James Franco continues to beef up his increasingly varied résumé with a stellar performance in the Allen Ginsberg biopic, Howl
by Steven Foster • Photo by JoJo Whilden
James Franco is a deceptively chameleonic talent. He stars in blockbusters like Spider-Man and appears in soap operas (General Hospital—twice) in what seems to be Whack-quin Phoenix lunacy. He goes to Yale, and plays Sean Penn’s lover in Milk. He writes for Esquire and unveils his own solo art show at Tribeca’s Clocktower Gallery. The actor/auteur garnered respectable reviews for most everything, but it was the biopic about Harvey Milk that attracted the most praise.
The ever-studious Franco must have taken note, because this year he appears in two hotly anticipated biopics, veering from one role to the other with mad, careening genius. Later comes the torture-fest about Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours. You remember Ralston. He was the real-life Bear Grylls who, after getting his arm pinned under a boulder, sawed off his own arm—apparently just as horrific as it sounds, gauging from the Toronto Film Festival’s audience who squirmed for 90 minutes before giving the film a standing ovation.
First up, however, is Howl, the story behind the legal battle to silence Allen Ginsberg’s furious, sex-charged masterwork of modern poetry. Initially, Howl juggles courtroom scenes, documentary-like interview footage, faux archival film, and lush, lurid—albeit repetitive—animation with nimble aplomb. But ultimately, filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, famous for their documentaries on the AIDS quilt and The Celluloid Closet, have difficulty sustaining a cohesive narrative.
A critique like that would be the death knell for most films, but it’s a small crack in Howl’s great cathartic scream, all thanks to Franco’s stunning slip-skin performance. Whether looking at Jack Kerouac with lovesick eyes, writhing around on the bed with lover Peter Orlovsky, waxing philosophic with an unseen interviewer, or reading the orgiastic epic that is Howl, Franco is Ginsberg. He’s all Jewish tics and wanton prose. He’s limitless passion veiled in ferocious intelligence. He’s rage and hunger, a wannabe slut and a budding libertine.
In short, he’s everything Ginsberg was, without playing the overly studied mannerisms that tend to distract in similar cinematic tales of famous figures. If anything, Howl makes you want to pull down your copy of the poem and read it anew, to feel its cathartic shriek to the skies, and feel its—and Franco’s—animalistic abandon.
Editor’s note: Howl had been scheduled to play at Angelika Film Center, but now that the theater has shuttered, you can travel to Austin or Dallas to see the film this month. It will play at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts in December.
Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.