MILOŠ FORMAN FOR THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (1996)
The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)
Anthony Minghella for The English Patient
Joel Coen for Fargo
Scott Hicks for Shine
Mike Leigh for Secrets & Lies
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
I’m now returning to the first of three films left on the conveyor belt since last summer. It was tough to get a handle on The People vs. Larry Flynt on first viewing, but after revisiting it I have a better idea of its strengths and weaknesses and a clearer picture of what’s there beneath the surface.
Miloš Forman’s major project has been his profound reverence for irreverence. His irrepressibly anarchic spirit manifested early, in his taunting satires of communist life in Czechoslovakia (particularly in The Firemen’s Ball, with its debt to the Marx Brothers). Then came the Prague Spring and its military suppression by the Soviets. If impertinence was Forman’s directorial sensibility in these early films, it became his subject after his flight to the West. Starting with Randle Patrick McMurphy, Ken Kesey’s iconic literary creation, and continuing with three actual figures in Mozart, Flynt, and Kaufman, Forman seized upon the trickster as his central archetype. Embarrassingly, I haven’t seen The Man in the Moon, but One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus both stress the sublime nature of impertinence, even in its demise at the hand of a bitterly uncomprehending establishment. Irreverence, for Forman, is the soul of freedom.
In contrast to the spiritual overtones of these previous films, The People vs. Larry Flynt traffics in the lower (though still rather lofty) realm of politics, defining the strength of the American ideal through its interrogation of the right to free speech. Forman begins the intertwined story of Flynt’s business exploits and legal travails with verve. A canny but seldom audacious storyteller, Forman propels this first act along with abrupt cuts (typically on a staccato sound), as though he were working feverishly toward a key, expansive chapter in Flynt’s life. Instead, they seemed to lead to an early climax at the political rally., with his eloquent statement of purpose in the form of his public attack on the American double standard toward violence and sex. At least cinematically, this was my high point, with Harrelson staged in front of a gripping montage juxtaposing the two kinds of images.
After that, the narrative’s urgency slackens for what seem like obligatory biopic plot points, though I recognize Flynt’s episodic encounters with religion, drug abuse, and government shenanigans still factor into the film’s examination of freedom of expression. Meanwhile, Forman’s directorial hand crops up in nice places, including his stunt casting (James Carville as an opposing attorney, Flynt himself as presiding judge) and his recurring commentary on visual media—as government agents encroach on his home, Flynt tunes in to ABC, NBC, and CBS on three adjoined TVs to ensure all three have switched to breaking news coverage of his apprehension. For me, though, the film only really returned to form in the concluding saga of litigation between Flynt and Jerry Falwell, finally crystalizing the film’s thesis about obscenity as vital proof of the free flow of ideas.
Forman’s eye for casting serves him well, with Woody Harrelson’s central performance conveying an obvious charm and a less obvious intelligence behind Flynt’s sleaziness. More significantly, though, are the actors Forman arrays around the lead, serving to throw the extraordinary charisma that fueled Larry’s success into stark relief. The casting of Woody’s brother Brett Harrelson as Larry’s brother & business partner Jimmy is an effective strategy for showing the difference between unremarkable competence and the singular magnetism of a star. Meanwhile, as Flynt’s beleaguered lawyer Alan Isaacman, Edward Norton (nominated for Primal Fear the same year) undersells his own intelligence with a supremely unsure speaking ability. This is keenly observed in the Supreme Court scene: as the justices rigorously question Isaacman, Norton strews his character’s shrewd responses with miniscule flubs and halts that expose their hasty construction. Isaacman’s deliberateness contrasts with Harrelson’s unflappable speaking ability, even after his paralysis leaves him with a slightly slurred articulation. In fact, Harrelson’s best moments are his nonverbal ones, sidestepping the voice patterns that feel a bit distractingly like an impression. Finally Courtney Love (heavily honored during awards season, but not with the Oscar nod) as Flynt’s dissolute wife Althea reflects his rebel impulse without the discipline and complexity of a truly deep character.
Overall, I found Forman still an estimable director, though his story sense seemed slightly more diffuse here than in his thematically and structurally unimpeachable Oscar-winning efforts. Of course, screenwriters Scott alexander and Larry Karaszewski are no Bo Goldman or Peter Shaffer, but I personally believe the project might have just been a bit too recent (less than a decade old) and in the American vernacular for Forman to fully obtain its significance. I wonder in particular about the latter point; for as esteemed as foreign directors are at capturing the character of American society, from Fritz Lang’s Fury to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, they typically fictionalize their takes and leave the task of American History to the John Fords/Arthur Penns/Martin Scorseses. Forman’s foray into a biopic of an American (much less a living one) is a relative rarity in Oscar history, and it might not be as comfortable a fit. Still, though, it’s an engaging film and worthy of consideration alongside A Face in the Crowd, Good night and Good Luck, and other key texts on the matter of free speech.
1996 was famously a year of outsiders triumphing over traditional heavyweights. The People vs. Larry Flynt limped out of nominations morning with just two nominations for Forman and Harrelson—a far cry from the director’s previous two grand slams, not to mention the 0-for-8 (though Directorless and Pictureless) Ragtime, which surely counts as loading the bases. Sure enough, next to four first-time nominees, Forman’s third—and first unsuccessful—nomination recedes somewhat behind the three I’ve seen to date. I’ve seen to date (Scott Hicks, I’m coming for you soon!). Right now, Joel Coen (still taking sole directing credit) remains a lap ahead of the nonetheless commendable Mike Leigh and Anthony Minghella. Tune in again soon to see if they stay on top!