Arts & Entertainment
5 min

Inside Out 2010: Howl, James Franco’s portrayal of Allen Ginsberg

Festival scores a coup by securing film as the opening gala screening

James Franco (right) with Aaron Tveit as Ginsberg's longtime partner, Peter Orlovsky. In 1957, Ginsberg was tried for obscenity for his sexy and often-homoerotic poem 'Howl.'

The organizers of the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film and Video Festival scored something of a coup this year by securing Howl as the opening gala screening.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s account of the 1957 obscenity trial of openly gay beat poet Allen Ginsberg debuted at Sundance this year and has been seen by only a handful of people so far. It’s not due for theatrical release until the end of September.

Queer audiences should be familiar with Epstein and Friedman, who are perhaps the best-known LGBT-oriented documentarians of our time. For Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk, and co-directing efforts that include Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, The Celluloid Closet and Paragraph 175, the duo have won Oscars, Peabodys and honours at almost every major film festival — LGBT or otherwise — in the world. But Howl marks the duo’s first foray into docudrama.

Epstein and Friedman considered making a pure documentary piece on Ginsberg’s trial but found the story needed more. Merging trippy animation, dramatizations of Ginsberg’s life and his trial on obscenity charges, Epstein and Friedman take a step away from their filmmaking roots. 

Helping along the way is another creative mind Inside Out audiences are acquainted with: actor James Franco. Ginsberg is at least the third queer historical figure Franco has portrayed in his career, following James Dean in a made-for-TV biopic and Harvey Milk’s lover, Scott Smith, in last year’s Milk.

“One thing I love about playing characters based on real people is it gives me this extra jolt of responsibility,” Franco told me in January after Howl’s premiere at Sundance. “I feel much more obligation to just do my homework and really do everything I can to nail that role. The other side of it is, usually when I’m portraying a real person, it’s somebody I love, or at least respect in a lot of ways. So, I want to celebrate them and do the best job I can. I like the idea of showing that to audiences through a portrayal of what I love about this person.”

Franco became involved in Howl through his work on Milk, directed by Howl’s executive producer, Gus Van Sant.

“I was a fan of The Celluloid Closet,” says Franco. “About halfway through filming Milk, Gus Van Sant gave me the script [for Howl] and said, ‘Rob and Jeffrey would really like you to do this movie.’ I still haven’t asked them how I came into their heads. I’d like to find that out.”

Franco says he’s been a fan of Ginsberg and the beats since he was a teenager, and so the project immediately interested him.  

“I’d wanted to do a movie about that for a long time,” he says. “But I never thought I would be playing Allen Ginsberg.”

Things seem to have worked out just fine. Franco’s inspired and disciplined performance is perhaps the best work of his career, and critics have overwhelmingly deemed it one of Howl’s greatest assets.

Franco’s student film, The Feast of Stephen, recently won the Teddy Award for best gay-themed short film. Its follow-up, The Clerk’s Tale, is described as a psychological portrait of a gay man trapped in the monotonous routine of life at a high-end menswear store. It will debut in May at the Cannes Film Festival.

Read about more films playing at the 2010 Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film and Video Festival