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'Larry Flynt': An Unlikely Hero Porn in the U.S.A.

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 27, 1996

Larry Flynt went from rags to riches, from born bad to reborn, and in his most unlikely metamorphosis yet the hillbilly hustler has wriggled from his chrysalis, no longer a pornographic worm but a soaring champion of the First Amendment.

"The People vs. Larry Flynt," an enormously entertaining and surprisingly touching bio-pic starring Woody Harrelson, practically canonizes the Pappy Yokum of sexploitation.

Few will be astonished to learn that Oliver Stone's company, Ixtlan, produced this raunchy red-white-and-blue-wrapped homage to the porn publisher as unsung patriot.

Though Flynt's political opponents were plentiful and though many were feminists alarmed by Hustler magazine's depiction of sexual violence against women, there's little evidence of thoughtful critics here. In the film, most of his foes are middle-American stuffed shirts and ladies who spend their time making jello molds.

Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski don't depict their antihero as an angel, but they do revel in his vulgar invention, much as their screenplay "Ed Wood" gloried in the bad taste of the world's worst director.

Harrelson, who played hustlers in "White Men Can't Jump" and "Kingpin," brings the zeal of an evangelist to his rollicking take on Flynt, who ironically becomes a pulpit pounder in promoting his own beliefs. More importantly, though, Harrelson allows the character tenderness and love, pathos and loss, and dignity after shame.

The rise of little Larry, born poorer than dirt, from boy moonshiner to girlie magazine magnate would have made for a Horatio Alger centerfold. "Only trying to make an honest living," he tells a boyhood chum in the picture's prologue.

The phrase becomes an apologetic mantra over the course of the story. As a businessman, Flynt has an animal cunning, a vulgar mind and an X-rated tongue. Add to that his contempt for the Establishment, and you've got a First Amendment test case waiting to happen.

It doesn't take Flynt and his brother Jimmy (Harrelson's brother Brett) long to stir up the good people of the heartland, who aim to shutter his string of sleazy strip clubs in southern Ohio.

Future S&L wheeler-dealer Charles Keating Jr. (James Cromwell) and a zealous right-wing Cincinnati prosecutor (played adequately by James Carville, who should hold on to his day job as a political hustler) take up the crusade when the brothers publish a promotional handout for the strip joint called Hustler Newsletter, which launches Flynt's publishing career.

A good old boy with a strong sense of loyalty, Flynt brings his redneck entourage and his future wife, Althea Leasure (stupefyingly adept Courtney Love), along for the lucrative ride.

From the start, the group sees Hustler as the working man's answer to the glossy pretensions of Playboy. Along with low-rent playmates, the magazine offers anatomically correct fairy-tale characters and crude satire. When Althea and Larry concoct a ribald parody in which the Rev. Jerry Falwell lost his virginity to his mother in the cramped confines of an outhouse, the beatific televangelist rains down Old Testament wrath and litigious brimstone.

Falwell wins the first round, and the case winds up in the black-robed laps of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. When they rule in Flynt's favor, the world is a safer place for Beavis and Butt-head. Just one of many courtroom battles portrayed here, the Supreme Court session is more of a civics lesson than a dramatic climax. Above all else the film is a moving if kinky love story. Though Larry and Althea were far from monogamous, their devotion to one another never once falters.

Asked if he has any regrets, the crippled widower admits to only one: losing AIDS-stricken Althea to a drowning accident.

But like her husband, Althea is an unlikely hero. The role is played with easy vulgarity by grunge rocker Love, who was born to flooze. She is clearly a woman who is comfortable with her own body and connects in a remarkable way with the character.

Though Flynt tells Falwell, "Judge not lest ye be judged," the filmmakers are far from nonjudgmental themselves. Milos Forman, a Czech-born emigre who lost his parents in the Holocaust and fled the Communists in the late '60s, makes Flynt's cause his own. Firsthand experience has taught him, he says, that pornographers are always the first target of fascists. Forman treats Flynt with enormous affection, accepting his foibles and forgiving him as if he were the prodigal son.

Anti-porn activists, on the other hand, are portrayed as small-minded busybodies panting to peek beneath the Flynts' smutty covers. Forman, who pitted rogue against Establishment with far more finesse in "Amadeus," has allowed a bit of a zealot behind the lens here. How much stronger the message would have been had the contest been on a more level playing field.

The People vs. Larry Flynt is rated R for language, sex, nudity, drug use and violence.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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