Lust in Action: Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt

The People vs. Larry Flynt opened on Christmas Day, 1996. It is the story of a free-spirited entrepreneur who dares to flout every canon of piety and taste. Though his irreverence is rat¬ified by an enormous commercial success, he is persecuted incessantly by hypocritical bluenoses, convicted of absurd charges, imprisoned for contempt, and paralyzed by a would-be assassin’s bullet. Confined to a wheelchair and in constant physical pain, he sinks into drugs, despair, and near-madness, but he never quits, and in the end his perseverance is rewarded by a unanimous Supreme Court victory in a suit brought against him by the most sanctimo¬nious moralizer of the day. Through it all, he is sustained by the great soul-love of his wife, a woman who has overcome poverty and abuse through indomitable spunk, but she dies tragically on the eve of his triumph, and his moment of vindication is made bittersweet by the memory of the more precious thing he has lost. Still, thanks to this man’s determination to stand on his rights when all around him, even his attorney, were ready to give him up, we live in a freer country today.
Well, this was certainly one way to tell the story of Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine and the victor in the famous Supreme Court case of Hustler v. Falwell. “It’s a Capra movie with porn!” was the reaction the movie’s screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, said they got when they first pitched the idea to Columbia Pictures, and they were able to attract an excep¬tional team of filmmakers who evidently shared the sentiment, in¬cluding the director Milos Forman, who had not made a movie since 1989, and the producers Oliver Stone, Janet Yang (who pro¬duced The Joy Luck Club), and Michael Hausman (who produced Silkwood). Larry Flynt is played by Woody Harrelson as a charming, “gotta be me” good ol’ boy who just happens to love the ladies, and who, no matter how much he is made to suffer for it, is simply inca-pable of inhibition or deceit. His wife, Althea, is played by the rock star Courtney Love—the personal choice for the part, Forman let it be known, of Mr. and Mrs. Vaclav Havel. The young actor Ed Nor¬ton is Alan Isaacman, Flynt’s straight-arrow attorney, and small parts are played by James Carville (against type) as Simon Leis, the Cincinnati prosecutor who got Flynt convicted, briefly, on pander¬ing, obscenity, and organized crime charges, and Donna Hanover, then still the wife of Rudolph Giuliani, as Ruth Carter Stapleton, Jimmy Carter’s evangelical sister, who got Flynt converted, also briefly, to Christianity. The real Larry Flynt himself appears in the role of William Morrissey, a Cincinnati judge who once sentenced Flynt to seven to twenty-five years in prison (he served six days). The screenplay adapts Flynt’s story beautifully to the classic three- act bio-pic format (he’s up, he’s down, he’s up), and the courtroom scenes are both plausible and entertaining, which is an extremely rare coincidence in motion picture history. The movie is of course laced with nudity, obscenity, and tastelessness, but it is all, as it were, in the best of taste. Apart from fleeting glimpses of a few well- known images, such as the notorious Hustler cover picturing a woman being fed into a meat grinder, nothing remotely repulsive or titillating is shown. The story may be smutty, but the film is so clean it practically squeaks.
The movie was screened in October 1996 at the close of the New York Film Festival, and the immediate response was enthusiastic. Frank Rich, in the New York Times, called it “the most timely and patriotic movie of the year,” and his column was reprinted, com¬plete and unabridged, in advertisements for the film. Soon after, though, there was a liberal backlash. The Times itself ran a long story, by Nina Bernstein, headed “A Hero of Free Speech? It’s Not So Simple,” in which prominent liberals such as Cass Sunstein and Burt Neuborne, a former legal director of the American Civil Liber¬ties Union who had a small part in the movie as Jerry Falwell’s attor¬ney, criticized the film as one-sided on the free speech issues, and the New Republic ran an article by Hanna Rosin which criticized the film as one-sided on pretty much all the issues. “This Christ-mas,” as she put it, “pond scum is intellectually chic.”
There were several distinct questions in this response. The first had to do with the verisimilitude of the movie itself. It was not im¬peccable. Alexander and Karaszewski, in their introduction to the published screenplay, admitted to a few emendations. Contrary to what is shown in the movie, they confessed, Alan Isaacman was not Flynt’s attorney in all his cases. Nor were the editors of Hustler the same group of people from the start. In real life, Flynt used many lawyers and fired his editorial staff regularly. The screenwriters ar¬gued, reasonably, the need to avoid confusion in a picture meant to cover fifteen years of a man’s life. But there are many episodes in the movie that depart from even the account Flynt himself provided in An Unseemly Man, an autobiography published to accompany the film.
In the opening scenes of the movie, for instance, we are shown ten-year-old Larry—“bursting with a Huckleberry Finn industrious¬ness,” as the screenplay puts it (I think they mean “a Tom Sawyer industriousness”; Huckleberry Finn was distinctly not the industri¬ous type)—peddling moonshine in his native backwoods Kentucky. But Flynt never sold moonshine. When he was sixteen or seven¬teen, he tells us in An Unseemly Man, he made some money driving liquor from a neighboring wet county into the dry county where his family lived—also illegal, but less adorable. In the movie’s account of Flynt’s first meeting with Althea, she seduces him within three minutes right in his office (“So how come you haven’t tried to ball me?” she says), and they have sex there until he pleads exhaustion. The autobiography, by comparison, is positively chivalrous. Flynt asks Althea out after work (“She was coy about it,” he reports) and they spend much of the night just talking. In the movie Althea pro¬poses marriage to Flynt after a bout of group sex in a hot tub; in the autobiography, they are driving somewhere together in a car.

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