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The People vs. Larry Flynt(1996)
At the twilight of the sexual revolution in the U.S., a sex industry entrepreneur named Larry Flynt leveraged a small string of Ohio strip-clubs into the beginnings of a publishing empire. "Hustler" magazine's publisher, a grade-school dropout and Kentucky redneck, was nobody's hero, but circumstance would cast him as the era's last crusader. It was a role that brought Larry Flynt both ruin and glory. Flynt becomes the unlikely champion of the First Amendment when he takes his fight against the Rev. Jerry Falwell all the way to the Supreme Court.
For more about The People vs. Larry Flynt and the The People vs. Larry Flynt Blu-ray release, see the The People vs. Larry Flynt Blu-ray Review published by Michael Reuben on June 25, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton, James Cromwell, Crispin Glover, Brett Harrelson
Director: Milos Forman
» See full cast & crew
The People vs. Larry Flynt Blu-ray Review
The Godfather of Trash Talk
Reviewed by Michael Reuben, June 25, 2011
If a writer made up Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, no one would believe the story, which is why it makes a great movie. The most outlandish events in the film actually happened, while the condensations and composite characters that are essential when a long life gets reshuffled into a two-hour film are almost entirely logistical (such as one magazine editor taking the place of many). The film was skillfully crafted under the direction of two-time Oscar winner Milo Forman, who was tempted out of retirement by the juicy screenplay by Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszweski; the performances are complex and authentic, resulting in multiple award nominations (and more than a few wins); and the reviews were ecstatic.
So why didn't the film do better? And why does it seem to have faded from people's memory? Like Flynt's life, the movie's path took odd turns. Its creators expected to be attacked by the same conservative forces that opposed Flynt in the Seventies and Eighties, but by 1996 those forces had bigger fish to fry in Washington - and the landmark 1988 Supreme Court decision that Flynt won was not only sound constitutional law, but it also supported everyone's right to hack away at public figures with impunity. No, the attacks on People vs. Larry came from the opposite direction: from feminists who had long denounced Hustler's treatment of women as sex objects and pornography's use of women generally. For these critics, Flynt's First Amendment victories were far outweighed by the fact that his entire media empire was founded on the the exploitation of half of humanity. They were willing to accept reasonable limits on speech as a response to what they perceived as a clear and present danger to the victims of Flynt and the male audience to which he pandered.
But there's a problem with People vs. Larry for anyone with an agenda, and it's this: The film is hugely entertaining. It's a classically structured bio-pic of a complex man you'd never want to work for, but who's a riot to watch. And by getting you to keep watching Flynt (brilliantly embodied by Woody Harrelson, poised on a knife edge between vicious and charming, canny and crazy), the movie humanizes someone that his opponents would prefer to have us see as the devil incarnate. Making the target of a militant opposition seem human, even though hugely flawed, is one of the most effective counterattacks. Maybe that's why feminist groups mounted an intense campaign in 1996 to discourage viewers from seeing the film, after it was a hit in limited release. A human Larry Flynt was the last thing they wanted. The box office stalled at $20 million, and the film, budgeted at $36 million, was a financial disappointment.
The film shows Flynt's dirt-poor beginnings in rural Kentucky as a kid selling moonshine with his younger brother, Jimmy. Then it jumps forward to 1972 when the brothers (Harrelson and his real-life brother, Brett) are running a string of strip joints in southern Ohio called the Hustler Go-Go Clubs. They aren't making any money, but they enjoy sleeping with the women they employ, and Harrelson doesn't hold back from portraying Flynt as a scumbag with a twinkle in his eye.
One day a new dancer named Althea Leasure appears, and Flynt's world changes. Althea is played by Courtney Love, a personality who evokes reactions as complex and sometimes as negative as Larry Flynt. But Love's performance as Althea won her a shelf of critics' awards and is unlike anything I've ever seen. The studio fought ferociously against her getting the part, and ultimately it took a combination of director Forman and producer Oliver Stone - four Oscars between them, as the screenwriters note in their commentary - standing in the office of the studio head and demanding that she be hired. Even then, Forman, Harrelson and the producers had to agree to pay her steep insurance costs personally.
As portrayed by Love, Althea is Larry's equal in wackiness and depravity and by far his superior in emotional intensity. All of their scenes together crackle with a kind of fierce uncertainty, because there's a sense that anything can happen. (In his commentary, Harrelson describes with admiration how Love could be different on every take, even without changing the dialogue.) As it happens, when he meets Althea, Flynt has just had the idea to create a "newsletter" to publicize his clubs. The newsletter becomes Hustler magazine, which Flynt envisions as a blue collar answer to Playboy. Sales go nowhere until, one day, an Italian freelance photographer calls offering nude photos of Jacqueline Onassis. With that, Flynt discovers the combination that will make Hustler a success: porn plus tabloid journalism.
With success came legal trouble, and the second act of the film is devoted to Flynt's long battles with blue noses. One of his chief adversaries in Cincinnati is Charles Keating (James Cromwell), a pious prig who would later become the face of the savings and loan scandal of the Eighties. After his first arrest, Flynt meets Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton), the lawyer who will eventually argue his landmark Supreme Court case. Isaacman is a real person who has represented Flynt for years, but in the film he stands in for the small army of lawyers representing Flynt and Hustler in states across the union. It was while leaving one of these legal proceedings in Lawrenceville, Georgia, that Flynt was shot by a sniper who has never been apprehended. Flynt has been paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair ever since.
At the time of the shooting, Flynt was, improbable as it may seem, a born-again Christian, having been converted by Ruth Carter Stapleton, the sister of President Jimmy Carter. In the film she is played with just the right touch of celebrity flair by Donna Hanover, then-wife of then-New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani. The shooting undid Flynt's religious conversion, and he disappeared with Althea into a five-year haze of painkillers. When he emerged, freed from pain by a surgical procedure, Flynt kicked the drug habit and embarked on a new phase of his career: professional provocateur.
Hustler had made Flynt wealthy, and he began using his money to cause trouble. Among his most notorious stunts was leaking the tape of car manufacturer John DeLorean buying cocaine from the FBI to CBS News. His outbursts during court proceedings over the tape landed Flynt in a psychiatric facility. While there, he was sued for libel and emotional distress by the Rev. Jerry Falwell over an ad parody portraying Falwell losing his virginity to his mother. A split jury verdict resulted in a Supreme Court appeal, which is the film's finale. Taken directly from the transcripts, performed by Norton with the controlled passion that the real Alan Isaacman must have felt when he stood before the Court, the sequence is a sophisticated primer on First Amendment law. It could legitimately be used in a high school civics class.
Still, the heart of the film remains the relationship between Larry and Althea Flynt, and that story ended tragically. Althea didn't live to see her husband's Supreme Court vindication. She had died of AIDS-related causes the year before.
The People vs. Larry Flynt Blu-ray, Video Quality
At this stage of Blu-ray's life, there's no excuse for cramming a 130-minute film onto a BD-25. If Sony had kept People vs. Larry, it would have used a BD-50, but smaller publishers like Image are willing to risk video quality to save a buck. In this case, Image seems to have gotten away with it. I watched the disc looking for signs of compression artifacts, but didn't see any. However, my screen is 72", and it's possible that projection at a larger size will reveal defects I didn't see.
The 1080p AVC-encoded image appeared detailed and film-like. The film's clever production and costume design use the awfulness of Seventies fashion and decor to accentuate the humbleness of Flynt's beginnings and the unabashed crassness with which he challenged Playboy's hegemony among skin mags. As Flynt became more successful, his taste didn't improve, but he had more to spend, and the sets become bigger and grander accordingly. The Blu-ray allows one to appreciate, to an extent that hasn't been possible since the film was in theaters, Patrizia von Brandenstein's production design, Arianne Phillips numerous costumes and the convincing make-up that ages the various characters (the team was led by Ben Nye). The fine detail in many of the hideous checked and striped polyester patterns is one of many indications of the image's quality.
Black levels are generally good, as is shadow detail, although there are very few scenes in low light, and this may be one reason why Image was able to get away with a BD-25. Flynt liked his world bright and colorful, and to maintain a consistent palette through the film, cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot managed to find ways to make even courtroom scenes appear other than dully monochromatic.
The People vs. Larry Flynt Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Though made in the era of discrete multi-channel surround, People vs. Larry does not have an active sound mix. Indeed, the film's sound design is almost old-fashioned in its focus on dialogue and its confinement of sound effects to the front soundstage. Even the sequence at the big Fourth of July party Larry throws at his Ohio mansion is sonically restrained, despite multiple opportunities to feature the sounds of fireworks, crowded rooms and a mini-orgy in a jacuzzi. The rare moments when the entire soundfield comes alive are musical, to emphasize (or, in some instances, take over entirely) a key emotional moment. The music may be a classical selection, a piece of underscoring by Thomas Newman, or a period-appropriate selection like Gary Wright's "Dream Weaver". There is nothing to fault in the DTS lossless track.
The People vs. Larry Flynt Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The features have been ported over from the special edition DVD released by Sony in 2003. However, not everything has been included, even though Image re-released the Sony special edition with the entire array of features in December 2010. Omitted from the Blu-ray are two featurettes entitled "Free Speech or Porn?" and "Larry Flynt Exposed". Maybe if Image had used a BD-50, they would have had room.
The People vs. Larry Flynt Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
To its credit, People vs. Larry didn't sanitize Flynt or make him an artificial hero. If the film has a weakness, it's that American society has moved on, and the issues that made Flynt a scandalous figure are almost quaint by today's standards. Volumes of material far more lurid than anything Hustler ever published are just a few clicks away on the internet, and rhetoric such as Hustler directed at Falwell has become common parlance in the blogosphere, safely shielded by the Supreme Court decision of which Flynt is so proud. Even judges aren't immune. When a justice who joined the Supreme Court after Hustler v. Falwell retired recently, one critical commentator wrote: "The nation loses the only goat fucking child molester to ever serve on the Supreme Court in David Souter's retirement." That commentator was subsequently hired by CNN.
That's the First Amendment for you. If you want to understand how we got here, see The People vs. Larry Flynt. The movie is recommended, and so is the Blu-ray.
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The People vs. Larry Flynt Blu-ray, News and Updates
• And Justice for All, Jawbreaker, The People vs Larry Flynt Blu-ra... - January 5, 2011
Image Entertainment has announced that on April 5 it will release Blu-ray editions for three catalog titles from the Sony Pictures Home Entertainment library: ...And Justice for All (Norman Jewison, 1979); Jawbreaker (Darren Stein, 1999) and The People vs. Larry ...
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