[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.