The People Vs. Larry Flynt
Excellent biopic of notorious pornographer; sex, cursing.
The People Vs. Larry Flynt
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A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that The People Vs. Larry Flynt is a 1996 biopic about the infamous pornographer and his First Amendment courtroom battles. Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of sexual content throughout the film. Women are shown nude in the pages of Hustler Magazine, and also during photo shoots and in the strip club Flynt owned before starting the magazine. When Flynt (played by Woody Harrelson) first meets his soon-to-be wife Alethia when she starts working at the strip club, she tells him, "You're not the only one who has slept with all of the dancers." Alethia (played by Courtney Love) is often high on prescription drugs and heroin, with track marks clearly visible on her arms. Larry Flynt is also shown struggling with an addiction to prescription drugs in the aftermath of getting shot by a would-be assassin. Flynt and his lawyer (played by Edward Norton) are shown getting shot in an assassination attempt. There's frequent profanity, including "f--k" and "motherf---er." Flynt's court case that ultimately winds up in the Supreme Court concerns a parody alcohol ad he placed in Hustler in which the televangelist Jerry Falwell is said to have had sexual relations with his mother in an outhouse. While the movie doesn't shy away from the crass, vulgar, and seedier aspects of the life of Larry Flynt, a self-described "scumbag," the movie also shows how Flynt came to be a passionate and uncompromising defender of free speech, someone who chose incarceration over kowtowing to those who tried to censor him. The biggest takeaway is the idea that if Flynt's freedom of speech and expression could be taken away, it would create a chilling ripple effect that could easily extend to stifling criticism of public figures and politicians.
An American Anti-Hero
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What's the Story?
In THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT, Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson) plays the infamous pornographer. In the early 1970s, Flynt owns a strip club in Cincinnati. As a way to drum up more business for the struggling club, Flynt begins publishing a "newsletter" featuring nude photos of the women who dance there. It doesn't take long for Flynt to turn this into Hustler Magazine, and gains a growing "readership" and notoriety for publishing nude photos of Jacqueline Onassis and more explicit photos of women eschewed by the other "men's magazines" like Playboy. During this time, Flynt gets to know one of the strippers in his club, Alethia (Courtney Love), who shares his passion for free love and wild living. As the magazine continues to grow in circulation, local "family values" crusaders like Charles Keating (James Cromwell) decide that it's time to shut down Hustler for violating the standards of the community. Flynt is arrested, presents the beginnings of his outright mockery of courtroom justice, and while out on bail, is represented by the lawyer Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton), who prides himself on being a First Amendment champion, even as he is, on a personal level, repulsed by the content of Hustler. After a stint in prison and another obscenity trial in Georgia, Flynt and Isaacman are shot by a would-be assassin, leaving Flynt paralyzed from the waist-down. Demoralized and addicted to prescription drugs with Alethia, Flynt finds a way to quit drugs cold-turkey after an expensive surgery helps remove the pain he feels. Vowing to use his brain more now that he's paralyzed in the areas he used more often when making editorial decisions for Hustler, Flynt takes a more active role in the editorial side of things. This culminates in presenting the FBI surveillance video of the arrest of carmaker John DeLorean during a cocaine deal, which lands Flynt back in court with the government demanding to know how he obtained the video. Soon after, Flynt comes up with a parody Campari ad in which televangelist Jerry Falwell reminisces about having sex with his mother in an outhouse. This lands Flynt in his biggest trouble yet; Falwell sues him for millions, and the case goes all the way to the Supreme Court. In the highest court in the land, Isaacman must show that while Flynt, a self-described "scumbag," deserves the same rights to free speech as anyone else, and to silence his voice would create a chilling effect that could silence editorial cartoonists, opinion columnists, and anyone who might say something that a public official might take offense to.
Is It Any Good?
This film has stood the test of time, and not just because it's message of protecting freedom of speech has clear relevance to today. Milos Forman's focused and assured direction strikes the difficult balance between not pulling any punches when getting into the sleazier aspects of Flynt's career, and the very serious overarching theme of the movie -- that the right to free speech even applies to self-described "scumbags" like Flynt.
It's interesting to watch The People Vs. Larry Flynt now, as these debates have long since left the pages of pornographic magazines and come into the toxic discourse of the internet and social media. In a time of "deep fakes," hate speech, misinformation campaigns, and real news dismissed as "fake," this movie provokes deep thought and reflection on the continued battle between free speech and censorship, the line between "vulgarity" and "decency," and the different ways we define these terms across the political spectrum. It's entertaining on its own terms, but the true greatness of The People Vs Larry Flynt is in its ability to entertain while also organically conveying this debate through the story.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about biopics. How does The People Vs. Larry Flynt compare to other movies that focus on the life and times of one person?
How is Flynt's lawyer presented as somewhat of an "opposite" character from Flynt? This lawyer tells Flynt, as well as a jury, that he doesn't like what Flynt does, but wants to defend him anyway, in the interest of protecting the First Amendment. How does this message play into the overall message of the movie?
How are the counterarguments to Flynt presented? Do you think the movie fairly depicts the views of those who felt slandered by Flynt's parodies, or those who felt that Hustler Magazine violated "community standards?" What other groups of people do you believe might have been offended by Hustler and its depictions of women and sex? How are all of these discussions relevant to contemporary life?
- In theaters: January 10, 1997
- On DVD or streaming: November 25, 2004
- Cast: Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton
- Director: Milos Forman
- Studio: Columbia Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History
- Run time: 130 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- Award: Golden Globe
- Last updated: March 12, 2023
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