Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg tirelessly promoted himself, his work and the work of his friends – Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady – and, while he often performed in Los Angeles, he never tried to promote himself in Hollywood perhaps because he felt more at home in the world of books than the world of film. Surely, he’d be surprised – he died in 1996 at the age of seventy – by the recent batch of movies about him and the “boy gang,” as he called it, to which he belonged in New York in the 1940s.
James Franco portrayed him as a cartoonish countercultural figure in Howl (2010), Tom Sturridge depicted him as a mad poet in On the Road (2012), and now Daniel Radcliffe turns him into a conflicted moralist in Kill Your Darlings (2013), which is probably the least faithful of the three pictures as far as the historical record goes. The film, which was directed by John Krokidas, takes liberties with facts and with biography. The Beats never did break into the Columbia Library and “liberate” books under lock and key. But they might have. Moreover, while Ginsberg didn’t actually do all the things his character does in Kill Your Darlings, he was capable of doing them. Typing and masturbating at the same time? That scene only adds to the mythology that the Beats themselves began.
Radcliffe’s Ginsberg is a precocious Jewish teenager from provincial New Jersey who enrolls at Columbia College and falls in with a group of rebels with a literary cause who use illicit drugs, binge drink, carouse, and plunge into unconventional sexual waters. With his weighty glasses, unruly hair and the anxious expression he wears on his face, Radcliffe looks as though he’s playing a Manhattan version of Hamlet in a dark American drama that culminates in a bloody murder. The moral fulcrum of the film, Radcliffe’s Ginsberg has to decide whether to tell the truth, or to conceal it and protect the man he loves: Lucien Carr, one of the original members of the Beat Generation who was found guilty of manslaughter and who served a brief prison term. The real Ginsberg doesn’t seem to have been morally conflicted when Carr murdered David Kammerer in 1944. In fact, he saw the incident as the germ for a Dostoevsky-like novel he wanted to write but never did. He decided he wasn’t meant to be a novelist, but a poet. A wise decision.
In Kill Your Darlings, Ginsberg sits at a desk and does a lot of furious typing. For much of the film, he expresses himself on paper and not through the spoken word, though he spars verbally in the classroom with a professor of English who insists that, “imitation leads to creation.” That same professor tells his students to edit their work mercilessly and rip out the words to which they are most attached. “Kill your darlings,” he says in a lecture.
Don’t kill your darlings, the movie seems to say, but rather save them, love them, embrace them.
As Lucien Carr, Dane DeHaan speaks many of the film’s best lines. “We’re sending men to kill fascists, but they’re all over here,” he says. It’s a line that the real Ginsberg would have said; he conveyed that very idea in the overtly political poems he wrote during World War II. Kill Your Darlings downplays Ginsberg as a teenage anti-fascist who vowed to grow up, become a left-wing labor lawyer and defend the downtrodden.
In New York in 1944, the real Carr persuaded the real Ginsberg to let go, at least for a brief time, of the radicalism that he imbibed at home; his mother, Naomi, belonged to the American Communist Party and his father, Louis, called himself a socialist. Both parents appear in the film, as does Carr’s protective mother and Burroughs’s patriarchal father. A curious Oedipal thread runs through the movie; Ginsberg bristles under his father’s authority and rushes to defend his crazy mother played by Jennifer Jason Lee. Carr’s own sexual ambivalence seems to stem from an overbearing mother and the absence of a father or father figure. “My father left when I was four,” he confesses as though providing the key to his own neurosis.
Kill Your Darlings offers yet another portrait of the artist as a young man: in this case a homosexual who doesn’t understand or appreciate his own budding sexuality. Rebuffed by Carr, Ginsberg goes to a bar, allows himself to be picked up by an older man and to have anonymous sex with him in a hotel room. Radcliffe plays the scene to perfection or close to it. He undresses in front of the camera and gets into bed, lying face down, as though he were a veteran of gay porn pictures who decided to reject the pornographic and go with the artistic.
If nothing else, Radcliffe shows, in Kill Your Darlings, that he can be more than a British schoolboy and that he has indeed moved beyond the role of Harry Potter. Ginsberg himself would probably applaud his performance; he’s the most sympathetic of the characters in the movie. Jack Kerouac, played by Jack Huston, hasn’t a moral center and neither does William Burroughs, played by Ben Foster. Radcliffe’s Ginsberg has angelic moments worthy of Harry Potter. Still, he’s an angel with flaws and foibles. He’s an artist who comes of age on the screen, flaps his poetic wings, and soars.
The film certainly doesn’t romanticize or demonize homosexuality. (In 1944, there was no “gay liberation.” Men who had sex with other men were called homosexuals.) In Kill Your Darlings the male characters are all homosexuals, or at least bisexuals and as capable of jealousy and possessiveness as any heterosexual characters. Indeed, the film might be remembered more for its frank portrayal of homosexuality than for its portrayal of the Beats, though the Beats and homosexuality are nearly synonymous. As a young, confused homosexual on the cusp of coming out of the closet, Daniel Radcliffe brings the role to life and elicits a sense of genuine compassion. Don’t kill your darlings, the movie seems to say, but rather save them, love them, embrace them.