Great Movies: The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

By Christian DiMartino

I was not alive during Larry Flynt’s quote-on-quote “reign of terror” during the 70s and 80s, and I was barely alive for the theatrical release of Milos Forman’s The People Vs. Larry Flynt (the film was released a little over a month after I was born). Having said that, it no less undermines the effect that Forman’s film has had on me, and my respect towards film. There are little to no similarities between the real Flynt and myself, and yet the film about his gigantic, catastrophic life has been a favorite of mine for the past 11 years or so, and with the very recent passing of Flynt himself, it seemed like a very ample time to talk about Flynt and Forman’s film once more.

I say once more, though to my knowledge, there is a good chance I have never written about this film on here before. Having said that, if you know me personally, I have never STOPPED talking about this film. My first viewing of this was when I was in middle school, not long after I’d seen my favorite movie at the time (and perhaps favorite movie of all time), Magnolia. Having been a fan of Forman’s after seeing another favorite, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The People Vs. Larry Flynt deepened my respect even more. Here it is, I’ll say it: The People Vs. Larry Flynt is the greatest biopic I have ever seen. A bold claim, yes, but here is a film that tells the story of Flynt’s controversies and less about his background, and yet through these controversies we still get a complete sense of who the man really was. To further that, Forman’s film does a completely tricky and audacious, and yet beautiful thing: it centers the film on two characters that, in many ways, are asking you to dislike them, and then magically happens to ground them in likability. You may hate the real Flynt or love him, but after seeing The People Vs. Larry Flynt, chances are you’ll respect the man. As I, perhaps a perverse weirdo too, do.

Said two characters are Larry and Althea Flynt, played by Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love (yes, Kurt Cobain’s potential murderer) in flawless performances. What I love about these characters is, again, these are two people who are not asking to be necessarily liked. In fact, considering their time period, it doesn’t surprise me that they were loathed. Yet the way that Harrelson and Love, along with Forman and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski (Ed Wood, Forman’s Man on the Moon), portray them is what sells it beautifully. Despite Flynt’s own public and “criminal” nightmare, at the center of The People Vs. Larry Flynt is a rather unusual but also oddly beautiful love story. Here are two people who fell in love because of their kinky, similar tastes. Yet throughout, they never lose sight of their love for one another, and despite everything that should pull them apart, they never lose sight of where one another stands, either. It’s a rich, fascinating, and rather devastating character study… if you can find it within yourself to dare sympathize with these characters, as I do.

The film opens with a young Larry and his brother Jimmy as they run a bootlegging service as children. That’s about all you get of them in terms of background (and all that’s really necessary) before a cut to some decades later, as Larry (now played by Harrelson) and Jimmy (played by Harrelson’s brother Brett) are now running the Hustler go-go clubs in BFE, Ohio. It is at these clubs where Larry sets his eyes upon Althea (Love), just young enough to be a dancer, and yet also well within her years of um… experience. Now, surely, there is historical inaccuracy at play, since Flynt had children before he met Althea that are never even mentioned… but it’s all so entertaining and fascinating that the movie clearly didn’t have room for them, and who really gives a damn?

As Flynt and Althea begin a romance, he also begins trying to publish his own magazine displaying the “magic” of his clubs, you know, Hustler Magazine. Playboy was of course a thing at the time, but Hustler took it further in the way that not only did it display nude photos of former First Lady Jackie O., but Flynt also wasn’t afraid to provide images of female genitalia. Both of which led to Flynt’s ultimate rise to power, making him a millionaire. Yet they also led to his downfall, as he is ultimately imprisoned for it. The film also follows his religious conversion (don’t ask), his recovery from an assassination attempt, his involvement with the DeLorean trial, and his court battle with Rev. Jerry Falwell, which led to a Supreme Court battle towards this First Amendment.

Whatever I found interesting about The People Vs. Larry Flynt as an eighth grader I still find interesting 11 years later. Forman’s film is a masterpiece- my favorite of his, actually, and yes I’m aware that this is the man who made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, both of which won the Oscar for Best Picture. I love both of those films with my whole heart, and yet my love for this film is a little deeper, if only marginally. The People Vs. Larry Flynt is so successful in such odd ways. It’s hugely entertaining, even though it’s strictly Pro-Flynt (today, people would welcome Flynt with open arms). It tells a love story that is anything but conventional. It’s absolutely hilarious, even despite the tragedy at its center. Yet it expects you to feel the tragedy, and feel the tragedy I do.

Yet even the tragedy is interesting in The People Vs. Larry Flynt, because most might stop and say, “Well, didn’t he do it to himself?” Yes, he did. Yet also, no. Flynt pushed the envelope in a time filled with uptight Squares, and yet the Squares couldn’t handle it. Said Squares made him pay for it, and at every turn, Flynt fights back against those Squares, which only puts him further in jeopardy. Yet no matter what, no matter how stubborn he may be, Flynt stood his ground. This material, oddly enough, was Forman’s bread and butter. Think about it: his first American film, Taking Off!, was about a group of hippie teenagers who ran away from their parents; Cuckoo’s Nest revolved around a guy who thrived on rebelling against the Nurses at the mental hospital; Hair was a hippie musical, in the backdrop of ‘Nam; the late Howard E. Rollins Jr. rebelled against those around him in Ragtime; and Forman’s follow-up to Flynt was Man on the Moon, which revolved around Andy Kaufman, rebelling against the general public’s idea of comedy.

This material also very well suits Alexander and Karazewski, who have yet to score an Oscar nomination despite writing some of the most entertaining biopics of all time, such as the aforementioned, along with Big Eyes and Dolemite is My Name. Yet at the end of the day, the film belongs to Harrelson and Love. Edward Norton, in his second film role, is excellent too as their their lawyer Alan, who sticks with him beside the madness. Yet Forman had a lot of faith in Harrelson, mostly known for comedy at this point in time, and Love, mostly known for drug addiction and music at this time. Together they both pulled off two flawless performances that provide two people who are full-blooded, and fully dimensional. Harrelson in particular though. How he didn’t win the Oscar will always remain a mystery to me. Harrelson is an American treasure, and he received a pass for life from me after seeing this film. If you haven’t seen this lost treasure, see it, and then you’ll know why.

Two Oscar Nominations: Best Director and Best Actor (Harrelson)

P.S. For anyone who has seen it, do you ever sit through the end credits? Gary Wright’s Dream Weaver is a banger, and it holds an oddly haunting spell over the end credits of this film, I’ll never not sit through it.

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