Cinema: Courtney Love for the Oscar!

With `The People vs Larry Flynt', the woman America loves to hate has come good at last. Dennis Lim reports from New York on an unlikely rehabilitation
In her five years under the media microscope Courtney Love has been variously portrayed as a rock goddess, a feminist icon, a grunge Madonna, a Nineties Yoko Ono, a junkie mother, a tragic widow, a victim, a villain, a vengeful manipulator, a crazed Internet surfer, a walking freak show, and a self-destructive near-OD case. Now, one drastic makeover later, the woman America loves to hate could be about to take on her most unexpected role yet: Oscar winner.

But first, there is the small matter of getting America to warm to a film in which the hero, one of the most vulgar pornographers in the world, wears the American flag as a diaper. The People vs Larry Flynt is Milos Forman's impassioned biopic of the notorious Hustler publisher and freedom- of-speech crusader, paralysed from the waist down as the result of an assassination attempt in 1978. Woody Harrelson stars as Flynt, and, in a case of close-to-the-bone casting, Love plays his late wife, Althea Leasure Flynt, a stripper with a heroin habit (an Aids sufferer, she drowned in the bath nine years ago). Even before the movie premiered at last month's New York Film Festival, Love was being tipped for an Oscar nomination. Following that prestigious screening and a rave in Variety ("Courtney Love is the revelation here"), the buzz has been building.

The Oscars are in desperate need of a shake-up, Mel Gibson and Tom Hanks having recently dragged the ceremony to new lows; giving Courtney Love an award, or even a nomination, would do the trick. But this tantalising scenario ignores both Oscar politics and the current political climate in America (lest we forget, "liberal" was the dirtiest word of this election year). The film has already run into its own censorship problems; the original poster - with Woody Harrelson in the famous Stars-and-Stripes diaper, "crucified" against a woman's crotch - was rejected by the Motion Picture Association of America. It should be noted, too, that one of Flynt's producers is Oliver Stone, a film-maker who inspires normally cine-illiterate politicians to get all excited about movies they haven't seen.

Stone was originally approached to direct the Flynt story, but he declined, as he was working on his own bio-of-a-sleazebag, Nix-on. Directing duties fell instead to the Czech-born naturalised American Milos Forman - best known as a director of big, slick, eminently respectable pictures - a decision which will certainly help ease the film into the award-friendly mainstream. Forman has made only five films since 1975, but two of them (Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) were major Oscar winners. Flynt scriptwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski also have the right pedigree: they scripted Tim Burton's tribute to the Z-grade director Ed Wood, and clearly have a fondness for unlikely heroes.

In a sense, The People vs Larry Flynt has an in-built impunity: even though it features pornography, bisexuality and drug use, it has been carefully moulded into a celebration of free speech, that most cherished of American traditions. Porn may hit a raw nerve in Americans, but crucially, the First Amendment is a soft spot. With that in mind, the film closely follows Flynt's high-profile obscenity trials, culminating in a landmark Supreme Court judgement against the Reverend Jerry Falwell, one of America's most outspoken moral guardians, gleefully vilified by the film-makers.

Courtney Love's recruitment is in keeping with Forman's habit of casting non-actors in his films. Harrelson's brother, Brett, plays Flynt's brother; Flynt himself plays the judge who sentenced him to 25 years in jail (a conviction subsequently overturned). This is Love's first big movie role, but in recent months, American cinemagoers have seen her, fleetingly, in Julian Schnabel's Jean-Michel Basquiat biopic, and in the sloppy Keanu Reeves comedy Feeling Minnesota; her screen debut, in 1986, was a bit part in Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy.

Forman had not previously heard of Love, but was strongly drawn to her when she auditioned. He was also swayed by one authoritative voice in particular. The director told Vanity Fair that Vaclav Havel, the Czech president and an old friend of his, cast his vote for Love after viewing the screen tests. On the whole, Havel's intuition has paid off. Love isn't exactly "the revelation" that Variety speaks of, but it's an admirable turn by any standards; though, perhaps unsurprisingly, it's only after Althea becomes addicted to heroin that Love's performance becomes truly convincing.

It wasn't easy getting Love on board in the first place. Her involvement threw pre-production into disarray. Insurance companies recoiled instantly, but instead of going for the easier option - recasting - Forman, Harrelson, the producers and Love herself all chipped in for a separate policy to cover the high-risk star. During the shoot, she was subjected to weekly drug tests, all of which she passed.

Humiliating treatment, perhaps, but since the April 1994 suicide of her husband Kurt Cobain, Love's public image has, if anything, deteriorated. Instead of withdrawing from the spotlight, she mourned angrily and openly, attracting often unkind and unjust criticism. Within a year, she was again performing with her band Hole, touring the well-received Live Through This album, and giving yet more profane, free-associative interviews. She discovered cyberspace, and started posting incoherent rants on America On-Line. At last year's Lollapalooza festival, she was her usual combative self, wading into the crowd, abusing fans, and punching Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna in the face. Also, the heroin stories continued to circulate.

All of which makes the new, possibly Oscar-worthy Courtney even more startling. She reportedly went into rehab shortly after the film wrapped, but that aside, she's been unusually quiet. Recently, she gave what may have been her most polite interview ever to a fawning Newsweek journalist; only last year, the magazine had called her on-stage antics offensive. Love's alleged flings with rock stars like Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan and Evan Dando have led to public feuds; now, her tamer image is even reflected in her new boyfriend, co-star Edward Norton, who plays Flynt's lawyer. Cherubic and clean-cut, Norton is 27, but he could pass for a teenager.

Forman's impressive track record at the Oscars applies equally to the acting awards. Under his guidance, three actors (Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher and F Murray Abraham) have won Oscars, and four more have picked up nominations, so it's feasible that Harrelson, Love and Norton will all find themselves up for awards when the shortlists are announced in February. With Madonna's Evita opening on Christmas Day, two days before Flynt, Hollywood-watchers are drooling at the prospect of a Courtney-Madonna Oscar face-off.

In Oscar terms, playing a drug addict isn't a problem per se: Sharon Stone and Uma Thurman both won nominations for coke-snorting roles. In Love's case, however, the real-life parallels may be too much for the stuffy Academy to handle. It's been a disappointing year for movies, but if voters want to ignore Love, they could easily come up with five suitable candidates: Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Winona Ryder all have the backing of prestige pictures (Portrait of a Lady, Emma and The Crucible respectively); Meryl Streep makes her annual bid with the forthcoming tear-jerker Marvin's Room; and judging by US reviews, a British trio - Brenda Blethyn (Secrets and Lies), Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves) and Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient) - are frontrunners for the year-end critics' prizes, always healthy pre-Oscar boosts.

Love herself seems relatively unexcited about the Oscar talk. Now working on Hole's third album, she told Newsweek that, above all else, she remains a musician - a sentiment that may not endear her to the Academy. Ultimately, the Oscars are still about people like Tom Hanks and Sally Field. It will be an act of unprecedented indulgence if Hollywood really does let a perennial outsider like Courtney Love gatecrash its annual orgy of self-congratulation.

! `The People vs Larry Flynt' opens in the UK next year.