As I get ready to send this book out into the world I understand the long overdue movie of On the Road is still spinning its wheels, having run out of gas for the umpteenth time.
I’ve seen most of the movies in which an actor plays the Jack Kerouac character, and none are successful. For Jack they always pick some young man who is short, dark, and handsome and who looks “sensitive” but who doesn’t look or sound anything like Jack.
The only Hollywood actor who actually looks like Jack is Mel Gibson. He’s not as handsome as Jack was but has very similar features and that same wild gleam in his eye, the same combination of wildness and sweetness–the athlete and the poet, Braveheart and Hamlet–and the same good-humored crinkles around the eyes. He, too, is one of those bantam-sized men–they’re both only five feet nine–that women want to take home and feed a hot meal.
There’s a scene in What Women Want where Mel Gibson dances by himself in a sort of forties musical sequence, wearing his hat at a rakish Ol’ Blue Eyes angle, where he looks so much like Jack, it’s uncanny.
For years I had a picture of Mel Gibson on my refrigerator, not because I had a thing about him, but to remind myself that I’d better hurry up and finish this book before Mel got too old to play the young Jack.
Unfortunately, that’s what’s happened. Gibson is too old now, even if he wanted the role. He might object on moral grounds: his violent brand of Christianity is very different from Jack’s Catholic-Buddhist blend, though each in his own way has been obsessed with the Stations of the Cross.
Then there’s Jack’s walk. He walked like a Frenchman: hands in pockets, head down on one side not taking up too much space–remember he told David Amram “a writer must be a shadow”?–neat, efficient, but loose, almost shuffling, humble but alert. I’ve seen old men in Lowell with this walk. Whoever plays Jack should go to Lowell and walk around.
But the big problem with the casting of Jack in the existing movies is not that the actors don’t look like him or walk like him, but that they don’t sound like him. The most important thing about Jack is his voice, that unique blend of Massachusetts vowels, French Canadian intonations, jazz rhythms, and Sinatra croon: something like what you might get if Frankie had been born in Boston instead of Hoboken. But those actors don’t even try for the Lowell accent.
There’s another quality to his voice which is part and parcel of his ethnicity and his vision. There is a certain way of speaking English that all Native Americans have, regardless of tribe. Maybe it comes out of their common experience as outsiders who are close to the land: a tone of voice that is difficult to describe but instantly recognizable: a tone both innocent and knowing, unpretentious yet powerful. It is the voice of someone who has pledged allegiance to the truth, a voice full of sadness but devoid of irony. Life is too serious for irony. It’s the voice of a nature lover and an old fashioned believer. Sun Bear, Medicine Story, Wallace Black Elk: they all had it, and Jack had it, too. The American plains are in it.
Jack may well have had Iroquois blood; he believed he did. At any rate, that ancient French and Indian quality has to be in there as well: the innocence of the American Indian, the purity, the love of truth.
Some years ago I heard that Johnny Depp bought Jack’s raincoat from the Kerouac Estate for $25,000 because he wanted to play Jack. When I first heard this I was dubious. Johnny Depp is a great actor but he doesn’t look like Jack, and I couldn’t imagine him playing a man who got a football scholarship to Columbia.
But then I watched The Source, which is my personal favorite of the documentaries about the Beats. In this film, footage of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs is juxtaposed with shots of actors reading from their works: Johnny Depp reads Kerouac; Dennis Hopper, Burroughs; and John Turturro, Ginsberg.
I knew this, and yet the first time I watched this video, I was fooled. I was watching along and I recognized Jack’s voice when lo and behold, to my amazement, Johnny Depp appeared on the screen. Johnny Depp read Jack’s words with such devoted fidelity to the Kerouac timbre, accent, and rhythms that until his image appeared on the screen, I thought it was Jack. Unlike all the previous actors who have attempted to impersonate Jack on film, Johnny Depp actually studied his speech patterns and was able to nail that voice which is unlike any other with the possible exception of Sinatra, whom Jack could imitate to a T.
The secret here is simple. Johnny Depp can “channel” Jack for the same reason Jack could sound so much like his idol Sinatra. Intelligence and talent are important, but the real secret, of course, is love. Love takes the time to pay close attention. Love listens. That’s what’s needed.
So I hope that whoever gets the part will take the time to study Jack’s voice.