With a starring role in film of the moment The People vs. Larry Flynt, grunge‑turned‑glamour‑queen Courtney Love talks to Tiffany Rose about rumours, pornography and life and love after Kurt Cobain.
Photography Director Duane Ashurst
This is the story of a rock‑chick who inherited $100,000 from her grandmother. At 13, she landed in a juvenile detention centre for shoplifting. At 14, she took the money and fled, starry‑eyed, to Tinseltown. By the age of 20, she'd run out of dough.
After bit parts in movies and a part‑time job in a strip club, she formed a punk band, Hole, and hit the big time. She dabbled in drugs and the high life. At 26 she married another alternative rocker, Kurt Cobain, and moved to the music capital of the world, rainy Seattle. There, they made sweet music together. And a baby girl, Frances Bean was born.
The happy bubble suddenly bursts with a vengeance. He blows his brains out with a pistol after years of drug abuse. She's left to pick up the pieces. After rehab, she gracefully rises from her drug‑induced fog and produces hit albums. Then another stab in the back‑ her bass player dies of a heroin overdose.
It's three years later and she's played her first lead role in a movie, in Oliver Stone's The People vs. Larry Flynt. There's a buzz surrounding her. Irreverent questions and intrusive flashbulbs ‑the press and paparazzi can't get enough of her. So what does she do? She buys a £30,000 BMW (she hasn't passed her driving test yet), and starts dating a younger man, a Yale graduate.
This may sound like a Hollywood movie, but it's fact, not fiction. Welcome to the wacky, wonderful life of Courtney Love. If the 32‑year‑old First Lady of Grunge‑turned‑movie star was a cat, she'd have used up her nine lives.
Dressed in a demure, pale blue Prada dress and sporting a new short bob, Courtney looks more angel than former alcoholic and drug addict. Gone is the salacious slut look with the smeary red lips and heavy black eyes. It's hello to a softer, less made‑up appearance ‑ a butter‑wouldn't‑melt‑in‑my‑mouth face. Any fella would be proud to introduce her to Mum.
'Be nice to me, I've had a tough day. I don't want to talk about sex, drugs and rock'n'roll,' she smiles nervously. ' I wanna talk about my movie.' She turns around to check that her publicist is comfortable at the back of the plush suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. Very un‑Hole‑like.
It's well known that Courtney does not trust journos ‑ even the 'honest' ones. She claims she's been taken for too many rides by tacky tabloids, and on too many occasions she's been travelling without her seatbelt.
Still uneasy, she whines: 'I need a cigarette. Where are my smokes?' The pink‑haired publicist hands her a Marlboro Light. 'You're a doll,' she mumbles. In the controversial film, which has rocked America, Courtney plays Althea, the stripper wife of self‑made multimillionaire pornographer Larry Flynt. After growing up in a trailer park in a run‑down part of Ohio, in the 70s Flynt opened a bevy of Hustler strip clubs. It was at one of these that a troubled, 17‑year‑old Althea danced for Flynt. He made her his fourth wife.
The look of Love : as the stripper-turned-pornographer’s wife in The People vs. Larry Flynt; getting into character as the white-trash Althea; with screen-husband Woody Harrelson.
Flynt, then 34, gained a bad‑boy reputation for glamorising porn with the launch of Hustler magazine. He's the man responsible for putting 'tits' and 'pussy' in the dictionary and makes Hugh Hefner look like Mother Theresa.
'I honestly didn't know too much about Larry when I was growing up. But I remember when I was about 14 seeing a really disgusting photograph of Althea in Hustler, doing nasty things in the bathtub. I thought, what a sick, scary, publication, ' says Courtney.
The couple had a bizarre relationship. He liked other women and so did she. Flynt spent many years on trial fighting for his first amendment rights (freedom of speech) on charges of obscenity, libel and contempt. It was a crusade that was to outrage America's moral majority, and cost him dearly. In 1978, Flynt lost the use of his legs when an alleged white supremacist shot him outside a Georgia courthouse. (The crazed gunman was outraged by a photo spread of a mixed‑race couple, in a sexual pose.) Althea stood by her man through it all. Today Flynt can often be seen being pushed around in his 14‑carat‑gold‑plated wheelchair by beautiful, scantily‑clad women at his high‑rise, glass office, overlooking Los Angeles.
Courtney laughs: 'Althea was one crazy chick. Larry told me a lot of stories about her and she just did some amazing shit. I mean, there was this one time, when she was in love with Billy Idol. So she sent a Cadillac to his house, with two bronzed guys in the front. She was funny, man.'
But Althea cared for Larry. She was a strong woman. She'd been orphaned at 11, returning home from school to witness her father shoot her mother, her grandparents and then turn the gun on himself.
'I don't think she ever recovered from that traumatic experience. It wasn't hard for me to play Althea. I see a lot of her in me,' says Courtney, who is still mourning the death of her beloved soul mate, Kurt Cobain, one‑time lead singer of Nirvana. 'I also moved back and forth between parents as a kid. It can be damaging to most, but instead I became very independent at such a tender age. Being on my own so much forced my creativity. That's when I started dreaming of becoming a star. I craved the attention.'
Love had fun with the costumes she wore on Larry Flynt. 'I went from white‑trash 70s disco clothes to no‑taste 80s gear. I gave Mary Tyler Moore a run for her money!'
Fate was to deal Althea one final blow. At the age of 33, after years of alcohol and drug addiction, she contracted AIDS ‑thought to be the result of a blood transfusion during a hysterectomy. She died in the bath at Flynt's Bel Air estate in 1987.
'You know, someone who lived and then died like her, you really want to honour that person. We had too many things in common. It may sound corny, but I prayed for her in my trailer each night. I surrounded myself with her energy, so that I could get an essence of what she was truly about... you know, the dark and lighter stuff,' says Courtney.
There's no denying the diva has presence on screen as well as away from the cameras. 'I've always been an actress,' she says, taking another drag on her cigarette.
'Even when I was a little girl, I would dress up in my Mary Janes and be real imaginative. I was such a bossy kid! I was an actress for, like, one second in the mid‑80s: I'd be a punk-rock extra or something. That was really pathetic, and I left with my tail between my legs. That's when I turned to the music scene.'
Courtney's childhood was very erratic. Her father, a rock author and her mother, a psychologist, split up when she was a toddler. Up until her teens, Courtney lived in boarding schools in New Zealand and England. By the time she hit puberty, she became 'difficult' and was placed in a variety of foster homes in Oregon, near the US‑Canadian border.
Although she had danced in topless bars when she was looking for her big break, Courtney still felt she had to research the role of Althea. 'It was a huge failure. I hadn't been inside a strip club for a long time and when I did, it was kind of soft. It's a bit painful to talk about it. You know, it brings back too many bad memories. But I went in and I lied. I told them my name was Nicky, but that I didn't really want to work there. I was being so pretentious and I just got very depressed about the whole thing. I know all about that scene. What was I doing there? I didn't need to put myself through it again.'
Playing her pornographer husband is Woody Harrelson, another actor who is the first to admit he's 'poor, white trailer trash'.
‘What's Woody been saying about me? It's good, I hope,' enquires a concerned Courtney, eyes wide open. 'Initially, we were at each other's throats, but we warmed to each other as shooting went on. Now we're like brother and sister. We almost finish off each other's sentences, ' she giggles.
Harrelson, director Milos Forman and the film's producers believed so much in Courtney's powerful performance that they each forked out $100,000 to help pay her insurance premium. Courtney's drug history put her in a high‑risk category, which meant she had to stay clean and sober, as well as having to take a weekly 'pee' test.
'Yeah, that was pretty humiliating'. She takes a quick glance at her publicist, who comes to her rescue: 'Courtney would rather not talk about it.' How come? Did she miss the pan or something?
'Woody and I were like cat and mouse at first,' she continues. 'He got really mad at me when I was a couple of hours late for the first script reading. I didn't know him well then, but boy, after he blew up at me, I'll never light his short fuse again!'
Come on, spill the beans, Courtney.
'Well, I apologised for being late. I'm sure Woody will tell you something different. The next thing I knew, we're screaming at each other in front of the producers, directors, everyone. To top it off, we're both quite physical and I don't remember who started lunging first, but Woody kind of wrestled me to the ground. I think a few punches were thrown around. But we respected each other after that.'
Courtney asks me if I mind her smoking another cigarette. I shake my head and watch her milky‑white, lanky arms reach across the table for her packet of fags. 'You're pretty skinny in the film,' I say.
'Yeah, I lost 3Olbs in three weeks, actually. I don't mean to brag.' Her full mouth breaks into a huge grin.
'Boy, this trainer was tough. The trick is to cut out all carbohydrates, no juice, no fruit or dairy products... just hard‑core protein. If I had jogged, I would have lost even more. But who has the energy to walk, let alone sprint, when you're eating like a bird?'
She waves the smoke like a human fan and continues: 'I'm real proud of this film. You know, I had fun. I thought I might suck, but at least I've got the early‑80s bad fashion thing going on. I wore these really gnarly, white‑trash 70s disco clothes, and then too‑much‑money‑and‑no‑taste 80s stuff. I gave Mary Tyler Moore a run for her money!'
Courtney's gentle green eyes stare into mine, and she whispers: 'Things have really turned around for me, since... well, you know. I'm slowly getting my shit together, and I have to be there for my precious angel [daughter, Frances Bean, now four]. She's my strength.' She fondles an antique diamond locket around her neck, which contains a lock of her daughter's hair. 'After filming a heavy scene when Althea shoots up or something, I would rush back to my trailer to see my little bundle of joy, and all that dark stuff would go away.'
When I mention the rumours of an on‑set romance with co‑star Edward Norton (of Primal Fear fame, and five years her junior), she once again turns to her publicist to bail her out. The unlikely couple both strongly deny their relationship which, if you believe the gossip, is still going strong.
'There was a time when I was listening to a rumour a day about myself. It's all total bull.'
So, what's the best rumour you've heard about yourself lately?
She flashes one of her famous ear‑to‑ear grins: 'I'm not feeding the fire!'