This weekend a new trailer for the not-yet-widely-released movie Child of God, came out. The movie is an adaptation of one of noted author Cormac McCarthy’s stranger, and more violent books and is directed by (and, of course, acted in) by James Franco. This is the latest in a string of Franco pet projects. In the past few years Franco has directed, and starred in, an adaptation of the William Faulkner classic, As I Lay Dying, made a film version of his own collection of short stories, Palo Alto, and is working on an adaptation of The Sound and Fury, also by Faulkner.
Franco has kind of a reputation for being pretentious. At least, that’s kind of how I’ve always felt. No one thinks that about his friends and co-stars. No one calls Danny McBride pretentious because he is Kenny F-ing Powers (clip somewhat NSFW). No one calls Jonah Hill pretentious, because he got violated by a demon (This Is The End clip completely NSFW). Maybe it’s that one of the most recent things I’ve seen him in was his appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio, which just begs its guests to sound as full of themselves as they possibly can. Maybe it’s that he prescribes to the whole “method acting” school, having once spent a week on the streets to get into the role of a homeless junkie, or that he started smoking to be more like James Dean. There are also his various MFAs from prestigious universities as well as his pending PhD in English from Yale. He has his fingers in so many varied pies, writing short stories, writing articles for Esquire and the New York Times, directing a dance theater troupe, that he is painted to be an eccentric artsy type by pretty much every article written about him and in every interview he gives. It’s a hard narrative not to buy into.
The problem is, it doesn’t really seem to mesh with reality. The reality is that Franco has proven himself to be a goofy, comedic force who seems to have no trouble making fun of himself at all. If there is a side to him that seems overly serious about his craft, then there’s seemingly a bigger side that seems to enjoy having a laugh both with us and at himself and his image. That leads me to a quandary because, usually, people who are that self-serious have no sense of humor and can’t take a joke about themselves or their work. On the contrary, Franco seems to relish the opportunity. No one who has seen his roast on Comedy Central or This Is The End can argue any differently.
Throughout his career James Franco has been mixing the “serious art” with the goofball act. 127 Hours, his most acclaimed performance, was followed directly by Your Highness, an idiotic and hilarious farce about two medieval princes (him and Danny McBride) saving their kingdom with the aid of a Minotaur’s member, and a freakin’ Planet of the Apes reboot. This is the guy who was on Freaks & Geeks, was in the Raimi Spiderman trilogy, and played Saul in Pineapple Express. He made a shot for shot remake of Kanye West’s Bound 2 video with Seth Rogen playing Kim Kardashian. It is epic. If there is something pretentious about any of those things, someone is going to have to explain it to me. For goodness sake, according to Entertainment Weekly, Franco apparently was a vegetarian until he started working the midnight shift at McDonald’s. How can I hate on someone who was swayed by the obvious power of the McNugget and Double Quarter-Pounder? Pretentious people don’t eat at McDonald’s.
So, then, why does Franco feel pretentious? Is it because of the roles he accepts? Is it because he has extracurricular activities that include earning college degrees? Is it because he wrote a long article about how his performance on General Hospital was “performance art”? Is it because I’m jealous of the fact that someone has the tenacity, means, and connections to make their own wildest dreams come true? (This is definitely part of it.) Those could all be reasons. But then again, what if–given his track record of making fun of himself and general aire of laid-back comedy that surrounds him–Franco is actually sincere about the things that he does?
It’s really difficult these days to accept sincerity on the part of a celebrity. Reality television and the very public trainwrecks that litter the tabloids have trained us to think of all celebrities as flimsy, shallow non-people, out to take advantage of public trust. We all have been trained and enjoy (and I am certainly no exception) the collective Schadenfreude of watching famous and rich people be torn down publicly and without mercy. We have to find faults in our celebrities so that we can feel better about our own faults. Most of the time, also, this is an absolutely acceptable response. Women on The Bachelor should really expect the reaming that they’re going to get from the public (I’m sure that Aaron expects it these days too!). Justin Bieber deserves everything he gets because he’s a prick. But the more I think about it, does James Franco deserve to be torn down because he’s dedicated to trying to do the thing he’s paid to do well?
Thinking about celebrity in general, wouldn’t any of us try to do things that interested and excited us if we had the means, connections and opportunity to do so? I know if I were in Franco’s position I would do the same thing. I would do things that interest me, I would get my friends together and make my favorite books into movies, I would try and write a book myself, and I would totally be on a network soap (I’m thinking I would be on A la luz del Angel on Univision). If I had the money I would probably go get some degrees at Yale and UCLA too; it’d look great on a resume, so why not?
The fact that Franco has this reputation for pretentiousness, when he has such a clear track record negating that, seems to highlight our communal cynicism when it comes to celebrity. Personally, I seem to be so cynical about celebrity that I have a really hard time accepting that an actor or musician could actually be humbly attempting to perform so well at their craft that they would both entertain us, the public, and satisfy their own desires for a fulfilling and engaging career. That describes precisely what I hope to achieve in my life, so why couldn’t it also be true for James Franco? Why can’t James Franco be sincere about both being a serious actor, writer, teacher, and director while also having fun and entertaining us?
As hard as it is for me to accept that about anyone in the public eye, maybe, just this once, that’s actually the case. If so, kudos to you James Franco, because you rock.