They were young and wild and free, and they took to the road in a whirlwind of talk and sex and good times. They were looking for a new way of life, and they inspired a generation of young people to look along with them.
And those are just the actors. Kristen Stewart, the 22 year old star who has been hounded into what looks like exhaustion by the tabloid press, emerged in public this week for the first time in two months. The occasion was the North American premiere of On the Road, Walter Selles's jazzy interpretation of the Jack Kerouac book about a group of young people driving down the existential highways of 1950s America.
Stewart plays Marylou, a freespirited teenager who marries the animating spirit of the long and jazzy road trip - a charismatic excon named Dean Moriarty and played by rising Garrett Hedlund - for a life of drugs and open sexuality and a search for a new kind of life. The book became the defining document of the so-called Beat Generation of young hipsters in postwar America.
"As a sensitive girl of this time who is maybe a bit more conventional - ha ha - I kind of was curious about how you could have the strength to do the things she did," Stewart said the day after On the Road had its public premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. "And it's not that at all. It takes a lot of strength to be super-vulnerable. She was so so so open to the world."
Stewart, though, seemed guarded and tired. There was an unspoken subtext about her Toronto appearance: the revelation of, and apology for, an affair she had with the married director of her previous film Snow White and the Huntsman. It resulted in the breakup of her relationship with Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson.
No one was talking about it at the festival, but it hung in the air during interviews, in which Stewart was paired with Hedlund, who did most of the talking. She seemed tired, but she was game, partly because of the passion the film's actors feel toward Kerouac's book and the five-year process of making the film.
"If you approach it as a completion of the process, there are things that would never occur to you if you weren't asked the question," Stewart said about the interviews. "Sit down and have 10-minute conversations with 15 different people; if you don't take something from that, you're a sociopath."
Hedlund added, "At the end of the day we both know it's the end of a long road we've been on."
It's a road that has, in some way, been going on since Kerouac published the book in 1957, disguising himself (his character, played by Sam Riley, is called Sal Paradise) and his friends (Dean Moriarty is actually proto-hipster Neal Cassady) as they roared down the two-lane blacktop of a simpler, less-crowded country, looking for kicks and for truth.
"It's the expression of youth," Hedlund said. "Wanting to grasp everything and have it at the same time. Live long and never die."
Hedlund visited San Francisco to hang out in the spots where Cassady was raised: a museum to his memory, the City Lights bookstore that published many early Beat Generation poets, the restaurants where Kerouac, Cassady and Alan Ginsberg and the rest would hang out. He said he was coming out of a bar when a bum asked him for $20, and so he asked the man - who turned out to be a former football player just recently released from San Quentin prison - what the beats meant to the city.
"Ah the beat generation is all dead and gone now," Hedlund quotes the man as telling him. "Back then it was social consciousness. Now you've got rich kids coming out at 21 or 22, driving their parents' BMWs, trying to live this life, but it's a hoax.
"It's not a style, it's a feeling, it's a how you express yourself out of your innermost honesty and truth and how you are as a whole completely and uncensored and not caring. It's everything you are and if you live in this manner you might qualify to be somebody that somebody says re-semble the Beat Generation."
Hedlund read all the literature and met with members of Cassady's family, and he discovered a man who wanted to experience everything in life. "Things were happening and he wanted to be there. Someone said parties exist without you being there, don't worry about it, get your rest at night. He wasn't that. He wanted to be at that party."
Marylou, Stewart's character, isn't as well known.
She was really a teenager named Luanne Henderson, but Stewart said she left behind a long record of her thoughts about that era.
"I have what was possibly the easiest job," she said. "I would have done anything to be part of this movie. I would have played (peripheral character) Chad King. So that's how I approached it. I loved the book so much, I wanted to be around Walter, I wanted to be around the people interested in it. I just wanted to do anything."
Together they've made a world that seems freer, in some ways, than today's culture: for instance, Dean and Marylou are shown taking part in group sex with friends, and no blame is assigned. Hedlund says that while the highways are more polluted now, with billboards and telephone lines, it's still possible to hit the road.
"It's a level of your ambition and drive," he says. "It's a matter of where you want to aim your arrow. The things that have changed in time are the highways and the road. It's not as free. There's not as many hitchhikers, not on the main roads. To get where you want to get faster, you have to take the back roads. There's wonderful experiences to be had. When you're young you think you can achieve anything. The world's at your fingertips. And then reality starts to hit you. But I think it's always possible: we all want to get out of our parents' homes and not go to school and not have curfew. Some people fail. Some people succeed. some people have wonderful stories and some people have tales of sadness. It's all relative."