Ginsberg, Hollywood and homophobia

Kill Your Darlings is enjoyable enough as a dramatic thriller. It’s slick, has high production values with a good attention to period detail, and employs an accomplished formal craft that enhances the drug-fuelled montages in which it occasionally indulges. Unfortunately, it’s also an example of cultural biography dramatised and made conservative (packed with fear) for the mainstream. At best it is a dramatic tale of torrid love and passionate murder; at worst it is a bigoted biography of one of greatest poets of the twentieth century.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Allen Ginsberg. As with every other film he’s made since Harry Potter, the majority of commentary focuses on whether or not he’s finally free of the young wizard’s persona. If one has to ask then surely he isn’t! Nevertheless, Radcliffe gives an energetic performance as an ambitious but naïve college freshman during what the film depicts as an awkward, exciting and belated coming-of-age narrative. In many ways this could easily be the story of two teenage boys discovering literature, sexuality and subjectivity within the confines of a strict, private, single-sex boarding school. Instead, it is supposedly the story of how Allen Ginsberg met Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac and William S Burroughs, forming the nucleus of the Beat generation. According to its writers, Austin Bunn and John Krokidas (Krokidas also directs), the origin story is mostly about murder – oh, and the homosexuality that led to it, of course.

This isn’t the first time the movie machine has associated homosexuality with villainy. Alfred Hitchcock, considered one of the greatest cinema auteurs of all time, employed the association as often and as impassionedly as any number of other narrative motivations at his disposal: the movies Rebecca (1940) Rope (1948) and Strangers on a Train (1951) are all exemplary. What’s curious is the expectation that because we have followed a progressive linear trajectory in time that we ought also have progressed in our tolerance or better yet acceptance of sexualised ‘otherness’ – the established societal and therefore cultural norm being heterosexuality – onscreen. Of course, none of this is true in the slightest.

From 1930, cinema was subject to the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, after Will Hays who oversaw its moral enforcement from 1934.

In the 1960s filmmakers began to push its limits, openly defy its rules, and by 1968 force its irrelevance. Many think of the period from the 1960s onwards as a time where experimentation and transgression began to infiltrate the mainstream. Certainly the New Hollywood cinema that gave us films like Easy Rider (1969) Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) provides examples that support the contention that Hollywood and the studio-system opening up.

The counterpoint, however, is that it was around this time that the cinema stemming from the Beat movement, morphing into the underground and eventually developing into independent cinema was slowly being assimilated into the mainstream. While this assimilation was occurring a new, still restrictive, but more insidious, code was being developed and implemented. From 1968, it was enforced by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), an obscure group of people who can make or break a film with their classification ruling.

The MPAA gave Kill Your Darlings an R rating (meaning anyone under age seventeen must be accompanied by a parent or guardian), ‘for sexual content, language, drug use and brief violence’. The Australian Classification Board awarded it MA15+ for ‘strong sex scenes and drug use’. Perhaps both classification boards saw different a different film to the one I did, because the movie I saw had very little sex and only some drug use (not at all explicit, instructional or glamorised) – and neither of these things came even close to the ‘strong bloody violence, coarse language and sexual references’ that saw Only God Forgives (2013) receive the very same rating earlier this year. Of course, the more probable reason Kill Your Darlings is classified with an R in the US and MA15+ in Australia is because of the type of sex it depicts, despite the deplorable and quite honestly hateful manner in which it is depicted.

As well as portraying Ginsberg as effeminate and childlike through Radcliffe’s affectations, mannerisms and constant dopey grin, Kill Your Darlings presents the only sex scene in the film – a homosexual sex scene – as violent, illegal and terminal. For the most part the film indicates rather than shows sex through some genuinely well-established tension between Carr and Ginsberg. One such moment sees Carr staring with great intensity at Ginsberg as he receives his first ever blowjob. In another they share a brief but passionate kiss, their saliva traversing between their almost trembling lips. The most erotic example is a heady moment where they become blood brothers; silently, stoically. Sadly, all of this is annulled when the film reaches its literal and figurative climax. Every glance, every inference the film has been building up to, finally explodes with a cavalcade of homophobia and hatred.

By crosscutting between Ginsberg taking his first gay lover; Carr stabbing David Krammerer for being openly homosexual and pursuing his affections; Burroughs taking drugs; Kerouac listening to a vinyl recording of the very last words from his dying friend during the war, the film makes its message clear: the consummation of homosexuality is equal to the immorality and violence of murder, the illegality and obfuscation of drug taking and, most shockingly of all, the horrors of the Holocaust. That the film goes on to briefly examine the legal implications of an ‘honour slaying’ (where a heterosexual man is absolved of murder charges for killing a homosexual in defence of unwelcome advances) is null and void. The damage is done. In this briefest of moments the film goes from being acceptable popcorn fodder to wildly homophobic, perpetuating the worst kind of ignorance and intolerance.

With this at its core it seems trivial to chastise the film for historical inaccuracies, sporadic and illogical use of contemporary music or Ben Foster’s caricatured performance as Bill Burroughs. Left to Hollywood, biography becomes a minefield of coded imprecisions and loathsome lies.

If you really want to learn something about Allen Ginsberg, go read his poetry.

Tara Judah

Tara Judah is a freelance film writer and radio critic, programming and content assistant at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre and a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. Tara's writing can be found at and she tweets as @midnightmovies.

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  1. Thanks, Tara, for warning me off this film. I had shuddered at the thought of Radcliffe as Ginsberg but apparently the problems are much deeper. Sounds like I would do better to revisit James Franco’s performance in Howl.

    Ginsberg was a fantastic personality. As well as reading his work, check out the many videos available of him reading his poetry (and, for kicks, his tangling with arch-conservative William F. Buckley).

  2. Hi Dan,
    Thanks for your comments. Personally, I think Howl is the better film. What’s great about Howl is that it actually engages with Ginsberg’s poetry and mirrors his literary merits through innovative visual style. I think for biopic that its important to communicate something of the person’s talent, not just their personal life, which we so often see.

    That cross-cutting scene in Kill Your Darlings was a real disappointment. The film’s tone and tempo are relatively upbeat for the most part and captured *something* of the era. Unfortunately, that scene really undermined everything else, at least for me.

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