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The Women of 'On the Road': Fact, Fiction or Fantasy?

By Regina Weinreich | Indiewire December 24, 2012 at 9:25AM

A strange thing happens in the new film adaptation. Though still secondary to the narrative, the women have gained in significance and impact in key ways that speak both to Salles’ cinematic approach to storytelling and to the expectations of today’s film audiences.
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LuAnne Henderson (Marylou in the novel).
LuAnne Henderson (Marylou in the novel).

In Kerouac’s text, the women are leitmotifs, markers for male adventure. Marylou is based on LuAnne Henderson, who at 15 became Neal’s first wife and who made the car trips with the boys. Some wags have suggested that the filmmakers cast Stewart as Marylou to capitalize on her status as one of the world’s most popular and bankable stars after the “Twilight” movies. But Salles cast her after seeing the young actress in Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” in 2007, when Stewart was just 17 years old. “You have no idea how much this meant to me,” said Stewart recently, while promoting the Salles movie and “Breaking Dawn Part 2.” “I would have done anything on this film.”

Indeed, she does. Hot as Marylou, she’s often seen in bed with one or more of her co-stars. Viewers’ first look at her is when Dean opens the door for Sal and his friends in New York and steps aside to reveal her lounging in bed; he commands her to make some coffee, and she leaps up naked and damp, a sexed spirit who also rolls cigarettes for the boys. In a parallel scene later on, Camille reflects the more demure, conflicted woman of the times. She’s in bed, too, when guests arrive unannounced. Composed in a negligee, she pulls up the sheets and excuses herself for not getting up: “I wasn’t expecting company.”

One of the oddest moments in Salles’ movie is when, during a visit to Old Bull Lee  (Viggo Mortensen in an inspired portrayal of William Burroughs) in New Orleans, Sal watches Burroughs’ common law wife Jane (a much disheveled Amy Adams) madly sweep trees with a broom to dislodge lizards. The detail for the scene comes from an interview with Henderson, not from Kerouac’s fiction.

At an early fall screening of “The Master,” Adams mentioned how hard it was to picture this Jane character based on Joan Vollmer, who was often high on Benzedrine inhalers and who was later shot to death by Burroughs in Mexico City in a drunken William Tell routine. “There are few pictures of her — we had to improvise,” Adams said.

Here, her scenes are memorable, but there’s no mention of Vollmer’s intelligence matching that of Burroughs’ before she took up with him. Rather, the focus is placed on the domesticity of her scrubbing the floor and showing Galatea Dunkel (Elisabeth Moss) how to pleasure a man: she rounds her mouth, wiggles her tongue and moves her hand around an imaginary shaft. Looking on, Marylou encourages the reluctant Galatea, giggling, “You’ll like it, you’ll see,” before asking if she can watch her try it out.

Carolyn Cassady with Neal.
Carolyn Cassady with Neal.

It is unlikely that the women would behave so conspiratorially around the men in the late ’40’s,-early ’50’s, Johnson said recently. But Parker’s book “You’ll Be Okay” mentions Vollmer providing such sex advice in their pre-road days at Columbia University.

Salles has said that his interview with Carolyn Cassady made him understand the heart of Neal/Dean; as a result, he depicts these self-canonized men through the women’s eyes. And the men disappoint them, leading to Jane’s madness, the tears in Marylou’s eyes and Camille’s masochistic anger. Wild as she seems giving simultaneous handjobs in a speeding car, Marylou ultimately goes back to Denver to marry one of her sailors.

Most telling of all is Memere, the mother Kerouac promised to care for at his father’s deathbed. For even as Kerouac claimed that what Sal and Dean were looking for was “the hearthside idea,” the girl next door, and home to write, Memere consistently took a backseat to Kerouac’s car trips — only to see him return to live with her to the very end.

Put another way, what Kerouac wanted, ultimately, was a return to “lost bliss” — the womb.

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Regina Weinreich is the author of “Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics” (Thunder’s Mouth) and editor of his “Book of Haikus” (VikingPenguin). A professor at the School of Visual Arts, she co-produced/directed “Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider” and co-wrote “The Beat Generation: An American Dream.”

This article is related to: On The Road, Walter Salles , Kristen Stewart, José Rivera, IFC Films, Kirsten Dunst







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