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Buff City: An Inside Story of Memphis and The People vs. Larry Flynt

From The Memphis Flyer, May 1996

 

     It’s 1976, and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt is holding a free-speech rally in Cincinnati. Flynt stands before a thirty-foot-high screen, on which alternate images of sex and violence. Three-story-tall naked women wrestle atop one another, then soldiers stack bodies like cordwood. A woman rubs enormous hands over breasts the size of hot-air balloons, then a war-torn child holds bony arms to a bloody chest. Flynt motions at the images, asking what’s really obscene, and finishes with a flourish before an exploding atomic bomb. It’s part Citizen Kane, part Triumph of the Will, and part, well, Hustler. And I am bored out of my skull.

     It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I set out to cover the filming of The People vs. Larry Flynt, and I ended up with a role as an extra in this rally. I wanted a chance at being in a major motion picture, and I ended up sitting around for hours in itchy polyester. Like the man around whom the movie revolves, nothing about The People vs. Larry Flynt has worked out quite like I’d expected.

 

     They’ve left us now. Woody Harrelson has taught his last yoga class, Courtney Love has started her last sensational rumor. The People vs. Larry Flynt has packed up its cameras. While they were here, though, they were a decidedly secretive bunch. It’s like the parable of the blind men and the elephant--most of us know a little piece of the story, but few people saw the whole picture.

     This past January, I decided to check out the Flynt scene. And I’ll admit it, I got suckered in. After I was called to be an extra, journalistic dispassion went out the window; I wanted to be on camera! This movie did strange things to Memphians, myself included. Filmmakers asked us to stand around for hours to prepare for two-minute shots, and we complied. Power-mad production assistants barely out of their teens ordered us around like children, and we complied.

     Some Memphians had a great time making the movie, some didn’t. Where you stand on The People vs. Larry Flynt pretty much depends on where you sat during filming. Those with larger on- camera roles tended to have far more favorable impressions of their filmmaking work. But it was an interesting three months, to say the least. Here, then, is a story of what some of us did for the movie and, in return, what the movie did to us.

 

     There was a whiff of paranoia surrounding the Flynt set from the start, and not just because Oliver Stone is a producer. The principals didn’t give interviews, the publicists didn’t release photos, and writers and photographers were, shall we say, less than welcome on the set. The result was that while everyone knew the movie was in town, almost nobody knew exactly what was going on.

     The People vs. Larry Flynt features Woody Harrelson as Flynt; Courtney Love as Flynt’s wife, Althea Leasure; Edward Norton (in the current Primal Fear) as Flynt’s lawyer, Alan Isaacman; and Crispin Glover (Back to the Future) as one of Flynt’s photographers. The film is directed by Milos Forman (Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and produced by Stone and Michael Hausman. And if the movie slides in under an NC-17 rating, it’ll be by the width of a G-string.

     Some background knowledge of Flynt’s life helps decipher the scenes filmed here. Regardless of what one thinks of his publications, Larry Flynt has lived a remarkable life. The movie will follow that life fairly closely; the truth in this case makes for a far stranger film than fiction ever could. Born in the Kentucky hills, Flynt first made his reputation in Columbus, Ohio with a chain of “Hustler” strip joints. Originally, Hustler magazine was simply a newsletter promoting the clubs. When the magazine went national, Flynt became a very wealthy man.

     Flynt had a voracious sexual appetite, often boasting of bedding fifteen women a week. He eventually married Althea Leasure, a former dancer at one of his clubs. Leasure was also a gifted businesswoman; she oversaw Flynt’s publishing empire, and for several years was the highest-paid female executive (over $800,000 a year) in the country.

     In 1978, outside a courthouse in Lawrenceville, Georgia, Flynt was shot and wounded, allegedly by a man enraged by mixed-race pictorials in Hustler. The shooting left Flynt paralyzed and addicted to a dog’s breakfast of painkillers. He later beat his addiction. Althea was not so lucky--she drowned in a bathtub in 1987, ravaged by drugs, alcohol and AIDS.

     Since Althea’s death, Flynt has broadened his publishing base to include magazines covering subjects such as laptop computers, darkroom photography, and maternity fashion. The latter magazine featured the ironic appearance of Kathie Lee Gifford on the cover of a Larry Flynt publication--albeit in maternity wear and a conservative pose. (Kathie Lee claimed she didn’t know of Flynt’s involvement when she posed for the photo.)

     Flynt himself is almost too garish a subject for moviemakers. He is brash, rude, and disrespectful; he was arrested for screaming obscenities at the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983. He ran for president in 1984 under the slogan “a smut peddler who cares.” His Hustler magazine is no-holds-barred raunch, depraved even by horny frat-boy standards; issues regularly feature views of the female body that can only be described as gynecological. But Flynt’s influence reaches far beyond his magazine’s subscription list. In the 1980s, Flynt orchestrated, and won, what has become one of the most important free speech cases in the nation’s history.

     In a 1983 advertisement parody, Hustler writers “profiled” television evangelist Jerry Falwell. The ad depicts “Falwell” boasting of having sex with his mother in an outhouse. Falwell naturally filed suit, and the resulting litigation reached the Supreme Court in 1988. The Court held that, reprehensible though the parody may be, it is nonetheless protected under the First Amendment.

     It’s not hard to see why Hollywood has looked to Flynt’s example in these times of Dole-imposed morality. Compared to the (Constitutionally-protected) thought of a drunk preacher sodomizing his mother in an outhouse, the violent excesses of Pulp Fiction and Braveheart start to seem downright homey. Filmmakers, newspaper columnists, political cartoonists--all owe a debt to Flynt, whether they want to acknowledge it or not.

 

     Armed with such lofty thoughts, I venture out in search of the story behind the Larry Flynt story. My motion-picture odyssey begins on a drizzly pre-dawn March morning in Senatobia, Mississippi. Take out the fast-food joints and gas stations, and Senatobia is little more than a wide spot along Interstate 55. But it has a genuine old-fashioned courthouse which would serve just fine as a stand-in for Lawrenceville, Georgia, site of the assassination attempt on Flynt.

     The movie’s crew had set up base camp in a field behind the courthouse. When we arrive just before seven in the morning, the sky is gray and the rain is hitting harder. We pile off the bus and run a muddy thirty yards to the extras’ tent. Inside are circular tables and plastic folding chairs, along with a spread of donuts, pastries and coffee.

     Extras aren’t fortunate enough to have swanky dressing rooms. After getting our costumes, we crowd three at a time, men and women separate, into tiny tents where we change into our costumes. The ground is a sopping mess, and someone has thrown a wet board into the tent for us to stand on while we change. The tent’s door flap has ripped, so the wet, cold wind whips in and around our dressing room.

     We return to the extras tent and compare clothes. Gaudy paisley, blocky shoes and oversized collars are the order of the day. The rain beats on all sides of the tent, and a portable space heater drives the temperature into the nineties in one corner. If the Love Boat had run aground in the monsoon season, the result would look something like this.

     When we’re called, we file dutifully into the courtroom. We ones angle for what we hope are prime locations. I end up against a window, in the lazy glow of artificial sunlight which looks lifted straight from To Kill A Mockingbird. A director’s assistant coaches us on how to act natural. “This is a courtroom, not a church,” he says. “Talk about something you hear with a neighbor. You,” he says, pointing to a woman wearing a hideous burgundy pantsuit, “Look at your watch several times, and look impatient. You,” he says to a man with an Afro wig that would make the Jackson 5 proud, “open up your book and begin reading. You’re bored by all this.” The rest of us are to fidget, stretch, scratch--anything that looks natural but doesn’t make any noise.

     Forman wanders the set, tossing a hacky sack ball. Woody sits in the witness box and mouths his lines. Other principals flip through today’s New York Times or look over sheets of photos. As for us extras, we sit quietly, each carefully considering impromptu acts to pull off when the camera begins rolling.

     And then they’re ready to shoot. Yet another assistant—how many of these people are there?--asks that the set be cleared. The extras sit a little straighter, adjusting collars and hair. Forman is the last one off the set. In a deep eastern European accent, he declares, “And...action!” After the necessary clacks of the scene markers and another call to be quiet, the cameras are live.

     “Mister Flynt,” says the prosecuting attorney, a man with thin wire spectacles and a haughty expression, “how can you, as a Christian, defend this filth?” Woody leans back in his chair. As he’s done before, and as he’ll do again several more times, he begins his defense of Hustler magazine. America’s a free country, his reasoning goes, and while people may not like what he does, just like abortion or drinking, it’s still not illegal.

     In the gallery, we manufacture silent laughs, roll our eyes, and tap at one another like we’ve been extras all our lives. Everyone is moving, ever so slightly, heads bobbing, necks extending, shoulders twisting. The overall effect is a slow, quiet wave that begins in the front rows and works its way back. As Woody continues his defense, I glance around the courtroom. Nobody’s straining to look at him; we can see him anytime on “Cheers” reruns. Here, we’re just trying to get our faces in front of the camera.

     If you didn’t get to be an extra in Larry Flynt, you can replicate almost the exact experience without ever leaving your own home. Simply find a tape of a favorite movie, and cue up the best scene--the chariot race in Ben Hur, say. Then, pause the movie at that particular point and sit still. After forty minutes, run the scene. Then rewind to the start of the scene, pause it, and sit still for another forty minutes. Repeat for twelve hours. It’s that easy.

 

     The story of how Memphis landed the production of Larry Flynt is a lesson in nice-guy politics. Flynt producer Michael Hausman had worked here before in the filming of The Firm and A Family Thing, and his favorable experiences on those movies helped tip the scales in Memphis’s favor. “It’s the luck of the draw,” said Lynn Sitler, executive director of the City of Memphis Film Commission. “You offer the best deal you can, and hopefully they’ll come.” Sitler noted that a big-budget motion picture like Larry Flynt has the potential to pump millions of dollars in the form of hotel fees, per diem spending, and short-term jobs into the local economy.

     The movie also pumped celebrities into the local spotlight. Woody showed up at Memphis basketball games and taught a yoga class. Courtney appeared everywhere, though the rumors she trailed behind her had a far wider reach. Plenty of pseudo-celebs stopped by for cameos. Everyone from Democratic political consultant James Carville to Flynt himself appears in the movie. (In a casting masterstroke, Flynt plays a judge.)

     Some extras have complained about the prima donna treatment that the stars of the film demanded, but I didn’t see it. During my time on the set, the stars actually showed more respect to the locals than anyone else in the cast or crew. After a full day of shooting in Senatobia, Woody took time to sign autographs and pose for pictures for all comers. Courtney didn’t try to claw my eyes out, as I’d been led to expect, when I asked her to sign a Hole CD.

     In a nice gesture to the city, plenty of Memphians had the chance to work as more than human scenery. Jeanne Seagle worked as a sketch artist in one courtroom scene; some of her illustrations grace this article. Her scenes took place in a “Los Angeles” courtroom, where in 1981 Larry Flynt was ordered to release tapes which allegedly documented Reagan administration officials participating in an orgy. Flynt wore an American flag as a diaper to court, and had prostitutes drop his fine of $10,000 in one-dollar bills on the floor of the courtroom. “I really enjoyed it,” Seagle said. “The scenes were so much fun to watch.” She laughed that part of the thrill was having a personal makeup attendant and eating at the table reserved for the stars.

     Attorney Scott F. May worked as the judge in the Senatobia scene, and also enjoyed his time on the set. “I found it interesting, if you don’t have to spend a whole lot of time doing it,” he said. May was responsible for setting the filmmakers straight on several points of courtroom procedure. They had the correct props for the scene, all the way down to stationary from Gwinnett County, Georgia, but they had positioned the court reporter and bailiff improperly.

     Fittingly, it may be a Memphian who steals the show. Author John Fergus Ryan won a role as Larry Flynt’s father, and will provide much of the film’s comic relief. Ryan recounted several scenes in which he got to play the country bumpkin for laughs. “I had to climb into this tall bed with velvet sheets while wearing silk pajamas” for one scene, Ryan said. “I slid around everywhere.” In another, Larry takes his parents on a tour of his mansion while all manner of indecency goes on behind closed doors. They stop at the door to Larry’s bedroom, and Larry opens it to find three women cavorting in his bed. He closes the door before his parents get a look and says, “It hasn’t been cleaned.”

     The idea of filming a movie about one of the country’s most notorious pornographers in the heart of the Bible Belt has a perverse comedy all its own, but the movie generated surprisingly little controversy in the city. “I was afraid there would be some people who misunderstood what the movie was about,” Sitler laughed. “I had to explain that this is not a porno film.”

     One local television station, apparently eager for any hint of discontent, broadcast images of anti-Flynt protesters outside the Shelby County Courthouse. Only later did the station learn that these protesters were actually extras in the movie.

 

     In late March, I rejoin the movie at the “Cincinnati” free-speech rally. The location the producers have chosen to house this scene is singularly appropriate. We’re packed into the Shelby Showplace Arena, a venue traditionally reserved for cattle-roping exhibitions and livestock shows. As we parade across the dirt floor waiting for our scenes to be shot, more than one extra toes at the dirt and moos.

     We fidget; there’s little to do. We read newspapers right down to the Gardening Tips section. We make all the jokes we can about the signs which read “No Smoking No Dogs.” Woody, Courtney and the rest of the cast come and go. We don’t take much notice; the bloom has worn off their celebrity. The crew has forbidden us to leave the arena, and when asked, they say we’ll begin shooting “in just a few minutes.” Today is also the first day of the NCAA basketball tournament. After word of Memphis’ loss to Drexel filters through the crowd, some extras stage a performance of The People vs. Larry Finch.

     Crew members wander the arena with headsets, herding stragglers back inside the arena. It feels like a low-security prison, and naturally, cigarettes are the hottest commodity around. “Got a smoke?” is the number-two line of the day, right after “How much longer?”

     Over the course of the afternoon, the crew actually does some filming. But all cameras are focused on the stage, with no crowd shots necessary. Beale Street diva Ruby Wilson rips through Battle Hymn of the Republic, backed by dancers wrapped in American flags. Woody slides onstage between takes to mumble a couple of lines from “All Shook Up” into the microphone.

     On the arena floor, Courtney wanders into the crowd of extras to ask for a light, which three men obligingly provide. The crew walks around and through us as if we’re furniture. The production assistants talk as if we’re not even sentient. “Move them over there!” “Tell that one to take off the hat!” “Could you bring that one forward?”

     At seven o’clock, we get a final burst of hope. A crew member calls us forward and says we’re getting ready to shoot in five minutes. As I understand it, Woody will come to the edge of the stage and shake the hands of some extras. I start moving to the front row--more face time--when disaster strikes.

     The pants I’m wearing for this scene are burnt orange, flared at the heels and tight above the knees. Now, the Seventies were not known as a time of loose-fitting legwear. While polyester stretches, it has its breaking point. As I stand to walk forward, I reach that breaking point. The zipper on the fly rips from the crotch of my pants right up to my waist. There’s a sudden breeze in the arena.

     I look down, not believing this is happening. I pull my shirt down over my fly and hunch off to the bathroom. There, I do some delicate needlework to get the fly closed. I’m imagining my shot at stardom going down the toilet as I fool with my zipper. When I gingerly trot back out to the floor, I see that the front row is filled, and I resign myself to yet another seat in the back.

     But I shouldn’t have worried. This call, like all the others before it, is a false alarm. Around nine, two crew members step to the edge of the stage and instruct us to pack it in. They won’t film us until tomorrow. We’ve spent nearly eleven hours here and done nothing more productive than write our names in the dirt. We’re tired and frustrated. We’ve been told to be back here at six-thirty tomorrow morning. There’s grumbling, but I hear no one saying they won’t return for more.

 

     We’ll have to wait several months to see how all this turns out. There’s no opening date set for The People vs. Larry Flynt, though it should be out this fall. In what seems like the beginnings of a publicity machine in motion, a news brief in Time magazine recently hinted that Forman may face lawsuits from both the Moral Majority and Flynt himself over the movie.

     But even if The People vs. Larry Flynt nosedives all across America--and it may be headed for Showgirls territory, critically speaking--it will always have a friend in Memphis. For the next decade, the two thousand Memphians who worked as extras will be renting the movie and scanning to find their scene. They may skip over the flesh and depravity, and they may have to be nimble with the pause button, but they’ll be immortalized on celluloid nonetheless. And in the end, isn’t that what’s really important these days?

 

Memphis Exposed

     What’s a movie about Larry Flynt without a little skin? About fifteen minutes long, most likely. So, lured by an extra $500, a sense of adventure, or perhaps just a chance at unfettered exhibitionism, quite a few Memphians dropped trou for the cameras.

     One of the most infamous scenes in The People vs. Larry Flynt is certain to be the Bicentennial Party at Flynt’s mansion. It features debauchery degenerating into depravity—pornographic ice sculptures, bare-naked ladies, and the coup de grace, an orgiastic flesh-pile.

     Still, all was not as it appeared. You would think this would make the scene something out of a teenager’s fantasies--naked women, celebrities, naked women, earning money, naked women, free food, naked women. For an hour or so, it was. But like so many other scenes, the Bicentennial party dragged on late into the night.

     “For one scene, I had this beautiful woman right in front of me,” said Nathan Coppedge, a University of Memphis student. “Every time they’d get ready to shoot, she’d take off her robe, and there she was. I was loving it. But after awhile, it was like, ‘Hey, how ya doing,’” he says, in the detached tone of someone greeting a toll collector. “I didn’t even notice she was naked anymore.” He thought for a moment. “That kind of concerns me a little bit.”

Bio

Jay Busbee is a novelist and journalist living in Atlanta. Click below for more info on his novels, articles, and comics.

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