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Porn Again

Larry Flynt the movie does something Larry Flynt the man wouldn't: It fails to go all the way

Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt is a rags-to-riches success story with a twist: The recipient of the American Dream is a pornographer who admits to losing his virginity at age 11 to a chicken and is known for saying things such as, "A woman's vagina has as much personality as her face."

But Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt also won an important Supreme Court victory in 1988 that expanded the reach of the First Amendment, which is presumably why a movie has been made about him. I say "presumably" because I don't think the film's wiseass jocularity reflects a deep concern for our free-speech rights. Director Forman has been quoted as saying that the hero of the piece is the Supreme Court, not Flynt, but that's not how it comes across. When at one of his many obscenity trials Flynt says, "All I'm guilty of is bad taste," we're meant to giggle in agreement.

Flynt's saga is tailor-made for hipper-than-thou libertarians. As the head of the Hustler empire he purveyed porn a full notch raunchier than that found in Playboy or Penthouse, and because he supposedly appealed to blue-collar readers -- his crotch shots were wider and his cartoons grungier -- he could be hailed as a porno populist. In fact, Hustler had a higher newsstand price than its more mainstream competitors, and the average income of its readers hovered around $50,000 -- but hey, populism doesn't come cheap. When his obscenity trials started getting national attention, Flynt acquired a civil libertarian cachet. He wrapped himself in the flag -- literally, using it as a diaper in one of his trials -- while also grabbing his crotch. It's the American way.

The People vs. Larry Flynt plays up the highflying Americanness of Flynt's weird saga. Running moonshine as a boy in Kentucky, he graduated to running go-go joints in Cincinnati and then parlayed a sleazoid newsletter into Hustler, which hit the big time when Flynt published nude shots of Jackie Onassis. Over the years he spent $40 million defending himself against everybody from Charles Keating to Jerry Falwell, whom Flynt riled by running a mock Campari ad in Hustler that described how the Moral Majority leader lost his virginity in an outhouse -- to his mother. (This was the free speech that the Supreme Court ultimately upheld in 1988.)

Flynt also hooked up with Althea Leasure, a 17-year-old bisexual stripper in one of his Cincinnati clubs who went on to marry him and help manage his empire. In 1978, when Flynt was shot by a fanatic outside a Georgia courthouse -- rendering him wheelchair-bound for life -- it was Althea's idea to place a photo spread of his wounds in Hustler. Althea and Larry both entered a painkiller twilight zone, but while he kicked his habit, she stayed hooked, contracted HIV and ultimately overdosed in her bath.

Consider Flynt's self-made pasha's privileges, his martyrdom at the hands of a would-be assassin, his abiding love for Althea, his brief fling with born-again Christianity, his poster-boy status in the free speech wars -- I mean, could you devise a better hero's resume for the superannuated counterculture? As Flynt, Woody Harrelson comes across like a wily hillbilly dizzy with his own lewd good fortune. At first he doesn't connect up with the "socially redeeming" side of his legal battles; he's a pornographer and proud of it. But Flynt slowly takes on the trappings of respectability: As time goes on, his raps about free speech become a shade less self-serving. The pitchman begins to believe his own pitch. Even his scuzziness acquires a righteous glow. "If they'll protect a scumbag like me," he announces after his Supreme Court victory, "then they'll protect all of you."

The film allows us to buy into Flynt's self-righteousness and still get our rocks off. In a way, what Forman's doing is giving us a variation on the old DeMille biblical epic approach -- tickle us with depravity and then denounce it. Only here we're tickled with a raunchiness that's then canonized. The People vs. Larry Flynt is an Oliver Stone production, and it has the same two-faced gusto as some of the films he's directed himself. (No, see, we're not glorifying violence in Natural Born Killers, we're condemning it). Actually, the film could have used more gusto -- if Stone had directed Larry Flynt, it might have been a marvel of bad-taste outrageousness. Forman is a bit too tactful, too measured. Forman's making a movie about someone who lacks the ability to censor himself, but he doesn't let his own id pop out of the genie's bottle. There's a square hipsterism at work in Larry Flynt. It's a movie about the Hustler king made by people who appear to have never taken a close look at Hustler. At the end, when choral strains rise during the closing credits, no irony is intended.

Nor is any irony intended in a sequence in which Flynt stages a Fourth of July free speech rally and stands, Patton-like, before a huge American flag. Flynt is a blowhard joker in this sequence, but when we see a video montage of atrocities from Nazi concentration camps, Vietnam and Klan lynchings, the film gets into black-comic areas that it's too callow to handle. I realize a political point is being made here -- in totalitarian states it's the pornographers who get rousted first -- and Forman, whose parents died in the camps, surely understands the gravity of what he's presenting. But there's still something sleazy about the way Flynt co-opts these horrifying images in order to justify his good old boy raunch. The filmmakers, for libertarian reasons and because they admire his kick-ass style, are so solidly on Flynt's side that they don't think to scorch him for his stunt.

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