FREE SPEECH ACTIVIST? SADISTIC SMUT KING? OSCAR NOMINATIONS FOCUS THE SPOTLIGHT ON THE CONTROVERSIAL SUBJECT OF THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT
By BENJAMIN SVETKEY
Photographs by MARY ELLEN MARK
Flynt (in ’79) says of his first choice to play his wife, Althea, that rather than Courtney Love, “I was thinking Courteney Cox.”
LARRY FLYNT, THAT pioneer of gynecological photojournalism, is holding court in a goldplated wheelchair on the patio of his 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 items still dangling price tags (including a $51,000 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, 54, who for 23 years has controlled one of the world's most controversial pornography empires, 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 bath in 1987, the movie all but portrays Flynt as a dodgy but likable freedom fighter whose legal battles secured absolutely the US Constitution's First Amendment, the law which in part guarantees the country free speech and a free press.
Best Actor nominee Harrelson during the filming of Flynt 's 1977 baptism as a born-again Christian. (The conversion was not eternal.)
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: As well as Oscar nominations for Harrelson as Best Actor and director Forman, the New York Critics Circle gave Love a Best Supporting Actress Award. In January, Forman snagged a Golden Globe for Best Director, while Flynt writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski won Best Screenplay. Meanwhile, Flynt himself has become a Hollywood cause celebre, 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 glamorisation of a violent misogynist, and in the US launched a strong campaign against the film when it was released two months ago. The first grenade was lobbed in January in The New York Times by feminist leader Gloria Steinem, who argued that the movie is nothing less than a colossal whitewash. Steinem wrote of graphic Hustler features depicting rape and violence, commenting that in the film ". . . 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..." Steinem also contended that if Flynt published similar images with men "portrayed as deserving and even enjoying their own pain and degradation" or even with animals as the subjects, the film would never have been made.
Not surprisingly, the article made quite a splash, sparking a media controversy, while activists picketed the film in San Francisco. In fact, the anti-Flynt blitz 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.
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 the go-ahead on. Stone jumped in as producer in 1993 and 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," he says. Even the Columbia Pictures studio suits were happy with the concept. "The studio people were laughing and jumping up and down," recalls co-writer Karaszewski (he and his partner also wrote Ed Wood). "They said stuff like, 'It's 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.)
103T-003-015 Grunge band frontwoman, Courtney Love as Flyint’s fourth wife, Althea Leasure.
Tom Arnold, Jim Carrey and Tom Hanks were also considered before Stone hit on the idea of hiring his old Natural Born Killers buddy, Harrelson. 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."
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 Flynt himself. "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.'"
The script that emerged concentrated on the years 1973 to 1988- Flynt's rise to the top of the porn world, his string of obscenity arrests, the assassination attempt that left him paralysed from the waist down, and, finally, his Supreme Court victory over religious campaigner and Moral Majority leader 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 him talking about "his first time" having sex with his mother.) "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."
But here's the rub: Karaszewski and Alexander really did remove the pornography-at least the truly hardcore stuff. Hustler's up-close-and- 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 anti-Semitic and racist overtones-one Hustler cartoon showed a black man reaching for a watermelon on a giant mousetrap--is also nowhere to be found. Some other titbits 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. (OK, so maybe some things actually are better left unmentioned.)
Still, it's not just Steinem and Co who are crying coverup 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 criticising it-not to mention going on the talk show Larry King Live with Flynt for an all-smiles showbiz "debate". "I hear it has a scene of me giving a press conference with [antiporn campaigner] 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. "It's totally dishonest. It's the Watergate of movies," says Steinem. "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?"
Director Forman (left, on set with Harrelson) was “just fascinated” with Flynt’s story.
Naturally, the men who made Flynt think differently. Stone's reaction is to question Steinem's sense of humour. "She's making exactly the same mistake Faiwell made," says the producer. "She's taking it seriously when it's supposed to be ridiculous."
"You know, when you make a history lesson," says Forman, "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 low-life, 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 hard-core 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 man wheeling around his estate really doesn't look much like the Flynt you see on screen-though Harrelson did nail his warbling 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."
Additional reporting by DAVE KARGER and TRICIA LAINE