The New Courtney

Same as the old Courtney.

Illustration by Philip Burke

Courtney Love used to say that Alanis Morissette had killed alternative rock with her carefully crafted brand of faux angry-girl rock. I’d argue that Courtney put the nail in the coffin herself Oscar night. Two years ago the widow of Kurt Cobain and “Queen of Grunge” threw a post-Oscar party in a yellowing thrift-store gown and tiara, the embodiment of rock-star glamour. This time, as the star of The People vs. Larry Flynt, she’d had her famously scraggly hair blown out into a variation on the straight little Anna Wintour bob. Her face, applied by celebrity makeup artist Kevin Aucoin, had lost that jolie laide quality that used to make her so compelling. And she was wearing a tasteful dress by Gianni Versace–Versace, a man who built his empire dressing the very same past-their-prime stars (Sting, Jon Bon Jovi, Elton John) in opposition to whom alternative rock arose. She presented the award for best makeup, of all things, and played it completely straight, talking in the measured mid-Atlantic accent that her new friend Sharon Stone seems to adopt when she wants to sound cultivated. Sulky Barbra Streisand–who refused to sing her Oscar-nominated song because she herself hadn’t been nominated for anything–came off as a bigger rebel than Courtney that night.

There are rock-world observers who never considered Courtney a rebel, who dismissed her as a marginally talented opportunist who married well and whose stock rose precipitously after her husband committed suicide. The daughter of long-divorced parents–a mother who is a New Age therapist and a father who was a Grateful Dead hanger-on–Courtney left home while in her teens and blew a meager trust fund traveling the world. She lived in London, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Alaska, and always managed to hook up with powerful figures such as film director Alex Cox. She worked as a stripper. She pursued Cobain relentlessly, convincing a record label that was wooing her to fly her to a Nirvana show so she could meet him. By the early ‘90s, before anyone in the mainstream knew who she was, she was already such a legendary social climber on the indie-rock scene that an Olympia, Wash., band called itself “Courtney Love” just to get on her nerves.

All this deepened the luster of her image. In an age in which agents and publicists once again monitor a star’s movements as religiously as they did in the 1950s–when Rock Hudson was forced to marry his secretary to forestall rumors that he was gay–Courtney was an imperious and slightly unhinged anti-celebrity, physically incapable of keeping her mouth shut. Once, at a concert in Los Angeles, she turned to the industry-heavy VIP section and threatened anyone who “fucked with” her former manager Janet Billig, who had just been named vice president of Atlantic Records. She punched Kathleen Hanna of the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill backstage at Lollapalooza, and referred to her as “ratface.” She was kicked off America Online for making remarks that were too unladylike. A few years ago, she chased another rival, singer/songwriter Mary Lou Lord, down Sunset Boulevard after Lord showed up uninvited at the after party for one of her shows.

But her fans–the primarily female, vaguely cerebral, post-boomer listeners like me who made her band Hole’s album Live Through This go platinum (that is, sell 1 million copies)–admired Courtney in the face of evidence that she was something of a trial. She was a less-than-fit mother with a drug habit, which was unfortunate (she has since stopped using drugs). The backlash against her on that score still seemed misogynous. How many drug-addled male rock stars with children have been taken to task for the same behavior? Not Keith Richards; not John Lennon; not Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, who didn’t even acknowledge his daughter Liv Tyler until she was in her teens. Leaving behind a trail of babies conceived with groupies has long been a key to guy-rock mystique.

Like Madonna, Courtney had a brain and was not afraid to use it. But Courtney seemed much more real and more pertinent than Madonna, whose strength and sexuality appear, by comparison, cold and calculating–a power-suited ‘80s enterprise, with little range for contradiction. “I want to be the girl with the most cake,” Courtney sang on Live Through This. It was a perfect expression of the kind of cut-and-paste feminism young women I know practice, which makes room for self-destructiveness and fashion magazines and La Perla lingerie and fury. Onstage she’d prop her leg up on the monitor and wail into the microphone like any guy. Offstage, she’d announce that she had got a nose job, lost weight, and dyed her hair blond because she knew that that was what it was going to take to make people pay attention to her. It wasn’t just idolatry we felt; it was anxiety, memories of the times when she was so strung out at a show that she had to be carried offstage by her manager while the crowd shouted “slut” and “whore.” Three years ago, when Hole played its first New York show after Cobain’s death, every rock critic in town showed up to see if she’d pull it off. (She did.)

In order for The People vs. Larry Flynt to qualify for insurance coverage during the shoot, Courtney had to prove her sobriety by peeing into a cup once a week. One can understand her desire, then, to continue proving to the world that she’s no longer a loose cannon. And a girl is certainly entitled to make herself over. In fact, now that mainstream artists like Sheryl Crow have adopted the trashed-out slutty look, it was probably canny of Courtney to rethink her style. And there may not be a lot of room for subversion at the Academy Awards, where Cuba Gooding Jr. gets a standing ovation just for gleefully evading the 30-second acceptance-speech rule.

Afriend of mine who knows Courtney says she’s still the same old feisty cuss once the cameras are off, but that just means she’s getting good at separating her public and private personas, at being the kind of slick movie star whose opinions stay within well-demarcated boundaries. Under this new regime, we have a Courtney who, amazingly, has nothing she wants to share with us about Gloria Steinem’s old-school-feminist attack on the movie and on Larry Flynt, with whom she has become friends. A Courtney who told Premiere this fall: “The welcome that I get from grown-ups in the film industry is so nice. I’m used to going to the mall and having a kid in black lipstick scream at me, ‘I love you! I didn’t kill myself because of you!’ Or, ‘You suck!’ But a grown-up in his 50s, in a suit, being nice? I melt.”

If Courtney abandoned Hole tomorrow to be an actress it would be a shame, but not a tragedy–she’s a good actress too. It’s not as if she’s sold out, because any major-label rock star who claims to have managed not to is self-deluded. But while she’s obviously not a talent on the order of Pablo Picasso or Norman Mailer, she does have an outsize, nasty personality, and women aren’t offered that spectacle very often. It’s odd to watch a woman who named her daughter for the notorious Hollywood rule-breaker Frances Farmer purring at a pat on the head from the Hollywood phonies she would formerly have laughed at. But as she herself once sang, “I fake it so real I am beyond fake.” It may be that the artificial construction that is the new Courtney is the realest Courtney yet.