There’s no set formula for viral success, but one way is to succinctly (and, if possible, humorously) express something people already think. Which is why, when Time Out New York critic Keith Uhlich tweeted a picture of himself holding a copy of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying emblazoned with Franco’s face in one hand and facepalming with the other, the Internet essentially exploded. In one image, Uhlich captured the widespread feeling that Franco — actor, director, writer, novelist, video artist, graduate student, and full-time player of the character known as James Franco — had gone too far. “Enough, James Franco!” the picture said, and many, many people agreed.
I, however, am not one of them. I’m not a fan, exactly, as my less-than-glowing review of As I Lay Dying will attest. But like his Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine, who’s also been attacked for being a pretentious fraud, Franco is a sincere and committed artist, albeit one whose reach frequently exceeds his grasp. Having interviewed him and watched the last three films he’s made — Interior. Leather Bar., As I Lay Dying and Child of God, as well as Palo Alto, Gia Coppola’s adaptation of Franco’s short-story collection — I believe he’s sincere, if sometimes immodest, in his goals, and I think the world is a more interesting place with James Franco, Multimedia Spectacular in it. I am, to not-quite-coin a phrase, a Franco-phile.
Franco’s artistic promiscuity has led not a few people to pose the question that Linda Holmes asks in “What Exactly Is James Franco Doing?” The obvious answer is “Anything he wants, apparently,” but Holmes goes further and explores the impact on the public persona that most movie stars — and Franco is, indisputably, one of them — work so hard to maintain.
It’s impossible for a celebrity to have an image that’s a true blank canvas; we are far too voracious for that. But Franco has perhaps achieved the next best thing: a canvas onto which he’s spilled so much paint in so many patterns that it ceases to look like anything, and anything you could add to it would look like it belonged there. And, of course, if you stare at it long enough, you can see patterns emerge and then recede — a poseur, a poet, something jarringly authentic, something painfully manufactured. Even, if you squint, the Last Honest Man In Hollywood, who puts out a book that demonstrates that like a lot of us, he has a certain number of sharp thoughts and an awful lot of mundane ones.
The book Holmes mentions is Actors Anonymous, which is billed as Franco’s first novel, although at Slate, Karina Longworth questions the use of the term.
AA is more like a published notebook, full of sketches on themes rendered in a variety of different styles—sort of like a greatest hits of what one might be left with at the end of a few years in a lot of creative writing workshops. Some chapters read like personal essays, transparently referencing events in Franco’s real life (one of the best, set against the production of the late-Miramax war film The Great Raid, deals with the weirdness of learning how to simulate life-or-death situations for a movie that mattered to essentially no one), while others are written in character. Sometimes that character is called “James Franco”; sometimes the focus is on an “anonymous” celebrity known as “The Actor.”
Both pieces are (naturally) worth reading in full, but neither gives more than a passing mention to Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s post-apocalyptic farce This Is the End, in which Franco plays a kind of worst-case-scenario version of himself. He’s a narcissist, a braggart, and — worse, given the circumstances — stingy with his porn. In other words, James Franco knows exactly how ridiculous he looks, at least to some people, and he has no compunction about sending up that image.
Along the same lines, the best of Franco’s three (!) 2013 features is Interior. Leather Bar., a quasi-documentary in which James Franco, or “James Franco,” decides to restage the hardcore sex scenes purportedly cut from William Friedkin’s Cruising. As per the constant gay-panic jokes at Franco’s Comedy Central roast, a running gag in Interior. Leather Bar. is the actors’ desire to get hot and heavy with Franco, and their disappointment when they learn he’s only co-directing the project. At the same time, he’s pressuring his friend Val Lauren, who played Sal Mineo in Franco’s Sal, to play the Al Pacino role, which makes the heterosexual Lauren more than a little anxious.
It’s never really clear why Franco thinks adding unsimulated sex to Cruising is a worthwhile project, and that, too, becomes part of the fabric of the film, as the project begins to seem more and more like the product of onscreen-Franco’s mildly inexplicable obsession with homosexuality. Maybe there’s something to those rumors after all.
Of course, Franco is just messing with us, and working his way around to his true subject, which is, unsurprisingly, James Franco — or, more specifically, pretentious asshole. In a way, Interior. Leather Bar. feels like the child of Norman Mailer’s Maidstone, whose portrait of a megalomanic celebrity surrounded by sycophants is at once relentless self-critical and ruthlessly indulgent (although as far as I know, no one on Interior. Leather Bar. got his ear, or anything else, bitten off). It’s strangely honest in its open fraudulence, which may be the most that we can ask.