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.’

Franco tore himself down in more serious ways as well. In July 2008, he filmed Erased James Franco (the title is a nod to Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning) with the artist Carter, whose previous work consisted largely of mixed media variations on portraiture: rough drawings of his own face juxtaposed with similar shapes, Polaroids of fake limbs set up to look like the arms of an artist at work in his studio. When he learned that Franco had bought one of his paintings, he sent him ‘a long-winded, insane email’ (Carter’s words), in which he described a possible collaboration, a film in which Franco would ‘revisit every movie he’s ever been in’. Carter has said that he originally imagined working with Catherine Deneuve, having her re-enact and thereby ‘undo’ her performance in Polanski’s Repulsion. When he emailed Franco, the actor’s major motion pictures as a leading man were Tristan and Isolde, Annapolis and Flyboys. In Erased James Franco, Franco spends 65 minutes muttering lines from these and other movies, while interacting slowly and clumsily with a handful of props: telephones, a chair, a glass of water. The film has been screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Tate Modern in London, as well as museums in San Francisco, Portland and Cleveland. Carter himself has said it’s ‘much more interesting to talk about the movie than to actually see it’. Franco called it ‘my favourite performance of any that I have ever done’.

Acting with James Franco and Erased James Franco didn’t shift public perception of the actor much: the former was a lark and the latter shown only in museums (there are a few minutes on YouTube; they’re enough). But in 2009, Franco embarked on a more public project. While discussing a new film with Carter, in which he was set to play a former soap opera star who has retired because of mental illness, Franco thought that it might be fun to star in a soap himself. He proposed the idea to the producers of General Hospital, America’s third-longest-running television drama, and the oldest still on air. Franco wanted his character to be both crazy and an artist. They created ‘Franco’, a one-named, pseudonymous graffiti artist who now sells crime-scene re-creations in galleries for good money. Shades of Banksy – though ‘Franco’ is actually a deranged killer who is terrorising the fictional town where General Hospital is set. Franco persuaded the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles to let them film there. In that episode, ‘Franco’ has a one-man show (‘Francophrenia’) at MOCA, and a detective – who has formed an unlikely partnership with a mob killer in order to track ‘Franco’ down – shows up to arrest him. In the climactic showdown, ‘Franco’ falls to his death from a third-storey balcony in the museum, while Kalup Linzy, an artist who draws on soap opera iconography in his own video installations, performs a musical number.

Franco has said that this piece of ‘performance art’ (his own description) was intended to make people ‘ask themselves if soap operas are really that far from entertainment that is considered critically legitimate’. The episodes are full of half-baked dialogue on aesthetics. In one, ‘Franco’, eyebrow arched, asks a magazine editor how she knows something is a work of art. ‘Everyone says so,’ she tells him. ‘Then it must be,’ he replies. These exchanges fall with a thud. What is interesting about the endeavour is what it says about Franco as an actor and as a celebrity, and what it might suggest about the nature of celebrity, now, for actors. ‘I disrupted the audience’s suspension of disbelief,’ Franco wrote in a piece about the project for the Wall Street Journal, ‘because no matter how far I got into the character, I was going to be perceived as something that doesn’t belong to the incredibly stylised world of soap operas. Everyone watching would see an actor they recognised, a real person in a made-up world.’ The phrase ‘real person’ jumps out here. His General Hospital castmates are real people, too. Franco means that people watching the show know who he is. But people watching movies always recognise the stars. Once upon a time, that recognition would not have made them seem ‘real’, but grand – maybe even, in the case of someone like James Dean, mythic. Franco’s ‘star power’ is remarkably diminished: he jumps out from his surroundings because of their littleness. ‘Franco’ is ‘mysterious’, but Franco is not.

In a video interview with Lynn Hirschberg of the New York Times, Franco explained that he was deliberately casting mystery aside.

I was always taught, like, ‘Don’t do too many interviews, don’t do too many talk shows, don’t reveal too much of yourself as an actor, because then audiences won’t be able to lose you in a character – or you won’t be able to lose yourself in a character.’ And there might be some truth to that. But I also feel like, you know what, I’m going to make that sacrifice, because I want to do more with my career than just lose myself in characters. I want to have these other approaches to performance and art and film. So I took that risk.

He was rewarded with public fascination: the culture pages and gossip rags now seem to track his every move (of which there are many – so, so many). Franco is playing with his celebrity, but in a way that’s good-natured and unthreatening, and they love him for it. An instructive contrast can be made with Joaquin Phoenix – River’s brother – who began toying with his celebrity around the same time. Phoenix, who in 2006 was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, announced he was retiring from acting at the end of 2008. He grew long hair and a tangled beard, wore dark glasses constantly, tried to become a rapper and gave disobliging, monosyllabic interviews on chat shows. Last autumn he released I’m Still Here, ostensibly a documentary tracking his mental breakdown. But Joaquin was faking it – that is, he was acting. The public hated it.

Franco, on the other hand, for all his obvious playfulness, is, at bottom, achingly sincere – nowhere more so than in his fiction. A couple of months after filming Erased James Franco, he enrolled on four MFA programmes: at Columbia and Brooklyn College for fiction, NYU for filmmaking, and the low-residency poetry course at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. The product of those first two courses is Palo Alto, a collection of 11 linked stories in which adolescents in the titular California town, where Franco grew up, express their desires to be other people. ‘I wish I was Mexican,’ one says, ‘or Hebrew, I mean Jewish, I mean Israeli, or Mexican Jewish, or Mexican Jewish gay, because it can be so boring being you sometimes, and if you were the most special thing like that, it could be really great.’ All the stories are narrated in the first person, and sound fairly similar; Franco’s attempt to capture the vocabulary and diction of teenagers is perhaps most awkward when it’s most accurate. One character writes on a wall near some train tracks: ‘SHIT FUCK COCK SUCK DIE ASS NOTHINGNESS MEANINGLESS CRY’. ‘What does all that mean?’ his friend asks. ‘Nothing,’ he says. Sometimes the awkwardness is all Franco’s own: ‘The building is beige,’ one story reads, ‘but the shadows make it shadow-colour.’ That almost seems brilliant. Then it seems terrible again.

The book isn’t all bad, though. ‘Killing Animals’ begins: ‘Birds, and birds, and animals, and things; with slingshots, and BB guns, we killed ’em, and killed ’em.’ The narrator was in seventh grade at the time, younger than most of the characters in the book. Nothing much happens in the story, which conveys pretty well the experience of early adolescence in American suburbia, though it’s marred by Franco’s obsessive references to the pop culture of his youth (and mine): Diff’rent Strokes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Street Fighter II, Guns N’ Roses. The stories get worse when Franco ‘raises the stakes’ by describing shocking events in the numbed tones of his emotionally stunted teenagers. In the weakest story, ‘Vietnam’, a boy describes the months he spent having sex with an unattractive half-Vietnamese girl and encouraging other high school boys to have sex with her, too, often all at once, eventually pimping her out to cooks at a restaurant in exchange for free meals. If you squint, you might see an allegory for American imperialism, but mostly the story is a litany of degradations that don’t earn their place on the page.

This tendency towards ‘transgressiveness’ in his fiction seems like a lingering effect of the suburban angst the stories describe: the desire to be somewhere else, somewhere more interesting, more dangerous. ‘I have friends who grew up in New York City,’ one character says, ‘and the stories they have from their childhoods are amazing. Full of colour and culture and danger. I envy them.’ The narrator who wants to be ‘Mexican Jewish gay’ later drives into a wall in order to feel something. Looking at his friend in the passenger seat, he sees blood ‘going onto his shirt like ketchup randomness, so much messier and more random than I could ever plan’. He interprets this as his own artistic handiwork: ‘I did paint those swirls,’ he says, ‘because I drove Grandpa’s car into the wall.’ Later he laments that he is still, alas, himself, and in Palo Alto: ‘If only I had driven right through into some other reality.’

Franco doesn’t play around with the idea of ‘the writer’ – which is disappointing, really, given all the fun he’s had with ‘the actor’ and ‘the celebrity’, but not a surprise. In 2005, Franco co-wrote, directed and starred in a feature-length movie called The Ape, in which a man desperate to get away from his family so he can write a novel rents an apartment in the city, where he finds an unexpected room-mate: the ape, who wears a Hawaiian shirt and derides his effete literary efforts. The movie – inspired in part by Edward Albee’s Seascape and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, and broken up by short quotes from Dostoevsky – has some stilted, uneven fun at the expense of one man’s writerly ambition, but doesn’t question the ambition itself. If anything, writing seems to represent for Franco an escape from the slipperiness of acting and its attendant celebrity. Perhaps this is why he has opted not to use a pseudonym, as some reviewers believe he should have done. That would have meant putting on another mask.

When Franco has combined his literary and cinematic interests, the results have been similarly earnest. He has made short films interpreting recent American poems. He did his best to impersonate Allen Ginsberg in the well-intentioned but misshapen Howl. He has just finished writing, directing and starring in The Broken Tower, an apparently straightforward biopic about Hart Crane. ‘I was really taken with his life,’ Franco says. ‘He had the quintessential tortured artist’s life. Even before he killed himself, he was a huge drinker and had lots of sex.’ Franco has also written and hopes to direct an adaptation of As I Lay Dying. Faulkner is a long-time literary hero, cited three times in Palo Alto. ‘I felt things flow through me,’ one narrator says, drunk, ‘and I thought about cartoon rabbits and about William Faulkner and how he drank all the time. I thought that someday I would be him.’ When an editor I know heard about this last project – that same day, it was reported that Franco hoped to direct his own adaptation of Blood Meridian, too – he called it ‘optioning as performance art’. The phrase ‘performance art’ has clung to Franco since he began appearing on General Hospital. ‘Is Franco-the-Author another piece of performance art?’ one reviewer of Palo Alto asked. Franco’s ‘ambition over the past few years’, another said, ‘has manifested almost as performance art’. But Franco’s irony regarding his fame shouldn’t lead anyone to underestimate the remarkable earnestness of his artistic ambitions, whether he’s able to realise them or not. Indeed, that earnestness may be an obstacle to their achievement, if Palo Alto is any indication.

His upcoming Hollywood parts are a mixed bag: next is Your Highness, a medieval comedy in which he’ll probably be funny, followed by Rise of the Apes, a Planet of the Apes prequel that will probably be terrible. More promising is While We’re Young, a Noah Baumbach picture in which Franco will play half of a hip young Brooklyn couple who inspire an ‘uptight documentarian’ (Ben Stiller) and his wife (Cate Blanchett) to ‘loosen up’. In the meantime, he’s started a PhD in English literature at Yale and begun taking classes at the Rhode Island School of Design. And he’s just given one of his best performances in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, as the real-life hiking enthusiast Aron Ralston, who eight years ago was trapped in a canyon in Utah, eventually cutting his arm off with a dull knife and rappelling, one-armed, down a 20-metre cliff. Boyle does all he can to distract us from the mind-numbing boredom and terror of the experience – with flashbacks and hallucinations, fast-motion photography and pulsing music. Still, Franco is entirely persuasive as Aron, a wildly driven, earnest man who constantly videotapes himself. It bodes well for Oz, the Great and Powerful, which will tell the story of the wizard – played by Franco – arriving in Oz and taking it over. It begins filming in May.