Director Defends 'The People vs. Larry Flynt'
Oscar nominee Milos Forman says his controversial film grew out of admiration for the wisdom of the American Constitution
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Milos Forman already won the Golden Globe Award as best director for his controversial new movie, "The People vs. Larry Flynt." And just yesterday, he also earned an Oscar nomination for the same film. Entertainment Weekly magazine predicts Mr. Forman is a "shoo-in" for the Academy Award.
But Forman, honored twice before with Oscars (best director for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in 1975 and "Amadeus" in 1984) is upset about the attacks around the country over the content of his newest film. Since its release late last year, the movie has been heavily criticized by feminists for falsely portraying Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, as only a mildly offensive pornography "rogue," who champions free speech.
Writer Gloria Steinem and others have said that the film sanitizes Mr. Flynt and leaves out any mention of the magazine's well-known "images of women being beaten, tortured, and raped, women subject to degredations from bestiality to sexual slavery." They ask, why should a man who publishes images of violently abused women be treated like a star, as someone who embodies the American dream?
"This is not a film about the dividing line between what is acceptable or unacceptable pornography," Forman said at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government last week just before participating in a debate about the film's content.
"If I had put the worst images in, the studios would never have made the film," he says. "I made this film out of admiration for the beauty and wisdom of the American Constitution, which allows this country to rise to its best when provoked by the worst," he says.
Forman's film is a loosely biographical love story focusing mostly on Flynt's bizarre relationship with his bisexual, drug-addicted wife. Included are his many court battles, and the famous 1987 US Supreme Court case that ultimately protected Flynt's right to outrageously parody the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, in a pseudo liquor ad in the pages of Hustler.
The ad said Mr. Falwell's first sexual encounter was with his mother. Falwell sued Flynt for libel, invasion of privacy, and demanded $45 million for intentional infliction of emotional distress. A lower court awarded Falwell $200,000, but threw out the other two charges.
The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the damage award. It ruled that the First Amendment protected speech that "could not reasonably have been interpreted as stating actual facts about the public figure involved." In other words, the ad was not "believable," and a reasonable person would know the ad was a parody or a caricature. It is the same interpretation of free speech that today protects political cartoonists and all political satire.
Forman, a Czechoslovakian by birth, lived for 20 years under a communist regime and lost his parents in Nazi concentration camps.
"Free speech was lost incrementally," he says. "Each regime opened the door a crack for censorship, just to get rid of smut, they said. It never stays just a little bit, and soon the freedom is gone."
To Forman, pornography is boring, something he thinks appeals mostly to lonely people. What intrigued him as a movie director about Flynt was the ambiguity of a man who would describe himself as a "scumbag" and yet realize that free speech rights had to include him. "If the film was just the life story of Flynt, I certainly wouldn't make it," says Forman. "For me it was very passionate testimony to the importance of the First Amendment."
For Wendy Kaimer, a public-policy fellow at Radcliffe College, and on the panel debating Forman, the movie fails to put Flynt in a larger cultural context. "The film makes the defense of the First Amendment look easy by portraying Flynt as a forthright rascal squared off against the sanctimonious, hypocritical Falwell," she says.
"The challenge for civil libertarians is to convince people to extend rights to people they hate. I think the movie shrinks from that job to the extent that it does romanticize Flynt," she says, "and lacks the courage of its convictions."
When Forman challenges Ms. Kaimer to illustrate a "romanticized" scene, she calls attention to a scene in which Flynt, played charmingly by actor Woody Harrelson, stands before a crowd and a huge screen alternating between slides of the horrors of war and nude women. "Which is obscene?" asks Flynt of the images.
"Of course the war images were more obscene," says Kaimer, "but if some of the more vicious pictures from Hustler were shown, it would have been a harder question."
Forman says that what precedes the scene is a disclosure that Flynt has paid for the audience to be there. "He is a demagogue," says Forman, his voice rising, "and the most dangerous demagogues are always the most charming, otherwise why would so many people believe them?"
"The People vs. Larry Flynt" was made for $34 million, a fairly modest sum by Hollywood standards. In its first five weeks the film has earned less than $14 million compared with a less controversial film like "Jerry Maguire," which has earned $104 million in six weeks.