With FrancoFest, a retrospective celebrating the work of James Franco kicking off today and running through March 13th (check out the full schedule here) — we figured it was an opportunity for us to take a queer look back at what has truly separated Franco from any of his A-list actor contemporaries: A borderline obsession with incorporating explicit queerness into his work (and thus fucking with a confused mainstream media in the process). In between big budget studio offerings like “Rise of the Planet of Apes,” Franco has — whether through acting or directing or writing (or all three at once) — explored issues or concepts the vast majority (all?) of his Hollywood colleagues would never touch. It hasn’t always worked for us, but we have to preface the following rundown of examples with the fact that we certainly appreciate that Franco has collectively gone there. With that said, here’s our thoughts on Franco’s queer catalogue:
30 Rock. James Franco was at his comic best during a 2010 guest appearance on “30 Rock” that riffed on closeted actors and their beards (not to mention speculation about his own sexuality). Playing himself, Franco begins a fake relationship with Jane Krakowski’s Jenna to cover up rumors that he’s in love with… a Japanese body pillow. It’s pretty brilliant:
The Clerk’s Tale. This short film was based on a poem by queer poet Spencer Reece. The poem and film share a title, which itself comes from Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”. I saw this a while ago, screened at one of Reece’s readings. It put Anne Thompson to sleep, but I was luckily aided by a glass of wine. It was fine but unremarkable, like many short films from early-career directors. I don’t want to be too down on it, everyone starts somewhere, but then again not everyone gets the publicity, or the immediate praise, Franco seems to elicit. But still, it was a queer inflected film with older male protagonists with scope for development. My worry with Franco is he’s told he’s good at so much he gives nothing the time it needs to be anything more than competent.
Feast of Stephen. Franco’s short film adaptation of Anthony Hecht’s poem is pretty damn gay. And while it’s not exactly edifying that the protagonist’s strikingly queer fantasy images are followed with a rather nasty comeuppance, perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps.
Gay Town. Calling an exhibition “Gay Town” certainly creates a good headline, but we’re not entirely sure what else it achieves. At last year’s Berlinale, James Franco launched a show under the aforementioned name, whose highlights, if that’s an appropriate word, included a Spider-Man image scrawled with the words “Fuck Spidey” and an image of Snow White in sexy underwear with a pair of fake breasts attached and marked “K Stew”. /bent actually attended this exhibition, and we’re still wondering what it all means.
Howl. Long before Harry Potter was a gay poet (the essential tabloid take on Daniel Radcliffe’s turn as Ginsberg), Franco offered his own take in “Howl”, a much more interesting film on formal terms at least. Whether it entirely works or not, few feature films have ever featured poetry so prominently, let alone as defiantly queer a poem as the eponymous epic (and Franco is pretty great as Ginsberg).
Interior. Leather Bar. I love this film. The conceit is clever, the execution is exquisite; it’s funny without being knowing, it tricks you but isn’t smug about it, and best of all it’s about hard-core gay sex and its perception both within and without the gay community. But you know the thing I don’t love about this film? James bloody Franco. I wasn’t that suspicious of him before this, I just thought he was a potentially interesting guy who got lucky and was understandably riding that wave. We’d all be the same. He is, for example, a disastrous poet – truly abominable – but a press came calling so why shouldn’t he publish? This felt different. This was beyond opportunism. His contribution to “Interior. Leather Bar” was patronizing, self-promoting and embarrassing. Worst of all, though, was that he didn’t see it. He made a great piece of cinema a little worse, and that’s a hard thing to forgive. He should have noticed this in the edit – he took a director’s credit – and he should have insisted that his parts were cut down. That way he could have maintained his chosen role as Grand Queer Investigator without the attendant shambles of his tedious contributions.
Milk. Gone are the days when it was considered taboo for a straight heart throb to take on a gay role. As Harvey Milk’s partner Scott Smith, Franco was firmly in love interest territory, and firmly in “not as irritating as Diego Luna’s character” territory.
My Own Private River. After working with Van Sant on “Milk,” Franco teamed up with the director again for a project related to Van Sant’s queer classic “My Own Private Idaho.” Franco said he’s been obsessed with “Idaho” since he was a teenager, which led to “My Own Private River,” a remix of “Idaho” that puts a greater emphasis on the late River Phoenix’s performance and inserts a number of the actor’s alternate takes and deleted scenes. It was an extraordinarily ambitious project that plays respectable homage to both Phoenix and “Idaho” — and absolutely worth seeking out. Here’s a Q&A with Franco about “River” from a 2012 event at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center:
Sal. Franco chose to make one of his first directorial efforts a well-intentioned exploration of one of the very first Hollywood actors to come out publicly: Sal Mineo. Played in the film by Val Lauren (who would later start in “Interior. Leather Bar.”), Mineo’s homosexuality is explored through a chronicle of the final day of his life (he was stabbed to death at the age of 37). It was an early example of the meta-ness of Franco’s work, given he portrayed Mineo’s “Rebel Without a Cause” (more on the gay subtext of that film here) co-star James Dean in the 2001 TV biopic “James Dean” — which, given Dean himself is a considerable gay icon — probably warrants a spot on this list in itself.
This is the End. Last year’s apocalypse-by-way-of-Hollywood-satire comedy “This Is The End” is sure to become a cult classic soon enough (it’s the best comedy of last year, as far as we’re concerned), and once again finds James Franco playing himself — and poking fun at his sexuality (which he seems to do best when offering it through a comic lens). It plays up Franco as a narcissist who is in love with Seth Rogen (who co-directed the film and also stars as himself) and includes the following quotable care of Danny McBride as he refuses to believe the world is ending: “James Franco didn’t suck any dick last night? Now I know y’all are trippin’.” The film also was the beginning of a faux gay series of collaborations between Franco and Rogen. For one, they hilariously spoofed Kim and Kayne late last year by making a super gay shot-for-shot remake of their bizarro “Bound 2” video for no apparent reason other than to entertain us (and to lead to this).