“Gloria Steinem is an ancient, worn-out old relic whose only claim to fame is urging some ugly women to march,” drawls the man in the 14-karat-gold-plated wheelchair. ”If you print anything I say today, print that.”
This helpful bit of advice is being offered on the patio of Larry Flynt’s Hollywood Hills estate, a salmon pink rococo pile adorned with more garish animal statues than a pet cemetery. Inside, the sprawling living room looks exactly like the final scene of Citizen Kane. A mountain of museum pieces — gilded mirrors, baroque birdcages, arabesque lamps — spills into every corner, many still dangling price tags (including a $40,000 nude oil painting so tawdry it’d have Titian reaching for the walls to steady himself). ”I don’t know much about antiques,” the infamous porn baron admits, ”but I know what I want.”
Of course, nobody ever accused the Hustler publisher of good taste — although these days anything is possible. As you’ve no doubt heard, Flynt, who for 23 years has lorded over one of the largest, most reviled porno empires in the world, is undergoing an extensive public image makeover, thanks to Milos Forman’s film, The People vs. Larry Flynt. Starring Woody Harrelson as Flynt and Courtney Love as his drug-addicted wife Althea Leasure, who drowned in her bathtub in 1987, the movie all but portrays Flynt as the Patrick Henry of porn, a First Amendment freedom fighter whose Supreme Court case helped make the world safe for democracy — not to mention crotch shots.
The reviews (including this magazine’s) have been mostly glowing (”A civics lesson that will still be regaling film enthusiasts four decades hence,” raved USA Today). Now the awards are starting to stack up: Last week Forman snagged a Golden Globe for Best Director, while Flynt writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski won Best Screenplay. There has been much Oscar chatter as well — even the suggestion that Love might be nominated for Best Actress (she’s already won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress). Meanwhile, Flynt himself — that pioneer of gynecological photojournalism — has become a Hollywood cause celebre, a radical-chic hero for the sexually dysfunctional ’90s.
Except…here’s the hitch. It turns out not everyone is wild about Larry. Anti-porn feminists are furious about what they see as the glamorization of a violent misogynist, and they’ve launched a potentially powerful campaign against the film. The first grenade was lobbed on Jan. 7 in The New York Times, with a scathing op-ed piece penned by — that’s right — Gloria Steinem, who argued that the movie is nothing less than a colossal whitewash.
”Filmgoers don’t see such Hustler features as…a woman being gang-raped on a pool table,” the veteran feminist wrote. ”Nor do you see such typical Hustler photo stories as a naked woman in handcuffs who is shaved, raped, and apparently killed by guards in a concentration camp-like setting…. You certainly don’t see such illustrations as a charred expanse of what looks like human skin, with photos of dead and dismembered women pinned to it…. The truth is, if Flynt had published the same cruel images even of animals, this movie would never have been made.”