First amendment activist –or sadistic smut king? Dramatic license –or outright dishonesty? With the Oscars approaching, The People Vs Larry Flynt ignites a war of words as feminists attack the filmmakers and the “Hustler” honcho.
January 31, 1997
By Benjamin Svetkey
Picture Editor Doris Brautigan
Breaking the Waves
Woody Harrelson during the filming of Flynt’s baptism as a born-again Christian.
Flynt, during physical therapy in 1979, following the assassination attempt.
Gloria Steinem is an ancient, worn‑out old relic whose only claim to fame is urging some ugly women to march," drawls the man in the 14‑karat‑gold‑plated wheelchair. "If you print anything I say today, print that." This helpful bit of advice is being offered on the patio of Larry Flynt's Hollywood Hills estate, a salmon pink rococo pile adorned with more garish animal statues than a pet cemetery. Inside, the sprawling living room looks exactly like the final scene of Citizen Kane. A mountain of museum pieces -gilded mirrors, baroque birdcages, arabesque lamps‑ spills into every corner, many still dangling price tags (including a $40,000 nude oil painting so tawdry it'd have Titian reaching for the walls to steady himself). "I don't know much about antiques," the infamous porn baron admits, "but I know what I want."
Of course, nobody ever accused the Hustler publisher of good taste‑although these days anything is possible. As you've no doubt heard, Flynt, who for 23 years has lorded over one of the largest, most reviled porno empires in the world, is undergoing an extensive public image makeover, thanks to Milos Forman's film, The People vs. Larry Flynt. Starring Woody Harrelson as Flynt and Courtney Love as his drug‑addicted wife Althea Leasure, who drowned in her bathtub in 1987, the movie all but portrays Flynt as the Patrick Henry of porn, a First Amendment freedom fighter whose Supreme Court case helped make the world safe for democracy‑not to mention crotch shots.
The reviews (including this magazine's) have been mostly glowing ("A civics lesson that will still be regaling film enthusiasts four decades hence," raved USA Today. Now the awards are starting to stack up: Last week Forman snagged a Golden Globe for Best Director, while Flynt writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski won Best Screenplay. There has been much Oscar chatter as well‑even the suggestion that Love might be nominated for Best Actress (she's already won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress). Meanwhile, Flynt himself‑that pioneer of gynecological photojournalism‑has become a Hollywood cause célèbre, a radical‑chic hero for the sexually dysfunctional '90s.
Except… here's the hitch. It turns out not everyone is wild about Larry. Anti-porn feminists are furious about what they see as the glamorization of a violent misogynist, and they've launched a potentially powerful campaign against the film. The first grenade was lobbed on Jan. 7 in The New York Times, with a scathing oped piece penned by ‑that's right‑ Gloria Steinem, who argued that the movie is nothing less than a colossal whitewash.
"Filmgoers don't see such Hustler features as... a woman being gang‑raped on a pool table," the veteran feminist wrote. "Nor do you see such typical Hustler photo stories as a naked woman in handcuffs who is shaved, raped, and apparently killed by guards in a concentration camp-like setting.... You certainly don't see such illustrations as a charred expanse of what looks like human skin, with photos of dead and dismembered women pinned to it…The truth is, if Flynt had published the same cruel images even of animals, this movie would never have been made."
Not surprisingly, the article made quite a splash, sparking a media controversy, with newspapers, Charlie Rose, and the Today show all picking up the story. Activists picketed the film in San Francisco. In fact, the anti‑Flynt blitz has gathered so much steam, even some in the cast seem to be having second thoughts. "I'm a little torn, because I'm a feminist, so I would agree with Steinem on a lot of levels," Love tried to explain at the post‑Golden Globes party, before her publicist dragged her away.
For Columbia Pictures, the film's distributor, the negative buzz could become a major pain in the box office. Although the film had a promising run when it opened last month in New York and L.A., its momentum has slowed since it expanded to 1,233 screens Jan. 10. So far, it's earned only $13 million, about a quarter of what it cost to make, playing particularly poorly in the more conservative South. While Steinem can't take credit for slow ticket sales, there is a way the film's detractors could do serious damage: by turning Hollywood against Flynt and scuttling its Oscar chances. Last week, members of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee bought a full‑page For Your Consideration ad in Daily Variety, reprinting Steinem's op‑ed piece and essentially asking Academy voters not to nominate Flynt. (Variety ad sales director Mike Evans can't recall another anti-Oscar ad in the paper's history.)
Forman and Harrelson on the set.
A controversial biopic. Charges of historical revisionism. Enraged feminists. Can Oliver Stone be far behind? As it happens, the contentious filmmaker is a Flynt producer. "I briefly considered directing it," he says, "but people told me to back off that kind of material. I was sort of being pressured not to do scumbags anymore."
Oddly enough, despite the scumbag factor, Flynt was pretty easy to get greenlighted. Stone jumped in as producer in 1993, after reading a three‑page treatment by writers Alexander and Karaszewski, who'd first hit on the idea while college roommates in the early '80s. Forman, who won Oscars for such iconoclastic classics as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, signed on shortly thereafter. "My enthusiasm was immediate ‑the story just fascinated me," he says. Even the studio suits were suckers for the concept. "We thought it was going to be the worst pitch meeting of all time," recalls Karaszewski (he and his partner have some experience peddling offbeat film bios‑they also wrote 1994's Ed Wood). "But the studio people were laughing and jumping up and down. They said stuff like 'Its Capra with porn! Exactly what we want!' It turned out to be the best meeting we ever had."
Casting was a bit trickier. Bill Murray was first choice for Flynt. "But he wouldn't return our calls," says Stone. "He's a recluse or something." (Murray's agents had no comment.) Tom Arnold, Jim Carrey, and Tom Hanks were also considered before Stone hit on the idea of hiring his old Natural Born Killers buddy. "I couldn't understand why anyone would want to make a movie about Flynt," says Harrelson. "But then I started looking into it and realized I kinda liked the guy. He turns out to have more honesty and integrity than a lot of people I've met." For Althea, the studio pushed Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, or Patricia Arquette. But Stone was adamant about Love. "There was no question she was it," Stone says. "Absolutely none." (Flynt had his own idea about who should play his lost true love: "I was thinking Courteney Cox.")
Love as Flynt’s fourth wife, Althea Leasure.
Meanwhile, the writers began months of painstaking research. "We got every issue of Hustler ever published," notes Alexander proudly. They interviewed Flynt's friends, his enemies, his associates ‑and ultimately Flynt himself, who had by then arranged a handsome consulting deal with Columbia. "Our first meeting with him, we didn't know what to expect," Karaszewski recalls. "He's got these big bodyguards and we expected him to maybe kill us. But all he did was offer little fact‑checking changes: 'On page 9 you have me serving molasses and biscuits in my bar. I served bologna."
After five drafts, the script that emerged concentrated on the years 1973 to 1988 ‑charting Flynt's rise to the top of the porn world, his string of obscenity arrests, the assassination attempt that left him paralyzed from the waist down, and, finally, his Supreme Court victory over Jerry Falwell, a historic decision that enshrined in legal doctrine every American's right to print whatever he pleases‑so long as it's clear he's joking. (Falwell had sued Hustler over its Campari ad parody, which depicted the Moral Majority leader talking about "his first time" having incest with his mom.)
"It's really an amazing story," says Karaszewski. "If you just remove the pornography for a second, it's about a boy born in a log cabin who builds a hundred-million‑dollar empire, gets shot standing up for what he believes, runs for President, and at the end of the day, gets vindicated by the Supreme Court. It's almost a Horatio Alger kind of thing."
But here's the rub: Karaszewski and Alexander really did remove the pornography ‑at least the truly hardcore stuff. Hustles up‑close‑and‑extremely‑personal photo style, its heavy‑duty bondage fantasies, its bestiality drawings ‑most of that is barely hinted at in the movie. And that's not all that got left out. The magazine's racist and anti‑Semitic overtones ‑one Hustler cartoon showed a black man reaching for a watermelon on a giant mousetrap‑ is also nowhere to be found. Some other tidbits that are MIA in the movie: Flynt's three previous marriages, from which he had five children, his manic depression, and his early sexual flirtations with a farmyard chicken. (Okay, so maybe some things actually are better left unmentioned.)
Still, it's not just Steinem and pals who are crying cover‑up over Flynt: Once again, anti‑porn feminists have found strange bedfellows among the anti‑porn religious right. "There's no question that this movie is inaccurate," says Falwell, who refuses to see the film but doesn't mind criticizing it ‑not to mention going on Larry King Live with Flynt Jan. 10 for an all‑smiles showbiz "debate." "I hear it has a scene of me giving a press conference with Charles Keating at the Supreme Court. I don't even know Keating. I met him once."
Steinem claims no love for Falwell "He is not our ally"‑ but she does make some similar points. "The film is a lie," she says. "It portrays Flynt as against violence. But his stock‑in‑trade is violence. His magazine has run photo features of a construction worker drilling a jackhammer into the vagina of a woman. Of a black woman, with clamps attached to her nipples, writhing in pain. There was the famous cover of a woman being fed to a meat grinder. That's the reality. Flynt is a violent, sadistic pornographer, but this film almost portrays him as a hero. It's totally dishonest. It's the Watergate of movies.
"This is not just a different interpretation of a historical figure, like Oliver Stone's Nixon. This is like doing a film about Vietnam in which you say the worst thing about it was that it was tacky, but it really wasn't all that dangerous, and it was actually quite a lot of fun. The movie has very little to do with the First Amendment. That's just window dressing. Any asshole would support the First Amendment. The question is, Why would Hollywood glorify a sexual fascist when they wouldn't glorify Nazis trying to march in Skokie or Klansmen advocating violence, who won far more important rulings for the First Amendment?"
Naturally, the men who made Flynt think differently. "I don't know what Steinem is talking about," says Stone. "Larry is not into violence against women. He puts them in a meat grinder as a joke. Doesn't she have a sense of humor? She's making exactly the same mistake Falwell made. She's taking it seriously when it's supposed to be ridiculous."
"I'm afraid nothing less than making Larry Flynt 100 percent evil would satisfy Ms. Steinem ‑and that's not true about anyone," says Forman. "You know, when you make a history lesson, you have to be faithful to the facts. But when you make a drama, all you have to do is be faithful to the spirit of the facts. And that I am convinced we did."
Ditto the writers. "When you're turning someone's life into a two‑hour movie, you have to leave stuff out," says Alexander. "You have to condense things. But the film is an honest portrait." Nods Karaszewski: "If you meet Flynt, he's charming. He's got that twinkle in his eye. He's not pure evil." Even Harrelson, who says he's a big Steinem fan, thinks she's missing the point. "To me, this movie is a lot like Stone's Nixon. That was about a truly immoral guy, but I came out feeling compassion for him. Same thing with Larry. He's a real lowlife, but there are scenes in which you just have to feel for him."
If this article were a cartoon in an issue of Hustler, the punchline would probably be some sick, smart‑ass joke along the lines of... Will the real Larry Flynt please stand up? But this magazine isn't nearly so tasteless, so let's put it this way: The problem with trying to figure out if the Flynt portrayed in Flynt is accurate is that nobody can agree on who the true Larry Flynt really is. For instance, there's Al Goldstein's Larry: "He's a thug, but he's a lovable thug," says the Screw magazine publisher, a friend for 26 years. "He's very damaged and parts of him are not very nice, but he's got a lot of tenacity and courage."
There's the Larry his underlings know at Flynt Publications: "He's unbelievably cheap," says one. "The joke around the offices is that the sequel will be called The Employees vs. Larry Flynt." And there's the Larry that Althea's sister Marsha Rider and her husband, Bill, an ex‑security chief for Flynt, claim to know: They've been telling anyone who'll listen that Flynt tried to order hits on frank Sinatra, Hugh Hefner and Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, among others. (Flynt denies all charges.)
For the record, the 54‑year‑old man wheeling around his Hollywood Hills estate on this mid‑January day really doesn't look much like the Flynt you see on screen -though Harrelson did nail his warbling, drunk‑sounding speech impediment (lingering from his spinal injury). As in the movie, Flynt is full of blustering charm and raunchy playfulness, as well as an utter immunity to embarrassment (he talks about his youthful chicken fling with nary a blush). Does this make the film more accurate or less? Does it make Steinem or Stone closer to being right?
"The question is, am I a smut peddler or a First Amendment crusader?" Flynt sums up. "I'd say a little bit of both. Some people will always perceive me as a scoundrel with no taste, a dirty old man in the back room cranking out pornography. Others are my ardent fans. Milos Forman calls me a devil with wings ‑maybe that's what I am. All I know is that the debate is never going to go away. Not in my lifetime, anyway."
And certainly not by February, when Oscar nominations are announced. So far, the signals are mixed. While the Golden Globes went well, the Directors Guild snubbed Flynt last week by overlooking Forman in its nominations. But whatever the film's fate when they open the envelopes in March, there is a deliciously rich irony here: The man who spent his entire life making money off naked women is now gambling all his integrity and legitimacy on a little naked man. (Additional reporting by Dave Karger and Tricia Laine)