The Beat Goes On
BY Benoit Denizet-Lewis
September 09 2010 4:00 AM ET
At first blush James Franco as Allen Ginsberg seems like a counterintuitive casting choice. Dustin Lance Black, who wrote the screenplay for Milk and got to know Franco on set, recalls his surprise when Howl codirector Rob Epstein told him that he and collaborator Jeffrey Friedman had selected Franco for the role. “My surprise wasn’t based on the fact that James would play another gay role, because nothing James does surprises me anymore,” Black says. “I just had a hard time wrapping my head around how James, who is one of the most handsome men in the world, was going to play Ginsberg, who had, shall we say, average looks. Would the audience be able to get past it?”
It was one thing for Franco to portray James Dean, as he did for a TV movie in 2001. That was a case of a hot young man playing the part of a hot young man, and it made sense—and won him a Golden Globe. But Ginsberg? Balding, curmudgeonly Ginsberg? Why not cast Franco as Barney Frank while you’re at it?
Van Sant, an executive producer of Howl, says Ginsberg, would have approved of the casting choice. “Allen was a bit vain, and I think he would have been delighted to be portrayed by James Franco…. It’s important to remember that Allen is a young man in this film, and he wasn’t a bad-looking young man. It’s not as big a stretch as you might think.” Indeed, in Howl, Franco doesn’t look all that different from a young Ginsberg.
Casting Franco certainly wasn’t a stretch for Epstein and Friedman once they heard Franco read the first few lines of the landmark 1956 poem: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.
“He blew us away,” Epstein says. “It was hard for us to imagine anyone being able to embody a young Allen, but James just threw himself into the role and knew what was going on emotionally and intellectually for Ginsberg in every line of the script. He so gets into Allen’s skin. It never feels like impersonation. It feels like a deep, nuanced understanding.”
That first impression doesn’t surprise Vince Jolivette, Franco’s close friend and producing partner. “James is probably more similar to Ginsberg than any other character he’s had to play,” Jolivette says. “They’re both writers. They’re both poets. And they’re both fascinated by art and who gets to decide what art is.”
That’s certainly a big theme in Howl, which centers around the obscenity trial of City Lights owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who published the poem in the fall of 1956. In March 1957, less than two years after Ginsberg, at 29, first read “Howl” publicly in San Francisco, U.S. Customs agents seized copies of the poem as the books were on their way from England, where the second edition had just been printed. Police arrested Ferlinghetti and charged him with publishing obscene material, leading to a historic free speech trial at which literary “experts” debated the merits of a poem with lines that include “holy the cocks of the grandfathers of Kansas!” and “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.”
The film explores a Ginsberg many people don’t know, one who Friedman says “was searching for a way to express fully who he was” in his writing, friendships, and love life. “Ginsberg at that time was still trying to figure himself out and figure his work out,” Franco adds. “He wasn’t the wise old man that many people remember him as.”
In Howl we learn that a young Ginsberg struggled with deep shame about his homosexuality, and we watch as he tries, for a time, to be straight. We get glimpses of his three early love affairs—with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Peter Orlovsky, who was Ginsberg’s partner for 43 years (until Ginsberg’s death in 1997). But mostly we’re treated to a celebration of the pursuit of creativity and authenticity in life and in art. Franco is at his best in a re-creation of an unpublished interview that Time magazine is rumored to have conducted with Ginsberg, where the young poet articulates his belief that there should be no filter between a writer’s personal experiences—including his sexual appetite—and what he includes on the page. Ginsberg believed that to combat a repressive society, poets needed to serve as models for rigorous honesty and self-examination. He believed in “total confession” and in showing “his asshole to the world.” As Ginsberg would later say, “You don’t have to be right. All you have to do is be candid.”