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Hollywood’s New Love Scene

Patrick Goldstein is a regular contributor to Calendar

It’s never too early to be typecast in Hollywood. Just ask Courtney Love.

“You should see the scripts I’ve been seeing--strippers, whores, addicts, all of them,” she says, sipping coffee and chain-smoking by the pool at the Chateau Marmont. “I was reading this Janis Joplin script that was awful. It’s a pathetic baby boomer fantasy about the wild and crazy Janis. You don’t see any of the vulnerability and sadness in her life, just the stupid excess.”

She waves her cigarette in the air. “There were 20 sexual innuendoes in the first 10 pages. Yuck!”

Love, 31, is already earning critical raves for her portrayal of the late stripper-turned-junkie Althea Flynt in Milos Forman’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” which opens Dec. 25 and co-stars Woody Harrelson as the embattled Hustler porn kingpin. But getting good reviews, even talk of a longshot Oscar nomination, isn’t enough for the rock hellion best known for punching out rival female rockers, admittedly using drugs, contemplating suicide, feuding online with her critics, surviving the 1994 shotgun suicide of her husband, Kurt Cobain, and--oh, yes--making Hole’s 1994 “Live Through This” that year’s most acclaimed rock album.

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Never one for false modesty, Love has a better leading role in mind for herself.

“Too bad I’m not a guy, because all I want to do is play Hamlet,” she says. “It’s always been my favorite Shakespeare play. It’s such a sexy, androgynous part. All the guys I go out with have to be able to play ‘Hamlet.’ ”

She rocks with laughter. “Even if Arnold Schwarzenegger said to me, ‘I want to do “Hamlet,” ’ I’d tell him, ‘You know, it’s not really you, but you’re very cool for wanting to do it.’

“Hamlet was the ultimate rock star. Maybe that’s why I identify with him. The torture he goes through--it’s very attractive to me.”

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She exhales a big cloud of cigarette smoke. “Of course, I’ve had my Ophelia and Lady Macbeth phases, too.”

*

Hearing you are going off to interview Courtney Love, a friend recommends a visit to a local newsstand. “Give yourself 90 seconds,” she says. “You’ll find a magazine with Courtney’s photo somewhere on the cover.” It takes less than a minute to locate a copy of Might, an alternative pop culture magazine, which has a picture of Love on the cover, below a much larger photo of Alanis Morissette. When Love is shown the magazine, she reads the cover line aloud.

“Alanis Vindicated,” she snorts derisively. “What could vindicate her? Only a nervous breakdown.”

Love needs no vindication. She’s the ultimate postmodern media icon, a celebrity more conversant in celebrity journalism than most journalists themselves. When you see a recent interview that describes her as timid and nonplused, you wonder if the reporter was bamboozled by an impersonator. Self-taught smart, catty, crafty, obsessive and always unpredictable, Love can’t help but give a performance, whether she’s onstage with her band or prowling the Chateau, looking for matches and cigarettes, acidly assessing a pair of models in the lobby.

Full of apologies when she arrives 40 minutes late for her interview--that’s not bad; Larry Flynt says she was three hours late to their first meeting--she launches into a three-hour monologue, stopping only long enough to light fresh Marlboro Lite 100s, dropping the old butts to the ground and grinding them into ash with her shiny Dolce & Gabbanas. “They’re my lucky shoes,” she says. “I’ve played every show for the past three years in them.”

Persuading Love to focus on any one topic requires considerable persistence. Her mind is agile, but crowded with an exotic clutter of ideas. Even a simple question about acting can provoke an impassioned discourse on feminine archetypes, disgusting baby boomers, such nemeses as Morissette and Lynn Hirschberg (author of the Vanity Fair piece that revealed Love was shooting heroin while pregnant with her daughter, Frances Bean, now 4) and her current obsession: the importance of birth order in shaping personality types, a theory propounded in a recent New Yorker profile of historian Frank Sulloway.

“It will ruin your life,” she says with almost giddy enthusiasm. “I’ve been faxing it to every studio executive I know. He deserves a Pulitzer. I’m a little bit dysfunctional, which makes me an honorary later-born, but I’m a classic first-born--very conservative, a real traditionalist.”

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This is met with considerable disbelief. “Really, I’m very stodgy,” Love insists. “It’s probably why I hate Alanis Morissette so much!”

Love reaches out and makes a grab for the reporter’s notebook. “Don’t write that. I didn’t mean that.” As the interview progresses, it becomes obvious you are in the presence of a new Courtney Love, one who often bears little resemblance to the punk provocateur on display in previous media encounters. When she uses profanity, she apologizes, playfully trying to prevent you from writing it down. Asked about her experiences in Hollywood, she frequently goes off the record, determined to avoid offense.

It appears that Love’s Hollywood publicists have encouraged this circumspection, operating under the theory that presenting a more wholesome image might help her wrangle an Oscar nomination from the academy’s notoriously conservative voters. In the past, Love freely admitted a raft of bad-girl escapades. But with an Oscar up for grabs, she now casts herself as a model of decorum and sobriety. Love repeatedly denied being in detox earlier this year, even though her publicist, PMK’s Pat Kingsley, recently told The Times that Love entered rehab for a Valium dependency after “The People vs. Larry Flynt” finished shooting in April.

“So this must be the tabloid part of the interview,” she retorts when asked about the episode. “You’ve been reading the Globe or maybe that USA Today story. I’ve had them stop faxing me my press; my life is a lot richer for not giving a [expletive]"--she quickly corrects herself--"for not caring about all that garbage.”

Of course, she’s making this pronouncement while carrying around an advance fax of an US magazine story on her ex-manager, Mercury Records President Danny Goldberg. Love also reads Rolling Stone regularly enough lately to promise she will “never talk to them ever again” for running an uncharacteristically critical cover story on Eddie Vedder without interviewing him. She once dismissed the Pearl Jam singer as “Eddie Bedwetter,” but now compares him to Abe Lincoln for his battles against Ticketmaster.

“I feel embarrassed by how wrong I was about him,” she says. “He’s proven himself to be an incredible human being. What Rolling Stone did to him was unconscionable--they Lynn Hirschberged him.” (Rolling Stone senior editor Mark Kemp recently told The Times that even without an interview, “We felt our readers still deserved a piece on Pearl Jam.”)

Consistency is not Love’s strong suit. She’s cocky one moment, vulnerable the next--when she talks about the lack of privacy in her life, she suddenly bursts into tears, overcome with emotion. She insists she can cope with her problems without drugs.

“I’m fine,” she says. “Woody was a good influence on me. I’ve been seeing a trainer and doing yoga because of him. I even quit smoking for 40 hours, which for me is huge.”

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Clean and sober, huh? “I just don’t do drugs,” she responds. “I hate that phrase, clean and sober. Where’d you get that--from some bad TV show?”

Perhaps to punish you for dwelling on foolish tabloid queries, she goes back to reading the story about her in Might magazine, hooting with laughter at her favorite parts. She has no intention of revealing which part she finds funny. “I’m not telling you--then you’ll just write about it.”

But soon she is reciting a favorite line from the story. “If she were a boy, she’d be understood in a long line of Dionysian rock assassins from Elvis to Jim Morrison to Sid Vicious,” it reads. “But despite a seeming cultural hunger for bad grrrl examples, we only permit bad boys to be our sacred monsters.”

She tosses the magazine aside. “I get that all the time. Look at me--I’m so much like a girl it’s ridiculous.”

She sighs. “I really am going to stop reading what everyone writes. You know, my mother once told me the first words out of my mouth were, ‘Any news?’ ”

*

Before she took the part of Althea Flynt, Love phoned Larry Flynt to ask for his blessing. If anyone’s as outrageous as Love, it’s Flynt, who while not especially fond of her opinionated manner, was impressed by how much time she’d spent researching her part. When she first visited Flynt in his office here, he treated her to a raunchy, Hustler-style greeting.

“So we got off to a great start,” he says with a raspy laugh. “I thought Courtney did a helluva job. When it got to the scenes with the drugs, she really nailed it to a T. She showed how vulnerable Althea was at the end. I don’t think anyone could’ve captured her as well.”

A strip club owner-turned-flamboyant-pornographer, Flynt built a multimillion-dollar empire around Hustler, a raunchy sex magazine whose most infamous cover depicted a woman being fed into a meat grinder. In 1978, Flynt was gunned down by a never-apprehended assailant, leaving him paralyzed and in agony that led him to become addicted to painkillers for years. In 1987, his 33-year-old wife was found dead in her bathtub.

Flynt became a free-speech crusader when Jerry Falwell sued him for running a liquor ad parody that suggested the evangelist had engaged in sex with his own mother. The case went to the Supreme Court, which decided in Flynt’s favor in a landmark 1988 case. Though Flynt served as a consultant to “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” he had neither script nor casting approval. However, he seems delighted with the film’s depiction of him, having attended seven screenings so far, arriving in a stretch limo decorated with airbrushed paintings of naked women.

As an “informed feminist,” Love has a complicated view of Flynt, whom she admires as a rebel but views with suspicion as a pornographer. “Let’s face it,” she says. “Hustler is gross. It’s so dirty! Larry thinks pornography is a folk art, but the way I see it, it’s for men to have sexual fantasies that they then carry into less shadowy places in the world. It’s certainly not a place where women become liberated.

“I talked to everyone in Hollywood who knew Althea, because I wanted to know why she changed from this conservative, wildly ambitious woman to such a decadent, drug-addled nut. Was it being around the pornography? It’s this huge billion-dollar industry, yet women are the commerce of it. So what’s more awful--women getting $100 a day for doing it or women like Althea for making money off it?”

When Love stops to ponder this dilemma, you get a chance to study her face. Up on the concert stage, she looks like a cartoonish rag doll, brittle and garish. Up close, wearing a black beret and a knee-length wool coat, she resembles a young, ungainly Jeanne Moreau. She has a lumpy beauty, her sullen lips framed by large, luminous eyes. It’s a face with too many odd angles to be a pornographer’s delight.

“The problem with Althea is that she didn’t grow up, she grew younger,” Love finally decides. “She had all this power, but the castle corrupts. And when the castle is built around an industry like pornography, it’s not a pretty world to live in. I’ve known strippers who did porn and, let me tell you, it’s an unhappy life.”

A survivor of a troubled childhood--she spent much of her adolescence in foster homes and reform schools in the Pacific Northwest--Love sometimes danced in strip clubs before starting Hole in 1989. She also spent time in Hollywood, working as a wardrobe assistant, appearing as an extra in 1985’s “Brewster’s Millions” (“It was my PhD in movies--I followed [producer] Joel Silver around, asking how everything worked”) and playing bit parts in two Alex Cox films, including “Sid and Nancy” (1986).

She finally abandoned ship when her agent told her there was no place in Hollywood for disaffected females. “I said, ‘What about Sean Penn? Why can’t I be like him?’ ” recalls Love. “But being disaffected in Hollywood was a boy thing then, so I went off and started a punk-rock band instead.”

Love revived her film career by taking a small part as a waitress in this year’s “Feeling Minnesota,” proving, as she puts it, that “I could get up at 5 a.m. and be nice to Teamsters.”

Although Milos Forman had tested other actresses for the part of Althea, including Mira Sorvino and Patricia Arquette, Love was clearly his first choice. “From the moment she entered the room, I knew I was in the presence of a real personality,” he says. “To please the studio, I screen-tested many better-known actresses. But she was the best. Courtney had this great attitude that she must’ve brought from the concert stage. When she was on, she was on 100%. She always delivered.”

Having helped many little-known talents blossom under his tutelage, Forman was a perfect director for Love, who needed someone with a firm but supportive hand. “Milos was great because he saw me as myself, not as an archetype,” she says. “I’d come back to him after working on a scene with Woody and he’d say, ‘Ah, you’ve been acting!’

“He kept telling me to go watch Brando. He wanted me to be instinctual--just play Althea, not act like I was playing her.”

It wasn’t always a pleasurable experience, especially having to play a scene where Love and Harrelson loll in bed, strung out on drugs. Love’s Althea gives husband Larry a fix, then she shoots up herself. It was an especially unsettling scene for Love, whose own admitted drug-scarred past made her such an insurance risk that Harrelson, Forman and the film’s producers had to post a $750,000 insurance bond for her, supplemented by a letter of credit from Love.

She also underwent weekly drug tests to prove she was clean. “Milos trusted in me. He only asked me once, ‘Can you tell me you’re not taking drugs?’ And I told him I’d stopped.”

When it came time for the graphic drug scene, she balked. Forman finally convinced Love by reminding her of the film’s free-speech message. “I kept telling Milos that I had it in my contract that he couldn’t force me to do any scene I didn’t want to do,” she recalls. “And finally he said, ‘Oh, I see, so now you are censoring me!’ ”

Although Love and Harrelson had little in common, she found him a pleasure to work with. “We were endlessly fascinated with each other,” she says. “I’m the kind of girl he’s never gone out with and he’s definitely the kind of guy I’d never gone out with. I love the whole Horatio Alger thing he’s done--to go from ‘Cheers’ to being this cool movie star.”

She laughs. “Although I gotta admit, Woody’s body is a little orange from all that carrot juice.”

That whole Horatio Alger thing--the idea of vaulting from obscurity to big-screen stardom--is very much on Love’s mind these days. When asked whom she views as a role model for her career, she offers a quick answer: Demi Moore.

“I really identify with her--she’s gutsy and ambitious,” Love says. “To go from ‘General Hospital’ to the queen of Malibu, that’s so very American. She continues to surprise everyone, plus she gets to have a husband and kids too.”

Love furrows her brow. “I bet she was a first-born.”

You wonder if Love worries that her thirst for Hollywood stardom will damage her alternative-rock credibility. Most of her rock peers seem uncomfortable with displays of great ambition--many musicians were scornful of Love for showing up backstage at 1995 Lollapalooza shows in a chauffered limousine. “I’m not going to give up what I’ve achieved just to get a movie part. But I do want to get mine--to get paid. Lots of [alternative rock] people come from bourgeois backgrounds, so they have this problem with success. But I never could live off my trust fund. My trust fund was $10.

“To me, selling out is doing something that’s not in your heart. But it’s not selling out to play a big arena or being in a hit film. If I can fill the arena, then I can handle it. I can’t go back to what I was doing five years ago any more than Demi Moore can go back to ‘General Hospital.’ ”

Love has no firm commitments for a follow-up film role, saying she is at work writing songs for Hole’s next album, currently titled “Celebrity Skin.”

“Whether it’s music or film, I’m always looking for that place where I’m not so self-conscious anymore. I have all these feminist police blaring in my head. I always end up wondering, ‘What are the cultural implications of my wearing this dress?’ ”

She lights a fresh cigarette. “It doesn’t mean I’m overambitious. I just over-think everything.”

Love lapses into a rare silence--she suddenly seems sad. To cheer her up, you tease her about her appearance in “Not Bad for a Girl,” a recent documentary about female rockers where she made a series of grand pronouncements, casting herself as “a Christ figure” and saying she wanted to “affect culture in a large way.”

“That was a terrible movie,” she says, her eyes flashing. Then she repeats the phrase aloud: “To affect culture in a large way.”

“I’m not sure what I meant,” she says with a sly smile. “But tell me--is there really something wrong with that?”


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