Although they both flaunt a sense of personal style that hasn't changed much in the past two decades, Gloria Steinem and Bob Guccione tend to part ways on most other matters. So it comes as something of a surprise that the founders of Ms. and Penthouse magazines have both seen fit to attack The People vs. Larry Flynt, Milos Forman's critically praised film (Oliver Stone is a producer). Steinem and Guccione's beef--part of a growing backlash that may end up denying the film its expected handful of Oscar nominations--is that the movie, in its efforts to plump up Flynt as a First Amendment hero, sanitizes the gamier aspects of his life and work as the creative force behind Hustler magazine. "Larry Flynt the Movie is even more cynical than Larry Flynt the Man," Steinem wrote in the New York Times, and the current issue of Penthouse promises to reveal "the real Larry Flynt." It includes an interview with Flynt's former brother-in-law, who accuses Flynt of, among many other things, considering a hit on Guccione (there's the rub!) and molesting one of his own daughters when she was 12 or 13. A second daughter--Flynt has five children and has been married four times--has also accused him of abusing her, a charge Flynt vehemently denies.
The People vs. Larry Flynt skips over such details, although it is probably no more untruthful than most Hollywood biopics (to give but one example: in real life Eva Peron actually spoke most of her lines). "Dramatizing Larry Flynt was walking a tightrope--include too many contemptible events, and the audience turns off," concede the film's screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, in an introduction to the published version of their script. Its climax revolves around the libel suit filed against Flynt by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, which led to the famous 1988 Supreme Court decision saying it's O.K. to poke fun at public figures, even to say--as Hustler did of Falwell--that they have sex with their mothers in outhouses. I, for one, am grateful to have that right, although not so grateful that I didn't get restless when the movie's narrative drive petered out and the third act turned into little more than a pep rally for free speech.
But what kind of free speech is being vindicated here, if not tacitly celebrated? "All I'm guilty of is bad taste," says the movie Larry Flynt, who, as portrayed by Woody Harrelson, is an outrageous but lovable American original. Judging from the film, almost the only thing that distinguishes Flynt's magazine from those of competitors like Guccione and Hugh Hefner is that Hustler's nudes are presented as nature intended, without benefit of airbrush or Vaselined camera lens. "The problem in this country," the movie Flynt proclaims, "is that sex [is considered] bad and ugly and dirty...If you don't like vaginas," he adds, "complain to the manufacturer." He means God.