Experts help us critique Hollywood's most famous polymath.
James Franco is many, many, many things (seriously, he's lots of things), but he's nothing if not a paradox. On the one hand, he solidly proves the theory that unfairly attractive, wealthy, and/or famous people can more or less just prance around doing whatever they want, all the time. On the other, no matter what new pursuit he decides to take up in a given week, he's almost always good at it. Now that he's officially adding "musician" to his resume with the release of a new EP, we're consulting experts in his numerous fields to get a 100% objective look at his talents. Below, his career choices from worst to best.
9. Award-Show Host
If you have to spend weeks of follow-up interviews after a gig insisting you weren't high on the job, things went pretty seriously amiss. Which is why Franco's job as Oscars co-host with Anne Hathaway ends up here: dead last. As gratifying as it is to imagine him getting blazed before emceeing an event as self-serious as the Oscars, actually watching the appearance was dull and uncomfortable. Reviews were scathing; the Washington Post wrote that our hero "came off like that lacrosse boy you wish your daughter didn't hang out with so much, sort of heavy-lidded and smirky." Ouch. In fairness, the debacle wasn't entirely his fault given what he had to work with, and Franco said in a recent interview, "I felt kind of trapped in that material." Still, let's hope he learned that it wouldn't kill him not to say yes to everything.
Usually, when actors want to branch out into side-projects the first thing they do is start a band, not explore performance art or enroll in several grad schools at once. Franco earns points for trying just about every other side-hustle before giving into the inevitable. Plus, his collaboration with Brooklyn-based musician and performance artist Kalup Linzy is actually interesting and pretty catchy. Fader's Alex Frank spoke for us all when he wrote, "We're sort of surprised that the song's good." Still, though Franco reportedly "sends [Linzy] music he likes" to riff off of and "both do vocals and produce their own tracks," the singles and the one video they've released thus far come across mainly as a Kalup Linzy project that Franco happened to sit in on, not a serious collaboration. Since Franco's chops as a musician are still pretty untested, we'll have to wait for further evidence before moving this one higher up on the list.
Franco published a short-story collection called Palo Alto in the fall of 2010. Critics were mixed. "Most of it is better than what comes in off the MFA slush pile," says Full Stop founder and editor-in-chief Alex Shephard, "though in his acting Franco's known for taking left turns, and sadly you don't see that instinct in these repetitious stories. But he does show flashes of promise, like an embryonic Brett Easton Ellis or, better yet, Dan Chaon." Not quite a runaway success, but given that his mentor is acclaimed novelist Gary Shteyngart, and that his stories have also landed in Esquire and McSweeney's, Franco-as-author is worth keeping an eye on.
6. Studio Artist
Franco's opened shows of paintings, videos, and installations at galleries including Clocktower in New York City and Peres Projects in Berlin, and he's said in various interviews that he actually dreamed of enrolling in art school when he was younger, but put it aside to pursue acting. He seems to have chosen wisely. As with his work as an author, Franco's studio art is by and large received as earnest but not groundbreaking. Pieces have included collections of his childhood items strewn in a gallery, and video installations of a toy house being shot with BB guns. The New York Times called one show "a confusing mix of the clueless and the halfway promising," which we suppose could be worse.
5. Performance artist
This outranks his studio work both because Franco seems more committed to this particular art form, and because it manifested in a spectacularly meta running stint for Franco on General Hospital, playing a pretentious artist named… Franco. Now, you might say that an actor acting isn't performance art so much as well, acting. To which we say two things: First, he did it well. Sam Anderson of New York Magazine writes, "Franco plays 'Franco' with deliciously campy intensity. He unleashes the full soap-opera repertoire: brooding stares, sudden outbursts, feverish make-out sessions, deadpan quips. ('Keep the change,' he says, flipping a quarter onto a corpse.)" Second, a surprising number of people validated the whole "soap opera as performance art" thing, including artist Marina Abramovic and the Wall Street Journal, which published an essay by Franco, explaining his choice to appear on a soap opera to the paper's readership. The whole thing felt a little like an overly-earnest academic report, but Franco clearly had a good grasp of his subject. He said of his role on the soap, "It will definitely be weird. But is it art?" Sounds like an artist to us.
In 2010 Franco turned a short for one of his classes at NYU into a full-blown (and well-reviewed) documentary about Saturday Night Live, which he's hosted twice. That film screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, and more recently, he screened a project re-creating an episode of Three's Company at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Part of his success may stem from the fact that he has more access to interesting material and to festival gatekeepers than your average up-and-coming director. (For Saturday Night, he just called up his buddy Lorne Michaels.) But that doesn't mean the work's not interesting; David Itzkoff at the New York Times says the movie "turns up a number of details and tidbits that are like manna to comedy nerds."
Though he initially dropped out of UCLA to pursue acting, Franco re-enrolled in 2006 and graduated in two years with a GPA of 3.5, all while still filming movies on the side. After that, he enrolled in an MFA fiction program at Columbia, an MFA filmmaking program at NYU, another writing program at Brooklyn College, and a part-time poetry program at Warren Wilson College. All at the same time. He's since earned his MFA and is now working on a Ph.D. in English at Yale, as well as attending courses at the Rhode Island School of Design. Given his near-insane busyness, it's easy to wonder if he actually did anything in class. According to Gary Shteyngart, a professor of his at Columbia, "He contributed a lot in class." But Shteyngart can't help following up with a quip, "It was great; it kept the women in the class very focused." Franco's absurdly prolific academic career is kind of a punchline at this point, but it also seems to be his most earnest priority. Laugh or feel inadequate all you want, but he's clearly doing something right here.
2. Fragrance Model
Impressive as he is at some of his other jobs, one look at Franco emerging from water in his spots for Gucci — T-shirt soaked, face smoldering — reminds us that he's extremely good at being beautiful. Gucci's Frida Giannini tells us that Franco "personifies the sort of nonchalance and unforced appeal that is most attractive in a man." While she has a vested interest, we're hard-pressed to disagree. Call it performance art if it makes you feel better, but we should all just be glad he's doing it.
It's a little late to tell him not to quit his day job, but ultimately, James Franco still excels most at the craft that made him famous in the first place. He's versatile, frighteningly committed when he throws himself into something, and unafraid to choose difficult or controversial roles, from Harvey Milk's boyfriend in Milk to beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl. And, in case you happen to have not been anywhere near a computer or a TV for the past year, he also earned an Oscar nomination for playing mountain climber Aron Ralston in 127 Hours. Critics have consistently praised his acting; The New York Times' Manohla Dargis called his performance in Pineapple Express "unshowy [and] generous… loosey-goosey and goofy yet irrepressibly sexy," while The AV Club's Keith Phipps praised his work in Howl, writing that Franco "nails [Ginsberg's] beatific glow." If he picks one career to stick with, we hope it's this one.