Daniel Radcliffe and the Secret of Allen Ginsberg
BY DAVID EHRENSTEIN | Oh I’ve felt that many times,” Daniel Radcliffe said evenly. “It’s that moment when someone says or does something and it speaks to something in you. It’s when somebody else articulates what you want to be and you see that in them for a second. Moments that give you an instant connection to another person.”
The moment Radcliffe was talking about appears early on in “Kill Your Darlings,” writer-director John Krokidas’ startling new film about the birth of the Beat Generation. The “connection” comes one afternoon in 1944 at the Columbia University library where an 18-year-old Allen Ginsberg (Radcliffe) is being shown around by a teacher when suddenly another student, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), jumps up on a table and begins to declaim his ideas about life and art, dazzling the man who would come to write “Howl.” But that would be 11 years later.
British actor searches for future poet’s soul at dawn of the Beats
The Allen Ginsberg of “Kill Your Darlings” isn’t yet a poet, and the fellow students and friends he meets at this time — “poor little rich boy” William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and a merchant-seaman named Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) — aren’t artists yet either. What kick-starts their careers and links them for life is Carr’s murder of his manipulative mentor David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an event known to serious students of Beat literature but rather obscure to the world at large.
“I didn’t come across this story at all until 10 years ago,” noted Krokidas, who co-wrote the script with colleague Austin Bunn. “We shared creative ideas, and Austin told me this story of murder that brought together Allen, Jack, and Bill and stopped them from talking about doing something important with their lives and started them actually writing. It captures the Beats at a very young and rebellious age. You might call it an ‘Origin Tale’ of Super Anti-Heroes. Allen went to Columbia thinking maybe he wanted to be a labor lawyer. He didn’t want to say he was a poet because his dad was a poet. In fact, the poem that ends the film — where he announces that he is a poet — is the poem he wrote the day after David Kammerer died. We had a lot to draw on. Allen kept an extensive collection of journals and diaries, including from this era. Jack Kerouac wrote about the killing in his last novel, ‘Vanity of Duluoz.’ And then there’s the legendary book he wrote with Burroughs, ‘And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks,’ a literary vaudeville with alternating chapters by Burroughs and Kerouac that recounted the crime as a kind of variation on a detective thriller.”
But no Burroughs-Kerouac collaboration, no matter how surreal, could rival the press event arranged in Los Angeles for “Kill Your Darlings,” with media from the world over jammed into a Beverly Hills hotel, clamoring to interview the physically slight but iconographically imposing Radcliffe, who has forsaken multi-million dollar CGI extravaganzas for the likes of small-scale mood pieces like “Horns,” off-beat romances like “The F Word,” and an utterly unique biopic like this.
“I hadn’t met Dan when we started,” Krokidas noted, “but when I looked at photographs of the young Allen Ginsberg there is an uncanny physical resemblance. I didn’t know if he could relate to that character. When I first made my list of people who might be possible casting, I was looking for actors that were intelligent enough, that we would believe would become these people later. That they would have the soul of a poet and be Allen enough that he would encourage people to be braver with their lives.”
As it turned out, Radcliffe was more than capable of filling this bill and understanding what the story was about as well. Gay-friendly from an early age — a major supporter of the Trevor Project and an actor who has often cited drag queens as enormous influences in honing his talents — Radcliffe had no trouble with the film’s love scenes (a rather robust smooch-fest with DeHaan) or its startling sex scene (when Ginsberg find the courage to lose his virginity to a casual male pick-up.) What really stands out is his understanding of the young Ginsberg and how he dealt with a first love whose artistic talents weren’t as expansive as the poet-to-be thought.
“Allen had what Lucien lacked in terms of being a writer,” Radcliffe explained of the character’s dynamic. “Lucien always had that fear of not measuring up. The way he made up for it was by ebullience and charisma and charm, by being brilliant at putting people together and arranging them in such a way that they fly off each other. For the rest of his life he was a renowned news editor. Had he been in the movie industry, he would have been a brilliant producer. Some people have that skill. The fact is Lucien couldn’t find peace with what he had. He could only inspire others.”
Making matters worse was Kammerer, a man who had been his scoutmaster and for reasons that have never been made entirely clear was given leave by Carr’s parents to not only be his tutor but manage his life altogether. As the film shows, Kammerer wrote all of Carr’s class assignments at school. He was also romantically obsessed with him. While there is some controversy as to how far their relationship went sexually (Burroughs has claimed they never did the deed — though he may have said this to cover for Carr after his arrest), Krokidas’ film asserts it quite matter-of-factly.
It was Kammerer’s possessiveness that finally pushed Carr over the edge. One night in Riverside Park, Carr stabbed Kammerer with a Boy Scout knife, tied him up with a belt, weighed the body down with rocks, and threw it into the Hudson River. He confessed to Burroughs, who told him to turn himself in, which Carr eventually did, claiming it was an “honor killing” — meaning that he had killed the older man for attempting to sexually attack him. Carr pled first-degree manslaughter but because of the “honor killing” claim served only 18 months. In the film, this brings about the end of what was a budding Carr-Ginsberg romance. A pivotal scene finds the lovestruck but deeply upset Ginsberg visiting his inamorata in jail and denouncing him for his dishonesty.
“Allen sees something inherently wrong in lying for Lucien, and lying about his sexuality,” Radcliffe said. “Allen may not have liked David but he didn’t want to kill him. And that made him ask some serious questions. Lucien had been involved in some crazy behavior before. But with the murder, Allen had to reevaluate him and reevaluate himself in light of the fact that he had fallen in love with this person. What a complicated thing that must be to fall in love with somebody who kills someone else — and to still love them.”
Hanging over it all is the other tragedy of Ginsberg’s life at this time — his mother Naomi (played in the film by Jennifer Jason Leigh) being committed to a mental institution and demanding he come and see her.
“That’s one of the things I kind of latched onto with Allen as much as anything else,’ Radcliffe explained. “The relationship you have with your mother is a very important thing for any man — a Jewish man in particular. It’s no surprise he felt different because his family background and situation were probably different from anyone else he knew. When you think about Allen as a young man having to visit his mother in an institution and see her in that way and how upsetting that must have been for him. And the guilt he must have felt. It was a huge relationship that affected him for the rest of his life.”
Out of that relationship Ginsberg wrote his greatest poem, “Kaddish” — which Radcliffe knew prior to “Kill Your Darlings.”
“I had read that poem before, but it didn’t mean as much to me until now I read it again, and it became so emotionally powerful to me,” he said.
Krokidas was just as emotional.
“The thing that kept me going all the time it took to make this film was the fact that in 1944 you could get away with murder by saying the person you killed was gay,” he said. “Look at what’s going on in Russia right now. We’ve come so far, but have we really? What would Allen say? Allen has always meant so much to me. I read about him and the Beats when I was still closeted. He was someone who I’ve always admired, wishing I could be that brave myself. It’s the artists you fall in love with in your adolescence that stay with you for life. I’m not going to lie and say I prayed to the Art Gods, ‘Give me permission to tell this story.’ I just hope for people that knew him and respected him that I did him justice.”
Radcliffe, for whom the punk rockers of the ’70s were signal figures much like the Beat, feels the same way.
“It’s the same joy in nihilism,” he said. “The idea of tearing up everything and starting over from scratch. Do what you want to do and do it yourself. That’s what it’s all about!”
KILL YOUR DARLINGS | Directed by John Krokidas | Sony Pictures Classics | Landmark Sunshine Cinema, 143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves. | landmarktheatres.com | Walter Reade Theatre, 165 W. 65th St. | filmlinc.com