This movie tells the classic Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches story that American culture seems to love. Larry Flynt rises from dirt-poor white trash in Appalachia to strip club owner to gazilllionaire pornography publisher. As the classic story goes, all it takes is an idea and the will to make it happen. Flynt’s idea was to put out a magazine for men who weren’t afraid to admit they don’t look at Playboy “just for the articles.” His strip club newsletter, originally intended to publicize his business, became the highly profitable Hustler magazine. The movie focuses on Flynt’s life with his wife, Althea and on some of Flynt’s legal battles, ending with a victory in the Supreme Court over religious leader Jerry Falwell. I came to this movie having read many recent articles about the film and its protagonist. The articles fall into two classes, the first being praise for the movie with its free speech message, despite the fact that the movie is preaching to the converted. The other class of articles says that while Flynt is shown as a sleazebag in the movie, reality is worse and even though he has free speech rights just like anyone else, he doesn’t deserve to be made into some kind of hero. Hustler, so I have read, is racist, degrading to women (even if you don’t find pornography in general to be degrading), and gross. Important details were changed or ignored by the movie. Althea was Flynt’s fourth wife (out of five), although the movie made it look like she was his only wife. During the Supreme Court case, Flynt didn’t even go to Washington, D.C. The movie has him in the courtroom and talking to reporters outside.
There were some unresolved loose ends as well. An odd subplot had to do with Flynt giving CBS a video tape of former automaker John DeLorean buying cocaine from the FBI. Flynt refused to say how he got the tape. That and his outrageous behavior in court got him sent to a federal psychiatric institution. The main purpose of this episode was apparently to show how lousy Flynt’s life was becoming. But the tape controversy didn’t seem to have anything to do with the movie’s free speech theme. And we never find out the whole story, or even if the real Flynt told the whole story. Another loose end was that after Falwell sued Flynt for libel (over a fake ad in Hustler, implying that Falwell had lost his virginity to his mother), Flynt countersued Falwell for copyright infringement (the offensive material had been photocopied thousands of times, without Flynt’s permission, and sent to Falwell’s supporters). We never find out the outcome of the countersuit.
One might also fault the movie for having no villain. Like our political system, our movie system is two-party: a movie has the good guys and the bad guys. In some sense, Falwell is the villain in this movie, but if he is, he is never given enough credibility or power to pose a real threat to Flynt. The Supreme Court scene was played with a lighthearted, we’re-all-in-the-same-club attitude. It was the moral to the story, summarized (in case you missed the first two hours), not the hard-won victory over evil. Falwell is set up as a straw-man antagonist, then knocked down by the words of Flynt’s lawyer
So while I found the movie interesting and entertaining, the real world kept getting in the way. The problem with biographical movies is that summing up a life isn’t easy. Directors and screenwriters have to pick out a few things from a person’s life and shape it into a story that hopefully will be interesting. The movie and its central characters are certainly interesting. The two main characters, Larry and Althea, are three-dimensional and well acted by Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love. Edward Norton is good as Flynt’s lawyer, the voice of reason. The central message, that even publishers of scummy magazines have rights, is one I agree with. The Supreme Court decision, that parody is a protected form of free speech and that the objects of parody cannot sue for emotional damages, was an important one. So what the hell. It was worth seeing.
Only in America, as the saying goes, would a sleaze merchant get to be the subject of a major motion picture.