The women versus Larry Flynt

After protests from feminists, the most controversial film of the year has bombed in the States. Can the women's lobby really be so powerful? Michael Pye investigates
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You couldn't miss Larry Flynt on Oscar night, with his jewelled tuxedo and his gold-plated wheelchair. There was a chance of Oscars for the actor who played him (Woody Harrelson) and the movie's director (the much-honoured Milos Forman). Larry glowed.

But Columbia Pictures, which made The People Vs Larry Flynt, said they ran out of Oscar tickets before they could mail one to Flynt; he had to be smuggled in by Harrelson. The movie, despite glowing reviews and big studio backing, won not a single Oscar. Having spent $35 million on a movie about Larry Flynt, Hollywood didn't seem to want to know the man at all.

Worse yet, the movie is an American box-office flop. Perhaps because nobody really wants to know any more about the USA's pornographer general, publisher of the notorious Hustler magazine, and his many sexual conquests. But Hollywood gives the credit to feminists: especially Gloria Steinem, and a single article which ran in January in the New York Times.

Steinem called the movie "even more cynical than the man"- akin to producing a biography of Hitler which somehow forgot to mention the Holocaust. She cited Hustler's most notorious images - which include a woman being forced through a meat grinder, one with a jackhammer in her vagina, celebrity women being tortured and unknown women drinking from lavatory bowls. (None of which appears in the film.) "The truth is," she wrote, "if Larry Flynt had published the same cruel images even of animals, this movie would never have been made."

Three days later, the film went from 16 cinemas to 1,233 across the nation. It died. To be exact: the average take at each theatre fell from $4,311 to $1,705. A movie which cost $35 million to make, and another $20 million to publicise, has so far taken only $20,036,079 in America. Add the box- office take in other countries and it still hasn't earned its production costs.

Did Steinem do all this? In the beginning, the studio didn't think so. After all, the columnist Frank Rich had praised the movie - "the most patriotic" of the year - on the same pages and at almost the same length as Steinem's blast. Besides, a bit of controversy usually sells a movie. The truth came home only 10 days later when somebody - whose identity remains a mystery, although it is known that the ad was placed on their behalf by a

Washington lobbying group - paid to reprint Steinem's piece in the film trade paper Variety. It appeared under the same headline - "For Your Consideration" - as the slew of other ads that try to sway Academy votes. It was the only one which asked the Academy to vote against.

Columbia panicked. It went public with ads which attacked the long-established National Organisation of Women for "an orchestrated effort to hurt the film". This didn't work since, as Steinem points out, "When is a $20- million studio campaign evidence of sincerity, while a few voices raised in protest are 'an orchestrated effort'?" Odder still, Columbia must have known that women's groups would use the movie to denounce pornographers. After all, the campaign started long before Steinem's article.

It was the NoW which, in May 1996, produced one of Flynt's children at a press conference to condemn the film even before it was finished. Tonya Flynt-Vega also publicly accused her father of sexually abusing her as a child and a teenager. Flynt told reporters later that Tonya was a "habitual liar who would do anything to get attention". But one thing was clear already; nothing would be easy for a film that made Larry Flynt even slightly respectable. This mattered to Flynt, who has always hungered for a bit of respect; feminists got that exactly right.

Larry Flynt got rich from the stripclubs he ran in Ohio, and from the newsletter he published to pull the punters: Hustler. In some other universe, he might even have seemed a kind of feminist; he disapproved of the air- brushed, lifeless centrefolds of, say, Playboy. But his answer was spreading out ordinary women for ordinary blokes - in a style somewhere between gynaecology and butchery. Hustler helped build a publishing empire. Flynt now publishes 21 magazines, from the predictable Barely Legal (naked women aged 18 to 21, who look younger) to titles which show a real taste for respectability (Laptop PC sounds dubious only because of its publisher; it truly is a computer magazine.)

The irony, and the subject of the film, is that this smut-peddler is credited with helping to save the freedom of the American Press. Hustler published a gross cartoon depicting the preacher Jerry (Moral Majority) Falwell losing his virginity in an outhouse - to his mother. Falwell sued, claiming "intentional infliction of emotional distress." Had he won, satire or even criticism of public figures with thin skins would have become impossible in America. (Indeed, the oddest moments of the feminist assault on this movie came when protesters started fretting over Jerry Falwell's poor, hurt emotions - as Falwell rarely did himself when denouncing gays, abortion doctors, women who need abortions or, indeed, feminists.) Milos Forman says he made the film because he was interested in just this ambiguity in Flynt: the impossible, unacceptable hero. Forman lived through Nazi and Communist regimes in Czechoslovakia; freedom to him is indivisible, even the freedom to produce Hustler. Civil liberties groups seemed to agree, and praised the film.

So did the women really win against Larry Flynt? Columbia Pictures clearly fears they did. The Oscars suggest they may have swayed Academy voters and wrecked the movie's last chance of serious earning power. But there are problems. For a start, Steinem might have spelt out the fact that she, too, had been a victim of Hustler's excremental brand of wit - before becoming one of the few feminist stars to campaign vigorously against the movie. You also have to wonder whether old, familiar targets such as Hustler - circulation now down to 900,000 from its three million peak - are still so important in an age of even worse video and Internet porn. The regular street-corner demos against Hustler died down years ago - but not before feminists had thrust that woman-in-a-meat-grinder image at more people than would ever have seen the original skin mags.

Nevertheless, there's something very suspect about making a film that couldn't possibly show the whole sleazy point of Hustler magazine - certainly not if it hoped to play in public theatres, anyway - and then emphasising a cause that Flynt adopted much, much later. Even Flynt himself says: "When I started Hustler, I don't think I'd even read the First Amendment."

Yet there is something odder still. The feminists who protested against the movie seemed to think that if Larry Flynt wasn't mentioned, he would go away. But their campaign says something different. For all the media hoo-ha, pickets were scarce across the country - perhaps simply because audiences were scarce for the movie. There's no point in telling people to boycott what they don't want anyway. It's not that Middle America reads the New York Times; maybe Middle America just didn't care about Flynt, or some lofty abstraction like the First Amendment. The women went to battle not knowing that, in this particular case, they had already won the war.