James Franco: Overexposed and Underappreciated

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Reflections on Hollywood’s most shamelessly self-promoting polymath.

By Daniel D’Addario

James Franco — short-story author, soap-opera star, professional student, drag-queen model — is a boring person. Or so I thought, as a Columbia student and the editor of an Ivy League gossip site. Every time I tried to round up decent stories about normal students and their abnormal dramas, I had to sort through dozens of tip emails about James Franco. Even worse, I heard about Franco — an MFA student at Columbia — in my offline life, constantly. When had the best friend from Spider-Man become someone I was supposed to take seriously? Unlike all of my friends, male and female, I didn’t even think he was that cute.

I might not be ready to spend five days lying under a rock with him, but I’m interested again.

Franco made poor copy for a blogger because, despite his fame, he did nothing out of the ordinary. He fell asleep in class! He was spotted smoking on the street! He went to study in the library! I got at least three frantic messages from friends who saw Franco in the library, shocked that he was listening to headphones and typing, ignoring the hubbub around him – like the world’s most typical grad student. He was everywhere, but not necessarily doing anything. However, as his new film, 127 Hours, approaches, I’ve overcome my James Franco fatigue. While I might not be ready to spend five days lying under a rock with him, I’m interested, something I never thought I’d say.

To start, James Franco is totally bonkers: while a student at Columbia, he was simultaneously studying at NYU and Brooklyn College. The question of any one person’s ability to metabolize that much education is as meaningless as a zen koan. In the meantime, he took a role on General Hospital when he was at his most in-demand as a film actor, then guest-starred on 30 Rock as “himself,” an actor with a Japanese pillow fetish; he started talking, publicly, about Marina Abramovic.

On their own, none of these pursuits make Franco particularly exceptional; lots of  people, including Courtney Love and the R&B star Ciara, showed up at Abramovic’s closing-night party at MoMA this year (I'm sure those two had a lot to talk about). No other celebrity in memory, though, has worked quite so hard to make the material of his films the subtext to his eccentric interests and personal habits. He followed up his General Hospital stint with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the history of performance art, and submitted to New York Magazine cover story about his persona that barely mentioned his film work. Who cares about his films (this year alone: the big-budget Date Night and Eat Pray Love; the Ginsberg biopic Howl; and the Oscary 127 Hours) when he’s so effortful in living his art?

And maybe that’s a good thing. It’s certainly good that Franco is a rarity. One is used to political declamations from stars, from time to time, but I’m not really interested in reading the poetry of Katy Perry, or hearing what Taylor Lautner has to say about Damien Hirst. And I came to feel, even before my tenure at the Ivy League blog that I’d had too much Franco. His own book of short fiction, based on the excerpt I read, is probably a mistake.

It’s not that Franco’s gay. He just doesn’t care if you think he is.

But his willingness to make mistakes is part of the Franco thing, whatever it is. It’s no surprise, really, that the most intellectually curious star around is the one who, onscreen, made out with Sean Penn, cuddled up to Seth Rogen, and is about to cut off his own arm in 127 Hours. Who else currently working would take that kind of risk? Franco’s frisson of danger, the tension of an apparent just-under-the-surface bizarreness that he parodied on 30 Rock, makes him the ideal public figure for the moment. He’s like an “It Gets Better” video come to life, for gay kids and bisexual kids and kids who like to read more than their required reading for school.

His latest stunt, or the latest evidence that he doesn’t care, was a cross-dressing shoot for transvestite magazine Candy. Say what you will — including that Franco isn’t quite soft-featured enough to make a good woman — but the shoot feels a lot more organic and a lot less stunty than when Brad Pitt did it for Rolling Stone in the nineties. It’s not that Franco’s gay. He just doesn’t care if you think he is.

He’s like an “It Gets Better” video come to life, for gay kids and kids who read more than their required reading for school.

That’s kind of a cool attitude, if anchored in Franco’s understanding that an enigmatic public image is a great way to get more famous than your achievements would allow. His knowledge is striking and unlike the reveal-everything ethos of, to use a set of straw women, the Kardashians. If he’s using degrees and onscreen sexual ambiguity and a refusal to tweet in favor of writing op-eds to get more famous, at least it’s a more interesting and substantial form of fame than we’ve seen since sometime before the Bennifer era.

Or maybe he’s like that guy you met in graduate school (given the number he’s attended, he probably was that guy you met): someone who just does what he wants. Perhaps without his Spider-Man millions, he’d be the guy who lives off lentil soup, student-center coffee, and MFA-reading wine and cheese, intriguing for his sheer commitment to spinning his wheels on academic life. I think it was the fact that Franco was never seen in the Columbia library after his first, ill-fated trip there — my friends and others were disappointed not to report back with new developments — that convinced me he was, despite somewhat overdoing it with the degrees, more interested in learning stuff than burnishing an image. Sometime after his visit to the library and the madness around it had faded in memory, I began to think he’d be a pretty interesting guy to get drinks with and talk about Camille Paglia, or whatever.  

Isn’t that, finally, how one is supposed to feel about celebrities — as though they could be one’s friends? I don’t think Sandra Bullock and I would exactly move in the same circles if she weren’t “Sandra Bullock,” but James Franco and I might well have been at the same student bar, or reading the same books in the library — and he is a movie star. Parts of James Franco still seem boring to me, but it’s a boringness bred of familiarity, not blogger’s contempt. I’m almost amenable enough towards his fluid weirdness, by now, to see 127 Hours when it comes out — I’m interested to see how he does alone on screen for so long, when part of what makes him so interesting is his weird chemistry. Still, it’ll be weird to see him playing someone else. As with everyone else I knew in school, his life's work has been constructing the role of himself.