The People vs. Larry Flynt

(Milos Forman, USA, 1996)


Don't you just love film reviews that start with the ominous, off-hand phrase "if nothing else"?

It is a sign of what Renta Adler once so devastatingly analysed in Pauline Kael's prose: resentful, grudging praise. For example, an Australian newspaper review of Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996), kicked off with an underwhelming declaration along these lines: "If nothing else, Crash gives the car an immortal place in film history". I am sure that sparkling opener got a lot of people along to Cronenberg's great movie.

Milos Forman's film, The People vs. Larry Flynt, garners an enormous amount of ungrudging praise. But I will say it: if nothing else, this is a film that brings back a sweet memory of '70s American cinema. It takes us back to Forman's Taking Off (1971) and also Michael Ritchie's films of that period, like Smile (1975).

What happened to Forman and Ritchie, and quite a few like them? The '80s were not very kind to them. Their work became more formulaic, or it became big, expensive and miscalculated. In Forman's case, it got sidetracked into a series of unfortunate literary adaptations – E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime (1981) and a version of Dangerous Liaisons called Valmont (1989) that few people in Australia have seen (I caught it on television in Hong Kong).

Not everyone will agree with me on this, but I think the rot started in his career with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975. In Metro magazine (no. 109), the American critic Ronnie Scheib says an intriguing thing about Cuckoo's Nest: for her, it marks the beginning of a dark period in American cinema, the Star Wars-E.T. period, because, as she says, "suddenly in the centre of the film you have someone [Jack Nicholson] whose only function is to read the film for you and tell you how you are supposed to feel". And that is different to the ten years roughly that preceded it – the films of Arthur Penn, Monte Hellman and Bob Rafelson, which for Scheib (as for me) are films of "ambiguities and open-endedness".

This is not where Forman started his career. Those who think well of this director remember his films of the '60s, like Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Fireman's Ball (1967) – gentle social satires, with a nice, wry, affectionate view of people's all-too-human foibles. Forman, as it turned out, could not really parlay that into a career in America. But then along came The People vs. Larry Flynt, which was a godsend of a project for him.

It has a large canvas of characters, it has social satire, a sprawling social mosaic and is a comedy of manners. Perhaps most importantly of all, it is a populist movie, very self-consciously and strenuously about ordinary working class folks, white trash even, on an upwardly mobile path. No matter what you make of the populist line of this film, finally, it has to be admitted that this kind of raunchy "people's movie" is very rare in American cinema.

Popular culture history has been very kind to Forman, delivering him another kind of gift. This movie weighs in as a blow for ordinary people – ordinary guys, in particular – and a blow against the legions of the politically correct. It is a film that basically stands up for the right of the ordinary bloke to read Hustler magazine, which Larry Flynt published. The film not only defends that right, but turns it into a kind of platform, a populist ideology: it's all a question of freedom of speech, Larry's right to send up any public figure he likes in any lewd, tasteless way he likes.

The main plot action centres on the various trials that Flynt (Woody Harrelson) underwent for obscenity and defamation, including a culminating trial in the '80s involving the religious leader Jerry Falwell.

The film never veers from its position: Flynt struts around like Al Pacino in Scarface (1983), bloated and excessive, declaring to the world that he publishes porno, pure and simple, and that he has no taste whatsoever. Tastelessness, low-down dirtiness: these are his badges of honour – and the film's own guarantee of its proud populism. This is not a feminist movie – feminism does not even rate a mention, but it can be safely assumed that, in the deep logic of this story, feminism would sit alongside all that puritanical, middle-class repression that keeps ordinary blokes down.

I have ambivalent feelings about this brand of blokey populism – something that we Australians know, in our context, extremely well. I resent the aggro, the exclusivity, the bullishness of this populist world-view. It is so easy to suddenly find yourself – whatever your intentions – on the wrong side of the populist fence, accused of being some prissy bourgeois.

But, by the same token, I have actually often loved the raunchy, larrikin kick that comes with this terrain. You can find it in another kind of '70s American cinema that I love. Not the art films of Hellman and so on, but the more anonymous trucker movies, drive-in movies, CB radio movies, and Southern "swamp" movies. There is at least one fine American director who crosses this raunchy tradition with the more aesthetic, open-ended tradition: Jonathan Demme, in his terrific Crazy Mama (1975) and Citizen's Band (1977).

But I want to now sidestep this debate about the vices and virtues of populism, and take another angle on The People vs. Larry Flynt. There is another way into this movie, and it is through its scriptwriters, rather than the director. It is penned by the same team that wrote Tim Burton's great Ed Wood (1994): Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. They are clearly a talented young pair. And what remarkable consistency in their projects: two biopics, both about low-culture vultures, anti-heroes in some sense, guys who laboured well below the official watermark of middle-class taste and decency.

Both Ed and Larry are, in a way, mad and deluded; but they both follow their dreams to the point of ultimate glory, even to the point of public vindication – and the ultimate public vindication is the existence of these very biopics. But I like Larry Flynt a good deal less than Ed Wood. That has a lot to do with problems inherent in the modern screen biopic, problems that overwhelm Forman's movie.

A strong biopic temptation has truly gripped contemporary American filmmakers. I do not mean the fairly formulaic, straight-down-the-line, corny showbiz biopics, such as What's Love Got to Do With It? (1993) about Tina Turner, or Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993). Nor do I mean those nutty films depicting Byron and Shelly having a wild night of love, literature and opium – I have seen three films on that subject. I am talking about ambitious American directors with big resources at their disposal – filmmakers like Scorsese, Spike Lee, Barry Levinson and Tim Burton. Scorsese is an extraordinary case, when you consider that Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995) and his film about the Dalai Lama, Kundun (1997), are all in some sense biopics. Perhaps, at a pinch, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), could also be called a biopic. And he is planning biopics of everyone from Gershwin and Frank Sinatra to Howard Hughes and blues legend Robert Johnson.

What's going on here? I think that the biopic, at least in these ambitious cases, brings a powerful dose of reality that completely reshapes the conventional form of the Hollywood movie. These real-life sagas always tend to be sprawling epics. They take us through different decades, cultural epochs, fashions, music and manners. Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992) is the model of this kind of contemporary biopic. There is always a complex graph of changing dramatic moods to go with the changing times. Not just a rise and fall graph, or the eventual attainment of feel-good success, but a complicated up and down of highs and depressions, accelerations and decelerations, private and public spheres. A movie such as Casino swerves off into anything it likes – intimate marital discord or grand mass media mayhem – and basically does so whenever it likes. It is as if the messy structures of life itself, someone's real life story, suddenly allow this kind of wildness, freedom and diversity within the very standardised frame of current Hollywood production.

There are three looming dangers with this contemporary biopic form, and The People vs. Larry Flynt falls foul of all of them.

The first problem is how such sprawling epics tend to fall apart into a succession of discrete chunks that have very little relationship to each other. Watching Forman's film is akin to experiencing a certain very disconcerting dissociation. Flynt suddenly becomes something, gets into something for twenty minutes of the film – and then that whole episode and everything it represents is suddenly gone. There is a whole section, for instance, devoted to Flynt's odd religious conversion at the hands of Jimmy Carter's demure sister, who is somewhat older than him. This event prompts bizarre, lightning-speed scenes of religious ceremonies, scenes of Flynt decking out the Hustler office – and Hustler magazine itself – with lurid religious iconography, scenes of Ruth and Flynt getting suspiciously pally as Flynt's wife Althea (Courtney Love) looks on through squinted eyes. But then, just as suddenly, Flynt is shot on the street, he denounces God and religion, the Hustler office is stripped of its crucifixes, and Flynt enters his decadent, pill-popping, bed-ridden phase. We never see any more of Ruth, and Flynt's religious visions are never again mentioned.

This brings up the second problem: that of the biopic skimming over very important themes, dealing with ideas in a vivid but foreshortened way, not developing these ideas, and never interrelating all these different phases of the main character's life. Here, I would certainly say that Ed Wood is the exception to the rule: it really builds and develops, partly because its time-frame is fairly circumscribed. It is not Wood's life from childhood to old age, as many of these biopics are (The People vs. Larry Flynt, for instance, begins with a vignette showing Flynt and his brother producing and selling moonshine in the woods – the originary emblem of his populist, capitalist business ways). There are an awful lot of topics that Forman's film just mentions, and then skims over. There is, for instance, just one tiny reference to the angry '70s feminist critique of Hustler magazine – and, amazingly, it comes from Larry's own mouth. It is some burble about how he does not want to exploit women anymore. But Althea instantly snaps at him, "exploitation is what you're good at!" And that is the end of the film's treatment of that juicy little theme.

On another level – which is very surprising, considering that this is a Milos Forman film – the movie has trouble bringing a touch of vividness to so many different characters. Flynt has a large entourage, including that truly oddball young actor Crispin Glover (from River's Edge, 1986), and nobody in this entourage really dents the viewer's consciousness beyond the brute facts of their indelibly weathered faces and their chintzy clothes. One of the only characters who does make an impression and grows across the film is the figure of Flynt's lawyer, Isaacman (Edward Norton).

He is an interesting guy – quiet, a bit inexperienced, liberal-minded, the opposite number to Larry in so many ways, and exasperated by his anarchistic courtroom antics so often. But Isaacman's specialty and his passion is civil liberties and freedom of speech; the film's central and ultimate defense of Flynt and his worldview is granted to Isaacman in a quite convincing scene in the Supreme Court. It is interesting and somewhat amusing to see a lawyer portrayed as such a quietly heroic figure – a white-collar hero who earns his place among the blue-collar populists. This portrayal reminded me of one of the best reality-based films of the '90s, Barbet Schroeder's Reversal of Fortune (1990).

The third and biggest problem with The People vs. Larry Flynt is a heavy aura of pointlessness that hangs over much of it. There is a great deal of material in the film apart from the obscenity trials and the free speech issue. But how does it relate or cohere with the main line of the film? The most glaring material in the film in this regard is the relationship of Larry and Althea. It is a cracked love story in the vein of another Barbet Schroeder film, Barfly (1987). The love of Larry and Althea is tawdry, decadent and amoral – they get into every excess of their times – but it is also solid, committed and, in a way, uplifting and reassuring. This is so even when Larry is doped out sick in his gaudy bed, and Althea is lurching in the advanced stages of drug addiction.

I like this part of the film, but it is just, finally, another film. And just because it happened more or less that way in real life, this disarming relationship between Larry and Althea does not automatically mean it is going to find a satisfying place in a biopic.

MORE Forman: The Man on the Moon

MORE biopics: Ali, Auto Focus, The Aviator, Basquiat, De-Lovely, Heart Like a Wheel, I Shot Andy Warhol, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Man on the Moon, Nixon, Pollock

© Adrian Martin February 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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