Strange Stardom

David Haglund

  • Palo Alto: Stories by James Franco
    Faber, 197 pp, £12.99, January 2011, ISBN 978 0 571 27316 4

‘Actors don’t lodge in the culture as once they did,’ David Thomson writes in the entry on Heath Ledger in the latest edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film. ‘They are a type of celebrity now.’ He contrasts Ledger, who died three years ago at the age of 28, with James Dean, who died 55 years ago at the age of 24 and became the standard against which all young, handsome, would-be acting geniuses in Hollywood are measured. It’s not only, Thomson says, that Ledger wasn’t the actor Dean was. It’s that movies, and their stars, no longer occupy the same place in our imaginations. ‘Remember River Phoenix?’ Thomson asks, and answers himself: ‘Just.’

James Franco – handsome, 32 – has said many times that River Phoenix inspired him to become an actor with his performance in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. Franco and Van Sant recently collaborated on an art film entitled My Own Private River; it’s currently screening at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles. Franco mentions Phoenix’s death in the first story in Palo Alto. He wrote a poem after Ledger died, which he read at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. And he got his big break by playing Dean, in an otherwise mediocre, made-for-cable biopic from 2001, memorable for nothing but the way Franco conveys Dean’s mischievousness along with his vulnerability and anger. That was followed by a string of critical and commercial failures, broken up only by a recurring role as Spider-Man’s best friend. By 2006, Franco had lost much of his passion for acting. And yet there he was last month, a nominee for Best Actor at the Academy Awards – and host of the ceremony. During the event he posted on the internet a couple of dozen short videos of himself and others backstage; if his recent activities are anything to go by, these digital shorts will probably form the basis for a video installation. James Franco has lodged himself in the culture as much as any actor of his generation. This might seem to refute Thomson’s thesis. In fact, it confirms it.

Franco’s rise to his strange breed of stardom began in 2008, when he gave much lauded performances in Milk and Pineapple Express. In the former, directed by Van Sant, Franco gave a nicely unshowy turn opposite Sean Penn’s brilliant performance as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold major public office in America. Franco’s deadpan sincerity was very funny in Pineapple Express, a stoner action-comedy produced by Judd Apatow, who got Franco’s career started by casting him in the excellent but short-lived TV ‘dramedy’ Freaks and Geeks. Another Apatow production now seems more revealing: in Acting with James Franco, Franco pokes fun at the seriousness of the Method by pretending to teach his brother Dave to act. They do a scene from Rebel without a Cause in which Jim Stark (James Dean) gives Plato (Sal Mineo) his jacket. Plato, secretly in love with Jim, rubs the jacket against his cheek and sniffs it. Dave refuses to do this, then complains that James gets to be Dean. ‘You can’t play James Dean,’ Franco says, ‘I’m James Dean. Actors sniff jackets. Actors act, actors sniff jackets. Marlon Brando sniffed jackets.’

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