February 24, 1997 12:00 PM

FROM HER ELEGANT GETUP (A CLASSIC scoop-neck Valentino gown with diamond necklace by Harry Winston) to her choice of pals (hot young actor and rumored beau Edward Norton), Courtney Love seemed to make all the right moves at the Golden Globe Awards last month. Downright deferential when greeting Lauren Bacall and amazed that anyone recognized her that starry night (“Patrick Stewart came up and talked to me!”), she clearly enjoyed the girl talk. “It’s the new Chanel kind,” she said, showing off nail polish that matched her gown, which was borrowed from Sharon Stone. “Navy with little twinkles in it.”

Love, in short, was barely recognizable as the rocker in ripped hose who once seemed to trowel on lipstick with a guitar pick. But she was not on hand simply to show off her new image and attitude. The widow of grunge avatar Kurt Cobain, and a music force in her own right as the leader of Hole, Love, 32, was up for a best dramatic actress Globe for her much-applauded performance opposite Woody Harrelson in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Although the award ultimately went to Brenda Blethyn of Secrets & Lies, Love was pleased to have been considered. And while her portrayal of Flynt’s AIDS-doomed wife, Althea, inspired an early Oscar buzz, she was not among the nominees. (Flynt won two nominations, including one for Harrelson.) Still, she has fared well in her first starring film role. “I’m a little scared [by the praise],” she stammered upon winning the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best supporting actress. “It’s like my parents being nice to me. That’s never happened!”

While many musicians have made the leap to film, not even Madonna flew in from so far outside the mainstream. Soon after her husband’s 1994 suicide, Love began acting out her grief on tour—dragging Cobain’s ashes around in her knapsack and diving into mosh pits. And yet, despite the erratic behavior—she was arrested in 1995 after going ballistic on an Australian flight, and she punched rival rocker Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill during that summer’s Lollapalooza tour—Love had a sober side. “I thought she’d drink all night, do shooters, dance on the tables,” says Poppy Z. Brite, who met her in 1993 and is working on a biography of the star. “We ended up talking about poetry.”

At tour’s end, Love returned to Seattle, where she lives with daughter Frances Bean, now 4, in the mansion she once shared with Cobain, who killed himself by shotgun in a room above the garage. With Cobain’s mother, Wendy O’Connor, helping her care for her daughter, Love set about reforming her ways and reinventing her image. With an assist from publicist Pat Kingsley and Hollywood friends like Drew Barrymore, Love began looking for film roles. “She seemed very focused on making movies,” says Jerry Maguire writer-director Cameron Crowe, who recalls that when Love auditioned for a small role with Tom Cruise in February last year, she was dressed in a designer outfit—uncharacteristic for her but just right for the character. “When she left the room after the audition,” adds Crowe—who would have cast Love it he hadn’t lost her to the bigger part she was offered soon thereafter in Flynt—”it was one of those moments where you marvel at what you’ve just seen.”

Landing the Flynt role was no simple matter. Director Milos Forman and coproducer Oliver Stone were bowled over by her audition, but Columbia Pictures executives objected to casting an admitted former heroin user. “I cannot tell you how many people told us, ‘Don’t cast her, you’re crazy,’ ” says Flynt coproducer Janet Yang. In the end, the filmmakers chipped in on a $750,000 insurance bond in case Love, who agreed to weekly drug tests, disrupted shooting. “A pee test feels like an invasion of privacy,” says Yang. “But Courtney was a good sport. She knew this was a consequence of having that past.”

Love’s attitude—she knew the lines of every character in the script—impressed people on the set. “She didn’t want to be seen as some fluff actress, a rock star who lucked out with a good part,” says her acting coach Sharon Chatten. Adds Yang: “The first time we watched the dailies, Woody turned to Courtney and said, ‘You put me to shame. It’s such good acting, it doesn’t look like acting.’ ”

If Love had an affinity for the troubled Althea, it may be because she has lived through harrowing times of her own. Love’s footloose hippie parents divorced in her infancy—her mother, Linda Carroll, is now a Corvallis, Ore., psychotherapist; her estranged father, Hank Harrison, was an early member of the Grateful Dead’s entourage (Dead bassist Phil Lesh is Courtney’s godfather). Raised mostly by Carroll, who lived on a New Zealand commune before returning to Oregon, Love spent much of her childhood in boarding schools and foster homes and did a stint in an Oregon juvenile center for shoplifting at age 12. While still in her early teens, she was on her own and drifting through Asia and Europe. In England she hung out with rock groups and eventually settled in Los Angeles, where she worked as a stripper and in 1989 married a cross-dressing punk rocker known as Falling James. Even then she dreamed of making it big as a musician, says James, whose lack of ambition led Love to have the marriage annulled in 1990. At the same time, Love longed to fit into the adult world she seemed to reject. “Courtney was obsessed with having the best green lawn in the neighborhood,” claims James.

Unlikely as it might sound, Love seemed to achieve a kind of even-keeled happiness with Cobain, whom she began dating in 1991 and married the following year. The trauma of his death two years later lingered, friends say, until Love became immersed in filmmaking last year. “Rock and roll is a chaotic world,” says old pal and former boyfriend Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins. “The movie world provided her a strict structure.” Not to mention a host of A-list friends like Winona Ryder and Norton—both he and Love say the rumors of their romance are just that—and a bright future in films. At the moment, Love has no new movies on tap—she is working in L.A. on a new Hole album (no release date is set). But there’s no question that Love, who sings (in Hole’s “Doll Parts”) that she “wants to be the girl with the most cake,” is in Hollywood’s thrall. “She’s very excited and slightly confused by it all,” says Corgan. “She’s being accepted in a way she’s never been accepted before.”

STEVE DOUGHERTY

CRAIG TOMASHOFF, JOHN HANNAH, ANNE-MARIE OTEY and PAULA YOO in Los Angeles

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