Friday, November 10, 2017

Legal Month Continues! The People vs. Larry Flynt

In 1996, a major Hollywood film celebrated a man who described himself as a “smut peddler” and a “pervert.” In the film, he brags about sleeping with every woman working in the business he owns. He also publishes a magazine that objectifies women in degrading stories, cartoons, and especially photos. The film shows him hitting his girlfriend Althea (played by Courtney Love).

Some might argue that the film wasn’t made to celebrate Larry Flynt, it was merely telling his story. If that was the case, I doubt Flynt would have been willing to play a judge in the film.

This film was celebrated by the Academy, earning Oscar nominations for Best Director (Milos Forman) and Best Actor (Woody Harrelson as Flynt). It also Golden Globes (awarded by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) for direction and writing.

So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the headlines about Harvey Weinstein -- this is the industry that celebrated the founder of Hustler Magazine and “barely legal” strip clubs.

My real concern, though, is (as always here at Movie Churches) is with the movie’s portrayal of churches and clergy -- and this month, particularly with the legal system and the Church. Most of the film deals with Flynt’s court battles regarding accusations of obscenity and libel.

The film covers Flynt’s life starting with his career as a boy moonshiner in 1952 Kentucky, then jumps twenty years to when Flynt with his brother founded a chain of strip clubs in Cincinnati. (This is the business where he bragged about sleeping with all of his dancers, saying, “it was sort of a prerequisite.”)

Christians protested outside of the strip club with signs reading “God will punish the sinners!”

Flynt's cameo as judge in film
Flynt responded, “Remember, we welcome Christians inside the club as well!” I thought it was too bad no Christians took him up on his offer. A friend of ours, a former prostitute, does go into sex clubs to minister to the women, but I’m not sure Flynt would really have been pleased with that.

Flynt’s clubs weren’t doing well, so he decided to advertise them with a newsletter. That newsletter became Hustler Magazine. Whereas Playboy tried to present their photospreads in an “artistic” manner, Hustler presented nude women as graphically as possible. Magazines were confiscated, and Flynt was arrested.

Richard Paul as Rev. Falwell
The film shows one prosecution after another for violation of local and state obscenity laws. Flynt repeatedly lost in the lower courts, then those verdicts were overturned in the appellate courts.

Larry Flynt began to celebrate himself as a civil rights hero. He sponsored an award ceremony for himself from a made up 1st Amendment society; part of the ceremony was the playing of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

During these years, while he built his press empire, Ruth Carter Stapleton (Donna Hanover portraying President Jimmy Carter’s sister, a Christian evangelist) contacted Flynt. At first, he didn’t believe the call was from her. She said, “Praise the Lord I found you. Are you free to get together? We can. People like you and me can do anything we want.”

Donna Hanover as Ruth Carter Stapleton
Ruth invited Larry and his wife Althea to dinner at her home. She asked Larry, “Do you go to church?”

He said, “Well, I go for the major holidays, Christmas, Easter, New Year’s. Oh, who am I fooling, I never go.”

Ruth said, “That’s okay, Larry, church is just a ritual, I go straight to the teachings of Jesus.” Then she told him, “You and I have something in common. We are both trying to help people overcome their sexual repressions.” (I think encouraging Pentecostal women to use makeup is a very different thing than asking women to strip for a photograph that is intended to be viewed by millions. Maybe that’s just me.)

Flynt listened to Ruth. He claimed he’d become a Christian, and he was baptized. He even changed the magazine for a time. Instead of vulgar jokes about the Wizard of Oz or Santa Claus, he had a pictorial nude spread portraying the Garden of Eden from Genesis. He tried to do “Christian pornography.”

I wonder about Ruth going along with that. Her response feels as if Jesus said to the Rich Young Ruler, “You don’t want to do what I said about giving all your wealth to the poor? That’s cool. Actions don’t matter.”

But someone tried to assassinate Larry Flynt. Larry survived, but he was paralyzed. He said,, “There is no God.” He reminded me of Jesus’ parable of The Sower and the Seed, where some of the seeds began to grow, but when hard times came, the plants withered and died. Larry’s friendship with Ruth ended, but another member of the Christian clergy became important in his life.  

From his pulpit, Jerry Falwell spoke out against the evil of pornography. Flynt took this personally and decided to attack Falwell in his magazine. He created and published a mock ad using Falwell as a celebrity spokesman for whiskey -- who also tells the story of losing his virginity to his mother in an outhouse.

Falwell was understandably upset and sued Flynt. Initially, Flynt was fined for the “emotional distress” he’d caused Falwell. Flynt fought back, taking the case to the Supreme Court, which overturned the decision. In a unanimous ruling, the court declared that the First Amendment provides for making outrageous statements about public figures to mock them.
I certainly think the Supreme Court made the correct ruling. First Amendment rights to speech and worship must allow for unpopular things to be said. We live a time when free speech is under attack, when unpopular speech on campuses is attacked as hate speech. It’s hard to imagine something more hateful being said, than what Hustler wrote about Falwell.

However, though I think the ruling was correct, but I also think Falwell was a man who lived a far better life than Flynt has lived. I don’t agree with everything Falwell did in his ministry. His founding of the Moral Majority too closely associated Republican politics with Evangelical Christianity, but Falwell was right to condemn Flynt’s work as dehumanizing to women and harmful to marriages.

Though both Jerry Falwell and Ruth Stapleton Carter made mistakes in their ministries, they worked well in light of what God would have them do. So I’m giving both the clergy in this film a Three Steeple rating.

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