Lust in Action: Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt 5

These movies were produced entirely for the delectation of men, of course, and when Linda Marciano, the star of Deep Throat, emerged a decade later to reveal that she had performed in that film under duress, she exposed rather dramatically the extent to which the promiscuous woman of the sexual revolution, despite all the popular rhetoric about sexual equality and “no double standard,” was just another male fantasy. In the early seventies, though, when Flynt was entering the sex business as the owner of a striptease club in Dayton, that rhetoric was at its height. Commercial sex—strip¬tease clubs and pornographic movies and magazines—was under¬stood in many minds as the natural consequence of the frank acknowledgment that men and women both enjoy sex. This is the view of the sexual revolution adhered to by the makers of The People vs. Larry Flynt—that Flynt was just being honest about a subject made shameful by prudes and hypocrites. And it is why they went out of their way to remake Althea Flynt.
Who the real Althea was is probably beyond recovering. The Althea of Flynt’s autobiography is the one woman he meets with whom he can share something besides sex, and he makes it rather clear that good sex was not the basis of their relationship. But good sex is the basis of their relationship in Forman’s movie, which imag¬ines Althea as the very type of the female sexual athlete and aggres¬sor of sexual-revolution mythology. That Larry and Althea are sexual equals—that equality is precisely the lesson Althea comes into Larry’s life to teach him—is emphasized in a number of scenes, most notably one (not in the screenplay) in which Larry smacks Althea, early in their relationship, and she warns him never to hit her again. But in fact, the real Althea admitted that Flynt beat her, and she was once quoted in Hustler explaining that “I don’t see any¬thing wrong with a man striking a woman. In fact, many women are turned on by it.”
Getting this wrong means missing the whole point of Hustler’s accomplishment. Hustler was not, in the tradition of Playboy, about sex as play or about sex without moral hang-ups. It was about sex as a kind of violation. The nude photographs of Jacqueline Onassis epitomized the magazine’s view of sex. When that issue of Hustler appeared, the governor of Ohio, Jim Rhodes, was caught buying a copy at a newsstand, and this indiscretion became widely reported, much to Flynt’s delight. The episode is presented in the movie, where it is played as another proof of the fake prudery of official cul¬ture. Rhodes wants to see the pictures, but he is ashamed of it, and this is portrayed as an example of the sort of hypocrisy men like Larry Flynt dare to expose. But it is not hypocrisy. It is natural to want to see pictures of a famous woman naked, and it is also shame¬ful, since the pictures violate her privacy in the most flagrant way. The itch to see the pictures is completely bound up with the sense that it’s wrong, the sense that the itch itself is somehow personally debasing. Far from constituting another step toward a more honest and democratic sexuality, this association between sex and guilt, be¬tween (as Althea was made to say about being beaten) pleasure and indignity, was a throwback to the world before Playboy. Larry Flynt put the shame back into sex.
Jerry Falwell was on the same mission, and the parallel is less su¬perficial than it may sound. Falwell’s relation to the sexual revolu¬tion was, on a certain level, exactly the same as Flynt’s: he, too, hoped to exploit the sense of sin and shame that the revolution had supposedly made obsolete. Falwell would have been no more imagi¬nable without Playboy, and everything that followed from it, than Flynt would have been. They were both sexual reactionaries. The intertwining of the world of televangelism and the world of sex mag¬azines was, in fact, one of the most remarkable phenomena of the period covered in The People vs. Larry Flynt, and it is too bad that the filmmakers didn’t find more to say about it.
Falwell emerged on the public stage when Jimmy Carter, then running for president, confessed in an interview in Playboy to hav¬ing sometimes felt “lust in my heart.” Before Carter’s confession, Falwell had been known mostly in the neighborhood of his native Lynchburg, Virginia, where he had established an immensely suc¬cessful ministry, at the Thomas Road Baptist Church, and where, in 1971, he had founded Liberty Baptist College. Most of his preaching had been directed against alcohol and drugs, but after seeing the national attention he attracted by his public criticism of Carter (who, of course, had identified himself as a born-again Christian), Falwell changed his targets to abortion, homosexuality, and pornog¬raphy. It was an excellent career move.
Carter’s election, in 1976, suggested to many people that outspo¬ken Christianity was a way for even a Democrat to win elections, and in 1979, a group of conservative political and religious figures asked Falwell to head an organization named, by the conservative activist Paul Weyrich, the Moral Majority, whose mission was to mobilize Christian voters on behalf of Republican candidates. The Moral Majority took considerable credit (with what justification re¬mains a matter of dispute) for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and although Reagan was careful not to associate himself per¬sonally with Falwell, he was also careful not to dissociate himself publicly. So that when Hustler ran its ad parody, in 1983, it was not firing off a random attack on someone who had strayed accidentally into its line of fire. The ad was part of a campaign against Falwell, who had already been honored as Hustlers “Asshole of the Month.” For Falwell was not only the personification of the sort of officious sanctimoniousness Hustler’s readers were supposed to enjoy lam-pooning; he also was a man in a position politically to damage the commercial empire of Larry Flynt. Falwell and Flynt were each other’s devils, but they were also each other’s raisons d’etre.

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