Reality vs. Larry Flynt

What really happened.
Jan. 25 1997 3:30 AM

Reality vs. Larry Flynt

Exactly how airbrushed is the movie's hero?

(NOTE: "Life and Art," a new department, will compare movies, books, etc., with the facts on which they ostensibly are based.)

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"What makes this movie so effective is that it doesn't sentimentalize or airbrush Larry Flynt," wrote Frank Rich about The People vs. Larry Flynt in the New York Times. "What is the point of making a film about the founder of Hustler that airbrushes both him and his magazine?" wondered Katha Pollitt in The Nation.

Who's right, Rich or Pollitt? How sharply does the film diverge from real life?

Like most biopics, The People fudges lots of little details. For example, in the film, Hustler's staff remains more or less constant--whereas, in reality, the masthead was constantly changing. But composite characters are a cinematic device commonly used to reduce audience confusion and maintain narrative momentum. It's pretty harmless when actor Edward Norton's character, Alan Isaacman, stands in for the numerous lawyers Flynt hired through his ongoing court battles (which numbered more than the four the film describes). However, serving as the all-purpose lawyer required Isaacman to take a bullet that never actually hit him. In real life, it was Gene Reeves Jr. who was shot, along with Flynt, during the publisher's 1978 obscenity trial.

Of more significance is the accusation that Milos Forman's film turns the wholly unappetizing Larry Flynt into an aw-shucks, lovably pigheaded guy. There the critics are on firmer ground. Although Woody Harrelson, playing Flynt in the movie, cheerfully describes himself as a scum bag, the movie clearly wants to have it both ways on this, and sanitizes Flynt's life in order to do so.

Flynt in the movie is an innocent who wakes up one day and discovers he is a rich publisher. But the story behind the real Flynt's fortune may not be so storybook. The Cleveland Press reported in 1978 that Flynt had launched his publishing empire with the financial help of vending-machine companies that allegedly were linked to organized crime. Shortly after Hustler made Flynt a millionaire, he decided to distribute the publication himself. In 1977, Flynt began to distribute a few titles not owned by his company. He sold his distribution company last July for a reported $21 million. The Washington Post reported back in 1977 that "the fraternity of wholesalers and national distributors" viewed Flynt and his alleged strong-arm tactics (his brother supposedly beat up a wholesaler who couldn't pay) as "an unwelcome addition to the scene." But that fraternity might have included some rough players itself. A book by former Penthouse Forum editor John Heidenry, titled What Wild Ecstasy--The Rise and Fall of the Sexual Revolution (to be published in April by Simon & Schuster), claims that Flynt's move angered the Mafia, which controlled the distribution of many men's magazines. Heidenry also reports that Flynt was in debt to mob moneylenders.

The film leaves puzzlingly open the question of who might have shot Flynt in 1978, paralyzing him, and why. At the end of the film, on-screen typescript announces that his assailant was never brought to justice. Yet, Flynt's case was investigated, and most press accounts consider it closed. Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist currently serving six life sentences for murder (and the man to whom the right-wing paranoid cult classic, The Turner Diaries, is dedicated), made a jailhouse confession in Flynt's shooting. A grand jury indicted Franklin in 1984, but he was never tried. He was considered an escape risk at trial, according to law officials (and he was in prison indefinitely, anyway). Franklin does have a history of confessing to crimes all over the country. He has also confessed to shooting Vernon E. Jordan, then president of the National Urban League, in 1980, a crime for which he was acquitted in 1982. Nevertheless, Flynt, at least, believes that Franklin shot him.

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A fter the assassination attempt, the movie's Flynt holes up in his Bel Air mansion with his wife, Althea, and they both start taking morphine and pills. So far, so good. But the movie's Flynt stops his drug use cold turkey after a 1983 operation to cauterize his nerves, suggesting he had shot up only to alleviate his physical pain. Flynt himself says in his recent autobiography, An Unseemly Man, that he continued self-medicating even after his wife overdosed--indeed, until after his most recent nerve-cauterizing operation, which was in March 1994. He also says he was taking amphetamines as early as 1964--well before he was paralyzed--and "spent much of my life hyped-up, doped-up, or drunk."

Flynt's marriage to Althea was his fourth of five, although from the movie, you'd think it was his only one. The film's portrayal of Flynt as a quasifeminist enlightened male depends in large part on its portrait of Althea, played by Courtney Love. In the New York Review of Books, Louis Menand suggests the filmmakers "went out of their way to remake Althea Flynt" as a way to award Hustler a place it doesn't deserve in the sexual revolution. The film positions Althea and Larry as intellectual and emotional equals. He retains the right to sleep with other women; so does she. At the magazine, she has extensive editorial input (which is true). Even after he is paralyzed and their sex life comes to an end, their love endures.

Their actual relationship was more complicated. In the movie, Larry hits Althea once; she tells him never to do it again, and he doesn't. But Heidenry writes that Larry beat Althea more than once, and she told Hustler that she didn't see anything wrong with a "man striking a woman." In the film's account of Althea's 1987 bathtub death, Larry propels his wheelchair into the bathroom and tries to save her. His memoir says he asked a nurse to check on her. The nurse told People in 1987 that she went into the bathroom and then "ran to Larry, who was asleep."

And children. The film gives the impression that Flynt has none, although he has five--to the best of his knowledge. One of them, Tonya Flynt-Vega, has accused him of sexually molesting her and, in an interview in the current issue of Penthouse, Flynt's former brother-in-law accuses him of molesting a second daughter.

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T he main point of critics such as Gloria Steinem (who wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times) is that the film sanitizes Hustler's unsavory sexuality. Even the most cursory look at back issues of Hustler confirms that the filmmakers seriously misrepresent its content. The images we see or hear described in the movie are vaguely countercultural (a Santa-with-an-erection cartoon), not sick (Hustler's real-life jokes about Betty Ford's mastectomy); they are soft-core (centerfold-style nudes), not hard-core (the pictorial of a woman gagged and bound on the top of a car). The magazine's "humor" often depended on racist and sexist stereotypes, such as wide-grinned, watermelon-eating blacks. Flynt says he was parodying these stereotypes, but the film carefully avoids raising the issue.

The film also exaggerates Flynt's martyrdom for the cause of free speech. One instance: At his 1977 trial, Flynt was sentenced to seven to 25 years for obscenity and for engaging in organized crime. The film portrays the sentencing, and then a prison visit where Althea weeps, "Our bed is so empty." In fact, Flynt spent six days in jail.

As for Flynt's climactic Supreme Court victory against evangelist Jerry Falwell, who sued him for emotional distress, the film sticks fairly closely to the facts. Indeed, the screenwriters borrowed lines from the court transcript. At an earlier Supreme Court appearance, though, Flynt shouted, "Fuck this court!" and called the justices "eight assholes and one token cunt." That transcript didn't make the movie.

Jared Hohlt is an editor at New York magazine.

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