James Franco is way too pretty to play Allen Ginsberg, but he manages to inhabit the poet’s idiosyncratic skin
Published: October 27, 2010
Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Opens Oct. 29 at the Charles Theatre
First off: James Franco is way too pretty to play Allen Ginsberg. Not saying Ginsberg was ugly—it’s difficult to think of another American writer who spent so much of his life in the public eye and aspired to be a beautiful human being—but Franco, his recent incursions into soap-opera acting as performance art and novel writing not withstanding, is movie-star handsome, with a handsome voice to match a silent-screen profile.
He manages, though, to inhabit Ginsberg’s idiosyncratic skin, adopting the incantatory nasal style he used when reading his poetry and the thoughtful intelligence of his interview responses, where sentences seem to rush forth just to get to the next pause. Writers/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman wisely let Franco’s loving performance carry the majority of Howl, a modest biopic that focuses primarily on Ginsberg’s life up to the writing and publishing of the titular poem and the 1957 obscenity trial brought against City Lights Bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg’s publisher. Howl weaves together animations depicting “Howl’s” scintillating scenes, black-and-white depictions of Ginsberg’s past—meeting and hanging out with Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi), Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott), and Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit, who actually might not be pretty enough to play Orlovsky)—Franco’s Ginsberg reading “Howl” in 1955 at San Francisco’s Six Gallery, and the 1957 obscenity trial.
It’s a slightly off-kilter balance, making Howl feel a little tenderfooted and not entirely confident, but that tone complements Ginsberg and the Beats’ own place in American culture in 1957. Robert Frank’s The Americans had yet to be published, Kerouac’s On the Road hadn’t become the countercultural map for a generation, and Ginsberg himself hadn’t started hanging out with Bob Dylan just yet. In other words, the America in which Ginsberg lived in Howl isn’t that much removed from the 1960 recreated in the first season of Mad Men (coincidentally, Jon Hamm appears as Ferlinghetti’s defense attorney). The movie offers a snapshot of a man right before his life and work enter the public domain.
Which makes Franco’s performance so integral to this experience. It’s a subtle, tactful display of acting, where Franco permits the formerly shy young Ginsberg, perhaps emboldened by the powerful language of his poetry, to try on the confidence of a visionary extrovert every so often just to see how it feels. Howl won’t teach Beat fans anything they didn’t already know, but Franco’s interpretation of Ginsberg during this time offers a curious window into an artist in the creative act of distilling his life’s history into his art’s story.
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