Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo Editor Jennifer Crandall
Director Milos Forman with Woody Harrelson on the set of “The People vs Larry Flynt”, in Memphis, Tenn.
While not quite as romantic as Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes' coupling in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, to those who knew them, Larry Flynt and Althea Leasure's love was no less passionate. In The People vs. Larry Flynt, the much‑anticipated film about Flynt's battle for his First Amendment right to put whatever he wanted between the covers of his Hustler magazine, Woody Harrelson stars as the paralyzed pornographer (shot by a would‑be assassin in 1978) alongside Courtney Love as his doomed wife, Althea (an ex‑stripper and junkie, she rose to the top of his publishing empire before succumbing to AIDS in 1987). But according to the mistress of grunge, who is earning early accolades for her performance, the all‑important chemistry wasn't there at first.
TORN AND FRAYED: COURTNEY LOVE (LEFT) AND WOODY HARRELSON (ABOVE) GETTING INTO CHARACTER FOR 'THE PEOPLE Vs. LARRY FLYNT,' FEBRUARY 1996 IN MEMPHIS, TENN.
"You think I could give Woody a chub?" asks the scream queen rhetorically. "It was, like, we were in bed so much together that there wasn't much to do except grab his d‑‑‑ and go, 'There's nothing there, Woody. I don't know how you get
'em. '"The two stars agreed that what they lacked in sexual tension could be remedied by a little homework. So they did what any self‑respecting method actors would: They got smashed and tried to create some sparks. "We drank two hotties of Cristal [champagne]," recalls the irrepressible Love, "and I'm like, 'OK, you feel any sexual tension?' And he's like, 'No!' and I'm like, 'Me neither!' So, I said, 'Put your hand on my boob,' and he did, and he's like, 'Nothing!' And I'm like, 'Nothing!' And I said, 'You're gay!' And he said, 'No, you're gay!' And I was like, 'OK, OK, we're gay!'"
On most occasions when the unconventional duo stepped out on the town, Love, 32, went unrecognized because of her new look (she'd dyed her hair black and lost some baby fat). The 34‑year‑old actor, however, was mobbed. "Everywhere we went, it was like being with a Beatle," grumbles Love. "'Woody! Woody! Cheers! Woody!' Nobody recognized me." But the hardly shrinking violet had an antidote for that: "I took him to a punk show, and nobody recognized him. Hah!"
TWO OF A KIND: 'IT WAS A TOTAL FUSION ‑ AN EXPLOSION," SAYS DIRECTOR MILOS FORMAN (TOP) ON THE HARRELSON‑LOVE COUPLING (LEFT).
"I crawled through glass to get this part," says Courtney Love. "I kicked ass on whomever certain Oscar winners and other chickadees who are far cuter and hotter and better than I am."
Nonetheless, the two actors formed a deep connection that manifested itself in strange and wonderful ways. For example, as the good‑humored Harrelson tells it, there was the time when they were shooting on a stage before a large crowd of Memphis extras. During a break, he jumped up to the microphone and pretended to be an evangelical preacher. Love suddenly staggered onstage wearing sunglasses and holding her hands out, pretending to be blind. "I said, 'Be healed!' " recalls Harrelson, pantomiming how he pushed Love away with the palm of his hand. "And she pretended she could see, and everyone was cheering. And then," he adds, "we sang 'Amazing Grace."
"It was very beautiful, actually," recalls the film's director, Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus). "They were not working, but everyone stopped and was listening. It was very, very touching."
By all accounts, the spontaneous duet captured the unique bond that the pornographer and his late wife shared. Perhaps in a way no other actors could.
THE REAL LARRY AND ALTHEA (OPPOSITE) IN 1979.