‘My Psychedelic Love Story’ Review: On the Run With Timothy Leary
To induce dread in a paranoiac, one need only invoke two acronyms: C.I.A. and LSD Along with a third and a fourth — U.F.O. and J.F.K. — these were key ingredients in the alphabet soup of conspiracy theory for more than half a century.
But. You don’t have to be a paranoiac, because sometimes dread-inducing combinations and schemes do yield horrific results. The 2017 Errol Morris-directed mini-series, “Wormwood,” to which “My Psychedelic Love Story” is a sequel of sorts, went into detail about the C.I.A. and LSD. It showed that the cloak-and-dagger organization and the hallucinogenic drug met up earlier than most might have guessed.
The agency’s early experimentation with acid culminated in 1952 with the tragic, infuriating death of the C.I.A.-employed scientist Frank Olson, officially deemed a suicide. “Wormwood” mixed Morris’s astute documentary style — a blend of acute interviews, archival footage and graphics — with dramatic re-enactments to suggest that it might have been murder.
The mini-series caught the attention of Joanna Harcourt-Smith, who in the early ’70s was the consort and psychic soul mate of Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychology professor turned LSD Johnny Appleseed. Harcourt-Smith was in Afghanistan with Leary, who had escaped from prison in the United States, when he was returned to U.S. custody.
At a subsequent rally for Leary, the poet and activist Allen Ginsberg, in a piece called “44 Questions About Timothy Leary,” asked, with not a little anger, whether Harcourt-Smith was a “C.I.A. sex provocateur” who entrapped Leary.
Harcourt-Smith’s question for Morris is: “Was I?”
“My Psychedelic Love Story” also draws on her 2013 memoir “Tripping the Bardo With Timothy Leary: My Psychedelic Love Story.” The narrative Morris and Harcourt-Smith recount is rollicking, globe-trotting and packed with characters, including the shady Hungarian banker Arpad Plesch — who managed to make himself Harcourt-Smith’s step-grandfather and stepfather — and the Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Implausible but nevertheless actual names such as Donald Strange are dropped. If you ever wondered, “How does Thomas Pynchon come up with that stuff?” this movie will assure you that the world just hands a lot of it to him.
Throughout the movie, Harcourt-Smith, a handsome woman sitting comfortably on an aqua love seat in an airy, earth-toned living room, recounts tales of free love interspersed with recollections of childhood sexual abuse. She likens herself to Mata Hari (and Morris frequently intercuts Greta Garbo, in a 1931 film, vamping it up as the famous spy). She shares wisdom from her bohemian upbringing with observations such as “You can never tell how rich rich people are.”
Morris asks her point blank, “When did you first realize you could control men?” and she takes the question at face value. But her story reveals that idea of control, as Morris frames it, is a false one.
It is true, though, that for a long period Leary was in thrall to Harcourt-Smith, and that Harcourt-Smith worshiped him. This heady, fascinating movie never definitively establishes that she was manipulated to get Leary back into the United States, where he eventually became an informant.
And as is the case so many times in life, the relationship between Leary and Harcourt-Smith ended, after all the convolutions and mystifications, not with a bang or even a whimper, but a simple betrayal. One night, while living in witness protection in Santa Fe, N.M. (“I wasn’t used to camping,” Harcourt-Smith says of their raw living quarters; “I was a Parisian!”) the couple had a loud argument. The next morning Leary was gone from the house, and from her life forever.
My Psychedelic Love Story
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. Watch on Showtime platforms beginning Nov. 29.