The People vs. Larry Flynt

Biopic depicts landmark court case

"One man's vulgarity is another man's lyric." That's how Josh Wheeler, associate director of The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Speech, introduced the screening of The People vs. Larry Flynt this past Friday at the Virginia Film Festival. The film, directed by two-time Academy Award winner Miloš Forman, is a biopic about Larry Flynt, who founded Hustler magazine and became one of America's leading activists for adult entertainment and free speech. To honor the 15th anniversary of the film's release, Flynt himself led a discussion after the screening. As both the film and the Q&A revealed, Flynt remains one of the most controversial figures in America and a living testament to the freedoms of speech and expression.

The People vs. Larry Flynt is by no means a cinematic masterpiece, but it does do an impeccable job presenting the complex political and social issues which surrounded Flynt's turbulent career. The film follows the evolution of Hustler magazine from a short newsletter into one of the bestselling adult magazines of all time. Flynt, played by Woody Harrelson, continually pushes the envelope by refusing to confine to social norms and by publishing, essentially, whatever he wants. He goes out of his way to shock Hustler readers, featuring sexual depictions of Santa Claus, the Wizard of Oz, biblical characters and most famously, a Campari ad featuring televangelist Jerry Falwell's first sexual encounter - an Oedipal evening in an outhouse. Falwell sued Hustler for libel, leading to the titular court case, which Flynt won in a unanimous decision protecting the freedom to publish satire.

Along the way, Flynt is accompanied by his lawyer (Edward Norton) and his rambunctious wife Althea (Courtney Love). Harrelson delivers a riveting performance as the complicated protagonist - Flynt even said Harrelson "plays me better than I play myself." Regarding the film's accuracy, Flynt affirmed that the film was very realistic, although he noted that Hollywood always takes certain liberties to sell tickets. From free speech to porn, love and evangelism to drugs and AIDS, The People vs. Larry Flynt is truly a tour de force that artfully traverses the life of a contentious and important public figure.

Following a round of applause at the film's end, Flynt, who was paralyzed from the waist down after a 1978 assassination attempt, was wheeled on stage in his signature gold-plated wheelchair.

Among other topics, Flynt talked extensively about his Supreme Court case and his strange relationship with Falwell. Flynt, who earlier in life vehemently despised Falwell, apparently became friends with him after the trial, coming to think of him as "a big teddy bear."

As a welcoming gift for Flynt's return to the University - he came 11 years ago for a talk with Falwell - a time-lapse film played at the discussion's end showing Flynt's face in front of the Downtown Mall's monument to the First Amendment. The event ended with a standing ovation from the entirety of Culbreth Theater. Whatever you personally think about Flynt, you have to give it to the man: he's got chutzpah, and he was willing to take it all the way to the Supreme Court to protect First Amendment rights.

Published November 10, 2011 in Arts and Entertainment, tableau

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