Every once in awhile, a film comes along that's much greater than its subject. 1996's THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT would certainly qualify in that genre.
Woody Harrelson was nominated for Best Actor as one of America's most lowly smut peddlers who somehow became a touchstone for freedom of speech.
Director Milos Foreman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ragtime) introduces us to Larry as a young boy, running moonshine with his brother with an eye for profits.
With more business sense than common sense, the adult Larry begins his career running strip clubs, where he meets young Althea, superbly played by real-life rocker Courtney Love.
When Larry gets the idea to make an adult pamphlet, then a magazine that will disregard the 20 year legacy of Playboy to create something targeted much lower, Hustler magazine and an empire are born.
Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, the current American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace) have created a brilliant screenplay that never denies the fact that Larry is a lowlife porn peddler. In fact, Flynt himself never denies it. He knows who he is, embraces it and watches the millions roll in.
Larry's gift was for sensationalism, publishing the first nude photos of Jackie O, releasing videotapes of a police sting, offering the dark side of his customers a peek behind the curtains to satisfy their most salacious urges.
Edward Norton is terrific as Larry's lawyer, Alan Issacman.
Larry tells Alan, "I'm your ideal client. I'm rich, I'm fun and I'm always in trouble." But he's also a nightmare client, showing little respect for the court in his many appearances.
When Alan and Larry are both shot outside a courthouse by a would-be (and never apprehended) assassin, Larry becomes a paraplegic and sinks into a years long, drug-fueled darkness, with he an Althea holed up in his massive mansion behind bank safe worthy steel doors.
When Larry finally emerges from his drug haze, he is determined to take Hustler to new heights, or depths, depending on your perspective.
Its fascinating to watch a talented cast of actors portray real people. James Cromwell (The Green Mile) is terrific as the far right, decency campaigner Charles Keating, who would eventually be jailed in a real estate fraud scheme that cost taxpayers billions.
Richard Paul was primarily a TV actor in the 70's and 80's but he has the role of his life here as evangelist Jerry Falwell, who sues Flynt in a case that ends up going all the way to the Supreme Court.
The final twenty minutes, recreating that Supreme Court hearing is amazingly well written and acted, with Norton at his best as Larry's long-suffering lawyer given his moment on the biggest legal stage in our country.
Harrelson gives arguably his best performace as Flynt, never trying to humanize or make the porn king any more redeemable than he was. He captures Larry from his youthful, ignorant enthusiasm to his older, disabled and angry, slurred persona.
Courtney Love matches him scene for scene and I was really surprised how good of an actress she was, portraying Althea from 17 years old through her slow death from AIDS.
As Flynt says to a crowd outside the Supreme Court hearing, "If the first amendment can protect a scumbag like me, it can surely protect all of you".
Larry's emergence as a history making champion of free speech in America could not have been fortold. It's nearly as surprising as how great a film has been made about someone so despicable.
As you'd expect based on the man at its hard core, this is an adult film, unflinching in its nudity, drugs and profanity. As you might NOT expect, it's Incredibly well-written, directed and acted and gets an A.
Watch closely for the real-life Larry Flynt as a Cincinnati judge lowering the boom on Harrelson.