A look back at the story of an outsider who stood up for our freedom (to peddle smut).
To celebrate America, we’re taking this entire week to look at how cinema has explored The American Dream. For more, click here.
In the past year, you’ve probably heard some form of the following argument.
“It takes an outsider to shake up the system.”
“You can’t trust the establishment to fix the establishment.”
These words might provoke ire or agreement, depending on whom you associate them with. Is this the rallying cry of Donald Trump (“Drain the swamp.”) or of Black Lives Matter (“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”)? The fact that it could go either way suggests a more general principle is at work. Society depends on misfits, outcasts, and pariahs to expose its hypocrisies. Such was the role of the court jester in medieval times, and such is the role of the artist to this day. These outcasts may be noble or ignoble, though of course, this can be a matter of perspective. They may even be pornographers, like the vulgarian subject of 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt.
Directed by Milos Forman and propelled by an Oscar-nominated performance from Woody Harrelson, The People vs. Larry Flynt tells the story of the Hustler magazine founder’s rise as a “smut-peddler” and his redemption as a free speech icon. Flynt (the character, at least) founded Hustler in 1972 in direct response to what he viewed as Playboy’s pretense of respectability. “Eight million people buy it and no one reads it,” he laments to his friends early in the film, “Gentlemen…Playboy is mocking you.” If Playboy’s long-form articles and tasteful spreads now seem quaint by comparison with the hardcore offerings of the internet, Larry Flynt is at least partially to blame. He rose from abject poverty in Appalachia to a mansion in Beverly Hills by identifying and exploiting a particular American hypocrisy: we consume porn, yet disdain our pornographers. Flynt’s innovation? Give the people what they really want, shamelessly.
Flynt’s tastelessness made him more than a few enemies. Among his most vicious opponents were the serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin, who left Flynt confined to a wheelchair after a failed assassination attempt, and the Reverend Jerry Falwell, who sued Hustler for $40 million after the magazine ran a lewd cartoon about him. The Falwell trial made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Flynt’s favor — an historic decision for free speech. One of the filmmakers’ clear aims in The People vs. Larry Flynt is to celebrate this aspect of Flynt’s legacy, the neglect of which speaks volumes about the American Dream. Consider it: Flynt took himself from rags to riches through a legitimate business, took a bullet and lost the use of his legs for depicting an interracial relationship, and went on to defend the right to free expression before the Supreme Court. Such a man should be an American hero. And yet due to his low-class birth and unconventional lifestyle, respectable culture keeps him at arm’s length.
Of course, Flynt isn’t exactly a saint. Much of his work could be called objectifying, and a few of his gestures — including publishing nude photos of Jacqueline Onassis against her will — are downright reprehensible. But this is precisely the point. A system that only protects its upstanding citizens will soon fail even them. Or as Flynt puts it in the film, “If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, then it’ll protect all of you — because I’m the worst.” Flynt’s awareness of his own odiousness adds a special poignancy to his battles. Unable to make good in the eyes of society, he defends it anyway — by throwing himself on the fire.
Forman, who came to the U.S. after enraging communist censors with satire in his native Czechoslovakia, has long been fascinated with such rebel outcasts. Both Mozart in Amadeus and Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon are ostracized for the quirks of their character in societies unprepared for their genius. And R.P. McMurphy, the iconic protagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is effectively martyred in his attempt to resist authoritarianism on his mental ward. Like Flynt, McMurphy is hardly a saint: he finds himself on the ward for, among other reasons, statutory rape. He could hardly have been a leader of men in regular society. But it’s because he’s an outcast that he’s able to stand up to Nurse Ratched and ultimately find redemption.
To extend the analogy further: perhaps we, in our mindless abidance to social norms, are the mental patients. Like Billy Bibbitt in Cuckoo’s Nest, we are confined not by law but by our own fear. We pay lip-service to freedom but could hardly be expected to defend it. And as our willingness to test the boundaries of our freedom dwindles so too does the integrity of the system that protects it. It takes a rebel like R.P. McMurphy or Larry Flynt to shake us from our slumber and remind us how spineless we’ve become. As Flynt asks a reporter in the film, “Why should I have to go to jail to protect your freedom?”
Americans on both sides of the political spectrum have had ample time to reflect on their hypocrisies in recent months. The left, which has long imagined itself the champion of the underdog, has been forced to grapple with its elitism. The right, once the censorious arbiters of propriety and virtue, have placed an impetuous boor in the White House. Debates over free speech rage on the very college campuses that purport to defend it. Political satire and the free press are both under pressure. So what lessons might we learn about this political climate from The People vs. Larry Flynt?
First, observe the distinction between shaking up institutions to tear them down and shaking them to test their integrity. As Larry Flynt fought against one system, he was fighting for another: one that protected his enemies as much as it protected him. Second, note the difference between the genuine outcast and the one who claims to be an outcast for personal gain. Flynt couldn’t have fit into regular society if he’d tried. Third, separate the rebel’s message from his or her right to say that message. Defend the latter, regardless of how you feel about the former. And fourth, use your freedom. There may not always be people like Larry Flynt to defend it.