“I have seen the best actors of my generation destroyed by/The role of Allen Ginsberg, wearing hysterical flannel shirts,/Dragging themselves through the streets of New York/Looking for a hipster audience.”
Allen Ginsberg is one of the most celebrated American writers, and his poem Howl has become an immortal visionary depiction of the Beat Generation and its protagonists. It is not surprising how Ginsberg’s name has become a synonym for the young need to break free of a conventional anonymous life, to live full of poetry and love and revolution. Unsurprisingly, the increasing popularity of his figure has continually attracted the interests of the media. To play his character is indubitably a great honor and Hollywood has used two of its most beloved actors to take on the Beat icon: James Franco and Daniel Radcliffe. The first played the New Jersey poet in 2011’s Howl, while Radcliffe gives up his British accent for the Sundance hit Kill Your Darlings, which is now playing in select theaters.
The films portray two different stages in the poet’s life: Radcliffe is a young Columbia University freshman and a new acquaintance, the brilliant Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) even asks him, “Are you a writer?” Franco, on the other hand, lends his looks to an already acclaimed author during the period in which his masterpiece “Howl” was undergoing an obscenity trial in 1957. But who comes closer to reality?
James Franco is so incredibly believable in that mustard worn out shirt, talking to an invisible reporter with a new cigarette always lit. He appears and disappears between psychedelic animations that bring his words to life while he reads the poem. He has less screen time than Radcliffe but his presence is maybe stronger thanks to his voice, which never leaves the spectators. Not for a single second do we doubt that the guy in front of the camera is a pleased James Franco at the verge of his charm.
Admirable in Daniel Radcliffe’s performance is precisely this lack of self-awareness. He seems to be so comfortable in the shoes of yet another student in what is – at the end of the day – a coming of age story. He disappears behind the mask of Allen Ginsberg and, despite the glasses, the boy-who-lived doesn’t even come to mind. And yet, so much in Kill Your Darlings calls for a vow of faith in the director, John Krokidas, who romanticizes the story of Ginsberg’s early years and shows us days of lyricism and transgression that we all wish we had in college. If we were to look at how things actually happened, much of the controversial love story between Lucien Carr and Allen Ginsberg around which Kill Your Darlings revolves would not be found. Howl, on the contrary, is almost a documentary meant to make us feel part of both the court case and the first reading of the poem at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookshop, City Lights.
As far as Ginsberg’s relationships are concerned, in both movies we encounter Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston in Kill Your Darlings and Todd Rotondi in Howl), but maybe because he is an older Ginsberg talking or maybe because of the complete absence of Lou, only James Franco really expresses his significance and the affection between them.
Daniel Radcliffe depicts a more insecure, “unbloomed” poet, who stumbles his first steps into the movement “The New Vision”, which will then originate the Beat Generation. The casting choice is therefore accurate, considering how well the British actor always seems to bring to life characters who are struggling to find their own place in the world (Harry Potter of cousrse, but also in the play The Cripple of Inishmaan, in which he acted this summer).
However, both Franco and Radcliffe have their difficulties when it comes to leaping into the poetic dimension of the character, almost as if they couldn’t fully comprehend the greatness and twistedness of Ginsberg’s mind. They are not the only ones, of course. James Franco talks about Howl with a certain detachment, and during the reading of the poem I almost wish he could’ve let it get to him more, with less focus on the accent and more on what he is actually saying. Where is the tragedy he is talking about, where is the despair of being stuck in a marijuana purgatory? Similarly, Daniel Radcliffe reads the first words written for Lucien Carr almost as if it was the first time, the first take. No hint of fear for a love that might be rejected, no passion in the first verses of his career.
Personally, despite all its flaws, I couldn’t help but falling for Kill Your Darlings, although I wish it had been retitled “Allen in Wonderland” and it did not look as if the director of photography had applied an Instagram effect to every frame.
Which one do you like best? Are you Team James or Team Daniel?
Article by Giulia Rho