Special to The Clyde Fitch Report
Right now, James Franco is the most interesting person in America who is famous for not very interesting things. Sure, he’s also famous for being a movie star, and sure, that’s the generative kernel of the attention he gets. But I’m talking about the kind of fame he has accrued for everything else he does. He’s a graduate student, an artist, a pal of performance art legend Marina Abramoviƒá and MoMA/PS1’s Klaus Biesenbach, an explicitly slumming soap opera guest star and a published author. None of these endeavors is especially flashy, and he doesn’t seem to have done any of them overly well. Still, he manages to make them exciting to watch, and he genuinely seems game for just about any kooky thing, dignity be damned. Franco has worked hard to transform himself and his whole “real life” into a compelling cultural meme.
Franco is a good celebrity. He produces a sort of value-added quality in his mundane activities in an echo of the kind of public life led by the undisputed master: Kanye West. The hosts of the superlatively delightful podcast “Too Beautiful To Live” have been fascinated with West for years. They love him not just for his talent and influence in the pop music avant-garde, but also for his irrepressible demonstrations of public eccentricity. Franco seems headed down a similar road, and it’s a totally charming episode in contemporary celebrity behavior. Unlike Kanye, however, who can be imperious and disruptive (usually in a good, or at least interesting, way!), Franco is more modest in his eccentric expressions even as he has been explicit about claiming his projects as artworks. As an artist, he’s both somewhat dilettantish yet an excellent ambassador for art. Indeed, if his fame can get people who are otherwise not interested in art to think about art, that in itself a grand success.
Franco is having an incandescent moment right now: he was just announced as a co-host for the Oscars next year, he has a new movie out (127 Hours), he had a solo art show at a legitimate New York gallery this fall and he’s going to Yale. It’s not that any one thing he’s doing is especially outré or inherently gossip-worthy. It’s that he’s leveraging his Hollywood fame into doing so many quirky things, out in public, joyfully and fearlessly. And everything he does feels like a show.
It has been reported, for example that he’s enrolled in five or six graduate school programs simultaneously for filmmaking, creative writing and literature. That kind of excessive overdoing — of graduate school — and making sure everyone knows about it, is nothing if not performative. Gawker and Jezebel, in particular, have been breathless clearinghouses for Francoiana. Sam Anderson’s excellent, epic New York magazine profile of Franco from this summer is also well worth the read.
Franco has been in three Spiderman movies, Milk, Howl and 127 Hours, but the most iconic, albeit amateur, paparazzo photo of Franco of the past few years shows him neither carousing nor canoodling, but asleep in class at Columbia. Everybody (well, except Franco) loves that photo, but it’s a prime example of being interesting for uninteresting activities. Let’s contrast this with Tobey Maguire, Franco’s higher-billed co-star in the Spiderman movies, who is best known outside of film acting for being part of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Pussy Posse” during the late ’90s. I know that’s 10-year-old news, but that’s the point: there’s nothing interesting about Maguire. How many fake artists has Maguire played on General Hospital who had real art exhibitions at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles? Franco: 1, Maguire: 0.
Franco’s General Hospital role — as “Franco,” a murderous, death-obsessed artist — made, I think, the biggest splash of all. Though he is a Hollywood star, it was clear what he was doing on the soap opera was set apart from his acting career. Indeed, he wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal, of all publications, running down a brief history of performance art and arguing that his entire participation in General Hospital was his own contribution to the genre. He went out of his way to act and emote in the soap opera style — which is to say, badly. Franco argued that since he was so famous, he would always come across as James Franco playing a soap opera role, rather than coming across as a character. He even brought the fantastic video and performance artist Kalup Linzy, whose work is often about soap operas (and who everyone seriously ought to know about) onto the show in a clever gesture of meta-thematics.
Who wouldn’t fall in love with Paris Hilton all over again if she were able to argue, articulately (enough), that the sex tape, the reality show, the pop album and the questionable life in the public eye were all part of a grand work of performance art that she was flat out living as her “real life”? Hell, I’m close to thinking that anyway and she hasn’t even bothered to try. That’s why Franco is such a gem.