James Franco in Howl and 5 Other Favorite Movie Beatniks
While James Franco's performance in 127 Hours has him on the likely-to-be-nominated list this year, his other real-life turn -- as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl (out this week from Oscilloscope Laboratories) -- deserves as much praise, even if the film itself was little-seen. The narrative debut of documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet), Howl succeeds both at capturing the milieu in which Ginsberg wrote his most famous work and at bringing the poem itself to dazzling, cinematic life. So with Howl (one of my favorite films of 2010) coming to DVD and a long-awaited film adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road slated to hit later this year from director Walter Salles, here's a few of our favorite big-screen beatniks.
Funny Face: Mainstream 1950s movies generally included beatnik characters only to mock them or expose them as phonies, and this Stanley Donen musical is no exception, but watching Audrey Hepburn get wide-eyed and breathless over "empathicalism" -- before dancing in that amazing subterranean coffee-house number, the one so good they repurposed it as a Gap commercial -- transcends the bourgeois values of this otherwise charming film.
Absolute Beginners: In adapting the novel by Colin MacInnes, director Julien Temple fulfilled the author's prediction that "one thing is certain, and that's that they'll make musicals one-day about the glamour-studded 1950s." But Temple's vision includes intense beatniks in smoky basements as much as it does smart society and the high gloss of the advertising world. The story falls apart somewhat by the end, but the visuals are on par with what Baz Luhrmann would do a decade or so later.
Hairspray: Pia Zadora and Ric Ocasek's cameos as beatniks in John Waters' candy-colored valentine to the 1960s (and to Baltimore's Buddy Deane Show in particular) stand out in a film that's already crammed with outlandish characters, quotable lines, and giddy dance numbers. I, for one, can't hear a conversation about Odetta or hair-straightening without thinking of this black-clad, bongo-playing duo.
Bucket of Blood: Before teaming up to make the original The Little Shop of Horrors, director Roger Corman and screenwriter Charles B. Griffith collaborated on this darkly satirical comedy about Beat culture. Busboy Dick Miller gets ignored at the coffeehouse where he works, but when he accidentally kills his landlady's cat and covers it with clay, he gets raves as a hot new sculptor. To keep his oeuvre fresh, the hapless busboy has to turn to murder. Despite the film's bargain-basement budget, Bucket of Blood remains funny and offbeat.