In the movie, Flynt is initiated into the business of “adult’’ pub¬lishing by a local printer who explains that he can’t just print photo¬graphs of naked women without some sort of text as a legal “beard.” But this story does not appear in the book, nor is there any sugges¬tion there that it was ever Flynt’s intention, in launching Hustler, to publish only photographs of naked women, or that he was naive about anything except the amount of work involved in putting out a magazine. And when Althea dies, by drowning in a bathtub, the movie has Flynt alone with her in his bedroom, tragically unable, because of his paralysis, to help her or to get help. In the book we learn that there was a nurse in the room the whole time.
Then there are those facts of Flynt’s life, magazine, and legal ad¬ventures that are simply elided. Hanna Rosin points out, for in¬stance, that viewers are not told that Althea was actually the fourth of Flynt’s five wives, or that Flynt has fathered five children, none of whom have lived with him, or that Hustler routinely runs cartoons lampooning black people and prints pictures of naked three- hundred-pound women, women with penises, women with diarrhea whose feces are shown running down their legs, and so on. The le¬gal history is similarly selective. Viewers would not know, for exam¬ple, that Hustler v. Falwell, decided in 1988, was not Flynt’s first encounter with the Supreme Court. In 1984, the Court heard argu¬ments in a suit against Hustler by Kathy Keeton, who was the wife of the publisher of Penthouse, Bob Guccione, and whom Hustler had portrayed in a cartoon suggesting that she had contracted vene¬real disease from Guccione. As the justices adjourned, Flynt, whose request to represent himself in oral arguments had been denied, shouted from the audience, “You’re nothing but eight assholes and a token cunt!” He was arrested, though the charges were eventually dropped. In a movie whose director has claimed that “the hero [is] the Supreme Court of the United States,” this would seem a rele¬vant episode.
If completeness and verisimilitude were the standards, of course, no movie or novel based on “real-life” events would ever pass the test. A movie isn’t supposed to reproduce the facts; it’s sup¬posed to dramatize them, and the question for the viewer is sub¬stantially the same in the case of a movie claiming to be based on historical events as it is in the case of a movie that concerns a topi¬cal subject but is otherwise fictional. It is whether the essence of the movie experience somehow squares with, or “gets at,” the essence of the lived experience. It’s a mistake, I think, to assume that what we’re meant to be “getting at” in The People vs. Larry Flynt is the real Larry Flynt. That was the way the filmmakers sometimes talked about what they tried to do, and the movie does have a bio¬graphical structure. But this is mostly because a movie about a per¬son is much easier to get people interested in seeing than a movie about an issue. What matters isn’t whether the real Larry Flynt is a smut peddler with a heart of gold or merely a smut peddler with a wheelchair of gold, something that is probably indeterminable any¬way. What matters is how we are led to think about the phenomena with which Larry Flynt’s life happened to intersect in the period covered by the movie, which runs from 1972, when Flynt was oper¬ating a string of striptease clubs in Ohio, to 1988, when the Falwell opinion was handed down—that is, pornography, the religious right, and First Amendment law.
The emphasis of the movie is almost entirely on the development of First Amendment law, and especially on the legal matter at issue in Flustlerv. Falwell—which explains the enthusiasm of commentators like Frank Rich. On the subject of pornography, The People vs. Larry Flynt seems to have nothing more to say than that it’s a harmless amusement which some people have a taste for and some people don’t, and that the people who actively seek to suppress it are a good deal more dangerous than the people who produce it. On the sub¬ject of the religious right, the movie regards Jerry Falwell as a smug pomposity, but it is careful not to cast him in a particularly lurid light—a treatment it reserves instead for Charles Keating, who, be¬fore he became famous for his involvement in the savings-and-loan scandal, was once a vigorous antipornography crusader, and was Flynt’s real-life nemesis in Cincinnati back in the 1970s.
This emphasis on the law rather than the pornography is ar¬guably warranted by the fact that Hustler v. Falwell was not an ob¬scenity case; it was a defamation case. The fact that Flynt was the publisher of a raunchy magazine had no bearing on the legal issues involved. The case arose from a parody of a Campari ad. Campari used to market its product with advertisements featuring celebrities who spoke, in a mock interview format, about their “first time”— meaning their first drink of Campari, but suggestive of their first sexual experience. In 1983, Hustler published a parody of this ad that featured Falwell, who was made to disclose that his “first time” had been with his mother, and that the memorable event had taken place in an outhouse. He was also made to admit that he often preached while drunk. The piece was listed as “fiction” in the table of contents, and underneath the ad, in small type, were the words “Ad parody—not to be taken seriously.”
Falwell sued in United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia, his home state. His complaint listed three grounds for recovery: invasion of privacy (that is, the appropriation of his name and face for commercial purposes), libel, and the in¬tentional infliction of emotional distress. After a raucous trial—fea¬turing a surreal deposition of Flynt, who, heavily medicated and in prison on an unrelated contempt citation, began by giving his full name as Christopher Columbus Cornwallis I. P. Q. Harvey FI. Apache Pugh, and proceeded to offer, over Isaacman’s objec¬tions, a considerable quantity of uncensored and self-damaging tes¬timony—the jury found for Flynt on the invasion of privacy claim (since the appropriation was not made for purposes of trade) and the defamation claim (since no one could be expected to believe the ad), but for Falwell on the third count, intentional infliction of emo¬tional distress, and it awarded him $200,000 in damages. The ver¬dict was upheld on appeal in 1986, and the case went before the Supreme Court in the following year, where, in a unanimous opin¬ion written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, the emotional distress judg¬ment was finally reversed.