[Originally published on Mr. Showbiz December 20, 1996]
From Disraeli and The Life of Emile Zola, through Madame Curie, Lawrence of Arabia, and Funny Girl, to Gandhi and Michael Collins, the biopic has been among Hollywood’s most venerated genres — the means of conferring cinematic immortality on history’s superstars and, more often than not, Oscar glory on the enshriners. Also more often than not, the filmmaking has tended to be as stodgy as the subjects were august.
The People vs. Larry Flynt knocks both of those traditions for a loop (we nearly said “into a cocked hat” but, in the present context, that might have been in poor taste). No one could pretend that Larry Flynt — ex-moonshiner, ex–strip-club operator, and owner-publisher of the encyclopedically raunchy Hustler magazine — is a candidate for respectability. And no way would Milos Forman — who previously made the vibrant Amadeus — adopt a conventional, reverential style or tone in bringing Flynt’s life and often dubious achievements to the screen. Yet the surprising, deliciously problematical, and finally exhilarating truth is that Forman’s boisterous serio-comedy attains complexity and, yes, nobility beyond the grasp of most hagiographies. It also ends up persuading us that its outrageous subject has, too.
As the title implies, The People vs. Larry Flynt makes comparatively short work of Flynt’s early history to concentrate on his long-running battles with the self-appointed arbiters of public decency and the United States court system. Which doesn’t at all mean that the film scants Flynt’s florid personal conduct — least of all his long, loving relationship with the bisexual, drug-taking group-sex enthusiast Althea Leasure, whose sardonic intelligence, lowdown good humor, and boundless tenderness are stunningly embodied by Courtney Love in the breakout performance of the year. Flynt is played by Woody Harrelson, whose big-screen career heretofore has been inglorious (to put it mildly), but who manages to take this mixed bag of a character through a challenging range of behaviors and even of physical states, while never letting us doubt that it’s all the same guy.
Oliver Stone co-produced, and the mind boggles at what a strident phantasmagoria might have emerged if he’d directed. Instead of self-righteously identifying with Flynt as a wildman at perpetual war with the Establishment, or fussing up the through-line à la Nixon with multimedia games and stream-of-consciousness backing and filling, the Czech-born Forman brings a Continental sophistication to the party, stylistically and in matters of sexual tolerance. Moreover, this naturalized U.S. citizen who lost family to the Holocaust and a cinematic New Wave to Soviet aggression knows the value of liberty, and of a country founded on the belief that “unpopular speech is vital to the health of our nation.”
The actor who gets to articulate that principle is Edward Norton, playing Alan Isaacman, the lawyer committed to Flynt’s cause even as he is often personally appalled by him. In a way, Isaacman is the audience’s surrogate. Norton’s wonderfully conversational yet piercingly lucid defense of Flynt before the Supreme Court is one of the high-water marks of screen acting in 1996 — and of Americanism, too.
Richard T. Jameson
Mr. Showbiz, December 20, 1996