Angel with a dirty face

`The People vs Larry Flynt' is a film of the life of America's pornographer-in-chief. Its makers say theirs is the story of a sleazeball made good, a tale Frank Capra might have filmed. American feminists say they've done nothing more than glorify a man accused of sexual abuse.
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It may seem a premature suggestion, but The People vs Larry Flynt, which opened in the US this week, looks likely to be one of the best films to come out of the mainstream studios of Hollywood this year. Directed by Milos Forman, who made One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, and produced by Oliver Stone, it is a funny, dark and powerfully acted portrait of the man that People magazine once called the "nightmare version of the American dream". It has secured five Golden Globe nominations - traditionally seen as a pointer towards success at the Oscars - and much praise from critics. But it has also roused the fury of American feminists and others who see the film as the beatification of one of America's vilest pornographers.

Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine, a low-rent cousin of Playboy - is, the makers of the film are quick to point out, a sleazeball, but ultimately a sleazeball made good. Writing in the New York Times, however, Gloria Steinem, founding editor of Ms magazine, equated the film with the glamorisation of a Ku Klux Klansman or a Nazi. Hustler pictorials, she noted, have included "Dirty Pool", showing a woman being gang-raped on a pool table. She noted that Flynt's daughter Tonya, now 31, describes herself as a victim of pornography and has accused him of sexually abusing her.

From the left, Professor Laura Kipnis accuses the film of revamping Flynt's raunchy and rebellious career as a "gala tribute to our great nation", leaving the audience "wrapped in a big warm self-congratulatory glow".

Larry Flynt was born in Kentucky where he briefly went into the bootlegging business with his father, illicitly shipping liquor from the state's "wet" counties into small hill towns where it was banned. He escaped by joining the army at 14 with a faked birth certificate, and at the age of 21 opened his first Hustler Club in Dayton, Ohio.

Flynt's "vision for the 21st Century" featured recently in an interview in The Best of Hustler. In it he talked about his life, the making of the film, and expounded on the "socially redeeming value" of pornography. As a young man, "the only thing I wanted to do was make money and have fun," he says. Hustler went into profit soon after it first appeared, 23 years ago. Arguably it made its mark with the publication of nude photographs of Jackie Onassis, taken on a Greek island, in an issue which sold out in three days and went into three reprintings.

The magazine, Flynt avers, "has always been a mirror that reflects the private fantasies and attitudes of the society that we live in". More cold-bloodedly, it lured readers by pioneering so-called "pink shots" of women's genitalia and has, according to Flynt, drawn a substantial female readership because of its lesbian sex pictorials. To this day, Flynt is pursuing the ambition of becoming the first news-stand magazine to show "full penetration".

If Hustler has had anything to offer in its history apart from porn which verges on the very edge of hard-core - and that is debatable - it is arguably an anarchic and scatological attack on religion, morality, and the establishment, and as unashamed porn for the working man. While Playboy wrapped itself in respectability with serious articles and celebrity interviews, Hustler ran tasteless and obscene cartoons on everyone from Santa Claus to Newt Gingrich, and lampooned its many enemies in a feature called "asshole of the month".

Flynt's larger-than-life persona first forced itself on the public eye with the publication of the Onassis photographs. But in 1977 he underwent an astonishing religious transformation under the influence of Ruth Carter Stapleton, sister of then-President Jimmy Carter. Having claimed to have slept with 15 women a week, he publicly vowed celibacy, and promised to "hustle for the Lord". The conversion abruptly ended after a year, when Flynt, emerging from a Georgia courthouse where he faced obscenity charges, was shot twice in the stomach. A white supremacist allegedly outraged by an inter-racial pictorial was accused of the shootings, but never tried. The shooting paralysed Flynt from the waist down, and apparently turned him into the near-paranoid maverick ruthlessly portrayed by in the film by Woody Harrelson.

The genesis of The People vs Larry Flynt came in the mid-1980s, when its screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, were room-mates at film school. Flynt was at the height of his manic fight with the US courts over obscenity. He was on the front page of the Los Angeles Times so often that it seemed he had hijacked the paper, and he was funny. "We would crack up," Karaszewski remembered. Flynt was hauled up in front of a judge for refusing to divulge the source who leaked him video footage of the businessman John DeLorean trapped in an FBI sting operation. Fined $10,000 a day, he sent scantily-dressed models to dump the cash at the courthouse, and appeared in court wearing only the American flag as a diaper, which earned him a jail term for contempt.

The film`s climax comes with the libel action brought against Flynt by the televangelist Jerry Falwell, after he implied in a parody of a commercial that the preacher had slept with his mother. Flynt took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which found that parody - and "pigs like me", as he observes - are indeed protected by the First Amendment. Thus the case that can be made, unlikely as it might seem, for Flynt as a protector of free speech and defender of the rights of his fellow citizens.

Partly, the criticism The People vs Larry Flynt has received is just good publicity, but from director Milos Forman down, few people on the film confess to having read Hustler - let alone liking it - except in a purely research capacity. They have managed to make a film with a real- life pornographer as hero while professing disgust with the man and his product. The studio used Flynt's offices as the set, rented his corporate jet, and borrowed his gold-plated wheelchair, but there, executives say, the relationship stops. Michael Levin, an author and teacher of creative writing at the University of California at Los Angeles, captured the unease in a column for the Los Angeles Times. The film, he observed, is "brilliant, compelling ... fast-paced, witty, with breathtaking cinematography and phenomenal performances". And yet, he wrote, "I miss decency. I miss the time in our culture when movies were about heroes ... Isn't there anyone else they can make a movie about?"

In the eyes of its screenwriters, the film is a modern answer to Frank Capra. The star Woody Harrelson, late of the murder spree movie Natural Born Killers, is thus the new reincarnation of honest Jimmy Stewart. "If you remove pornography from the plot," Karaszewski says, "it's really Mr Smith goes to Washington."

One can imagine a certain unease among studio executives this Oscar night. What if The People vs Larry Flynt were to squeak past The English Patient or Evita, two of the great studio hopes this year? Win or lose, Flynt himself is surely certain to appear at the Academy awards, a 53-year-old bad fairy in a wheelchair at the Hollywood ball. How will that look to the family values crowd, or the sponsors of the home censorship system called the V-chip? It should be a show worth seeingn