Film: The Beats won't go on

The first rule of biopics: make sure your subject is dead. They could make life hell.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath and Courtney Love as Mrs William Burroughs? The estates of people such as Ted Hughes, Allen Ginsberg and El Hombre Invisible (as the Tangiers rent boys used to call Burroughs) are largely powerless to stop the use and manipulation of writers' images after their death. "We can refuse permission for his work to be used," Bob Rosenthal of the Ginsberg Foundation says, "but then they make up Ginsberg-sounding poetry, which is far worse." Friends and family can only look on in disbelief as Hollywood rewrites history. At least, that's what Hollywood rather smugly thought until about a month ago.

The indie king Steve Buscemi may be carefully co-operating with the Burroughs estate over his forthcoming adaptation of Queer and Junky, but otherwise mainstream Hollywood is playing fast and loose with the life of the legendary Beat writer in the latest Courtney Love vehicle, Beat - whose filming, set for this month, has suddenly been postponed - for one very good reason. If you are going to make a partly made-up biopic, first check that your subject is dead. Yes, dead.

Subtitled "a true story", the Gary Walkow-helmed Beat concerns a wild young man called Lucien Carr who had "an affair" with the wife of the author of Naked Lunch when staying with them in Mexico back in 1951. Never mind that it isn't true. Burroughs is dead. Allen Ginsberg is dead. Mrs Burroughs is certainly dead, because Burroughs famously shot her after one too many Oso Negro gins. Lucien Carr is dead, isn't he? Well no, actually, he's still alive and living in Washington DC. Cue panic among the dumb klutzes of Tinseltown who find out this salient fact far too late. What, you can hear the cigar-chewers scream, you mean you didn't check the old fag was burning in hell?

There's no doubt that the Burroughs and Carr story is a tale well worth telling. Carr is an essential figure in the endlessly fascinating legend of the Beats, the actual muse of the Beats. Despite his lack of any literary talent ("He had the vision," observed Kerouac, "but not the method"), it was Carr who played a pivotal role in the forging the original Beat triumvirate. As a young Columbia student, he introduced Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs to each other. It was too bad that he then went and stabbed someone: David Kammerer, a Burroughs friend who was stalking him. He got two years.

Through Kerouac, Burroughs met and married Joan Vollmer in 1945 - even though he knew he was homosexual, and so did Vollmer. Married life consisted mostly of drinking, riding in cars and trying to raise a marijuana crop in Texas. They had a child, who was born with his mother's addiction to amphetamines. They ended up in Mexico City, with Burroughs disappearing off into the jungle in search of the mythical drug yage. It was round about this time that Carr and Ginsberg came to stay. They went on an insane road trip which involved trying to drive into an active volcano. When Burroughs came back defeated from his quest, he ended up in a room waiting for a dealer to sell his gun to, who arrived late, and so Burroughs decided to wile away the time and do his "William Tell act" and shoot a highball glass off his wife's head. He shot her through the brain instead. Burroughs consequently spent his whole life trying to atone for it (though he got off completely free, thanks to the the dollar-friendly Mexican justice system). "I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death," he was to confess years later.

Courtney Love is a limited actress and the wildchild role will fit in well with her portfolio. Yet there's more to Courtney Love's decision than first meets the eye - and all manner of subtexts. Her relationship to Burroughs is actually a bizarre one. Her late husband, Nirvana's frontman, Kurt Cobain, was a devoted Burroughs fan and even cut his final record with him; their friendship seems to have provided some of the few bright moments in the troubled musician's last dark days.

Needless to say, not everyone understood this friendship and some murmured that Burroughs had provided the bipolar rocker with some kind of occult device (the zoetrope-like Dream Machine) which provoked his suicide. Though such rumours have been entirely discredited (and I can personally attest that Burroughs' company, far from being chilling, was essentially rather jovial at that time), there's a suspicion that Love may have half-believed them.

Certainly she was cold and distant to Burroughs' friends when she met them at her house shortly after Cobain's death.

Despite red-phone access to both James Grauerholz at the Burroughs estate and Bob Rosenthal at the Ginsberg estate, Courtney never made that call to the heirs of her husband's old friend when she agreed to be in Beat. She was clearly avoiding them. Why?

One has to ask what was going through Courtney Love's mind in the first place, wanting to play the wife of a celebrated wife-killer. For this is the same man who went on, in reality, to become the gun-obsessed friend of her own husband - who was to take his life by pulling the trigger of a shotgun. One can only vaguely speculate at her tortured motives. Guns and drugs and madness linger somewhere in the genesis of this role. She is the one who ends up with the bullet and not Cobain.

I talked to both Bob Rosenthal and James Grauerholz about their feelings over the misconceived Beat film, and they were both concerned about the representations not just of the dead, but of the living. "I've spoken to Lucien and he's very upset about the whole thing," confirms Rosenthal, speaking from New York. "He doesn't want the film to be made."

Problematically, part of Beat depicts an affair starting between Carr and Vollmer in New York just before he stabbed Kammerer. "He didn't sleep with Joan because he was sleeping with Celine Young," confirms Rosenthal. Grauerholz agrees. "There's no truth at all to the scenario that Carr and Vollmer had even a flirtation during the New York years 1943-45 - much less an incomplete romance," he says.

Carr also denies that any sexual encounters took place in Mexico City either - even though the Burroughs biographer Ted Morgan concedes the possibility of one single contact in his book Literary Outlaw. Carr says he was still committed to Celine back in New York. Again, the cautious Grauerholz also concedes that there is a "slight possibility" that "Carr and Vollmer" had "intimate contact in August 1951 in Mexico"; but there again, why should Carr lie about it?

It transpires that Carr, after a life spent working for United Press International in New York, eventually had two sons - one of whom is the novelist Caleb Carr, author of the bestselling New York noir novel The Alienist. Carr will certainly have no shortage of access to funds and moral support should he decide to take on the Courtney Love film.

Perhaps meltdown has already arrived. There is even a rumour that the writer and director Gary Walkrow (a former Sundance "find" who never really made the grade, despite hand-wringing Dostoevsky yarns) has been kicked off the project all together by the producer Don Zuckerman. Kiefer Sutherland and Norman Reedus - playing Burroughs and Carr respectively - are facing the worst Mexican longueurs since the filming of Titanic.

Perhaps they all should have been more mindful of Burroughs' advice to Kerouac when he gave the On the Road hipster a two-volume edition of Spengler's Decline of the West. "Edify your mind, my boy," he drawled in his best Missouri, "with the grand actuality of fact."