Porn in the U.S.A.


New York--


"I NEVER BOUGHT Hustler in my life, and I don't think I ever will," says director Milos Forman apropos of his film The People vs. Larry Flynt, a Hollywood bio-pic of the legendary porn publisher and half-witting First Amendment rights activist. It's early October, and Forman is speaking along with his Flynt, Woody Harrelson, after a screening of the movie at the New York Film Festival. Appropriately, the off-site location for this festival press conference is a plush multiplex theater within the cavernous Virgin Megastore--where one could purchase, for better or worse, millions of examples of the health of American free speech. The topics of discussion: liberty and capitalism. "I'm not interested in Hustler," Forman says, "but I am interested in the idea that someone could tell me not to buy it."

How intriguingly odd it is to find Forman stumping for a major studio's holiday product. He hasn't made a movie since the uncommercial Valmont in 1989; and the last time he was invited to the NYFF was 30 years ago, when he brought The Firemen's Ball (1967) over from Czechoslovakia. On the other hand, given the narrative resolution of the Eastern bloc, it makes sense for the Czech émigré director to fix his sights on the vulgar epicenter of the new world market--the entertainment industry--in his movie and his own career. And if he can turn out a hit in the process, all the better. "For me," Forman says, "the most important thing about Larry Flynt was that there was a love story, that it was funny, and then, finally, that it was saying something. I didn't want to make a preachy or didactic film about the freedom of the press."

Actually, Larry Flynt is all of the above, in the sense that it works hard to sell us on the notion of its "smut peddler" as a libertarian patriot and, believe it or not, a practitioner of family values. (Only in America, indeed.) At the same time, this rather perverse contradiction in genres--a principled, romantic comedy-drama set in the porn industry--meets the sensitive demands of the mainstream by shaping its subject's life into the most irresistibly old-fashioned of American success stories; it follows an enterprising Kentucky redneck who built an empire from the toilet up, married his leading lady (Courtney Love), and became paralyzed by an assassin's bullet before finding God, losing his mind, and battling arch-nemesis Jerry Falwell in a series of hilariously anarchic court cases.

As a celebration of anti-establishment lunacy, Larry Flynt fits snugly with Forman's Amadeus, Hair, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Yet the movie is also a shrewd amalgam of all its talent, incorporating the sympathy-for-the-weirdo approach of Ed Wood's screenwriters (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) along with the semi-satiric bombast of co-producer Oliver Stone and, as you may have heard, a few sordid details from Courtney Love's own biography.

Speaking of Love, whose brilliantly vivid turn as the drug-addled Althea Leasure seems to draw on something more than Method, her conspicuous absence from this promo session probably reflects the studio's attempt to cultivate some mystique on the long road to her inevitable Oscar nomination--the buzz of which had started building even before Larry Flynt was finished. Nevertheless, she's present in the praise of her co-workers. "I just love her and admire her," Forman says. "She was an actress from the moment we first met, when she knew the entire script by heart. It was amazing. And when we started to work, she was always able to take off and improvise."

Harrelson concurs. "She was unpredictable," he says, "but a total professional. She would ride the edge of her performance and do crazy stuff. The scene when she jumps into the Jacuzzi with me was her improvisation, and when an actor does something like that, there's no telling how much time it could waste if we had to do another take, to get all the costumes dried off and everything. But we didn't have to do another take. It was cool."

Amidst such creative freedom, did the filmmakers take liberties with the facts? "We were true to the spirit of the thing," Forman says, "and in that sense I think we were 100 percent faithful to the reality. I was shocked that so many of these things actually happened. Larry Flynt wearing an American flag diaper in his case against Jerry Falwell, that happened. But what's truly amazing is that, for the first time and the last, the Supreme Court burst out laughing. To me, the real hero in this movie is the Supreme Court of the United States. Everyone else is just human." CP

The People vs. Larry Flynt starts Friday at area theaters.

 
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