease. And it’s not an easy role in a lot of respects. Flynt goes through a great deal here, including severe depression, and Harrelson is believable in every part of the role. This is also a film that cemented Edward Norton in movie consciousness as an actor to pay attention to. He’d had solid roles before and was especially notable in Primal Fear; it was this film that essentially announced that his first film wasn’t a fluke.

I should mention the supporting cast as well. The People vs. Larry Flynt is loaded with some great actors in small but interesting roles. Both Vincent Schiavelli and Crispin Glover show up as staff members of the magazine. James Cromwell appears as Charles Keating, who unleashes his legal pitbull played by James Carville. These are fun roles and interestingly cast.

I should mention Courtney Love as well. There’s an uninhibited feel to Love’s performance, but I have a great deal of trouble taking her seriously. I can’t help but think I’d rather have someone else in the role pretty much the entire time she’s on screen. In a sense, she’s an inspired piece of casting, but I’m not sure it pays off as well as it could. Maybe that’s just me and my hangup, and I’ll accept it if that’s the case.

Ultimately, I’m of the mind that The People vs. Larry Flynt is an important film, and it’s the sort of film that may well become important in the future. There are always people who want to strip us of our basic freedoms, many of whom do so in the name of decency, protection of our children, or, ironically, in the name of freedom itself. One of the repeated refrains of the film is Alan Isaacman saying that he doesn’t like what Flynt does, but he likes the fact that he lives in a country where he is free to do it. Freedom is very much about sometimes being confronted with things we dislike and knowing that our own freedoms are dependent on allowing such things to happen. We need that reminder now and then.

Why to watch The People vs. Larry Flynt: A story about one of our most basic freedoms.
Why not to watch: It takes too long to get to the most interesting part of the film.


  1. This is definitely the first film where I realized Harrelson could act. I didn't have the same problem you did with Love, but I saw this back before she had gone as far off the deep end as she eventually did. And I am a big believer in not having censorship and this film hammers the point home that just because you don't like something doesn't mean it should be censored.

    In a sad/slightly amusing, related note, the original movie poster for this film was censored...only in the U.S. It featured an American flag diaper wearing Woody Harrelson in a Christ-like crucifix pose framed against the bikini covered crotch of a woman. Gee, I don't see why they didn't stick with this. :-) Here it is, if you're curious:

    1. I've seen that poster. In a way, the poster that was used in the States is its own dig at censorship.

      I agree on Harrelson. Natural Born Killers was the sort of thing that could easily be taken as a goof, or at least something that wasn't really "serious" acting. This was the film that showed the guy had some real chops.