On the occasion of James Franco's Comedy Central roast—an excuse to remind ourselves why the actor is one of Hollywood's most effective, subversive personalities.
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James Franco has a book deal. He’s got five million college degrees, had art shows in famous galleries, and short stories published in Esquire. He’s got a movie, Interior. Leather Bar, which he co-produced and co-directed, after hosting the Oscars. He even has a new TV show … all about James Franco. James fucking Franco. You’re sick of him—and now, he’s sorta sick of himself. Which is why he agreed to a Comedy Central roast, airing September 2, featuring barbs from Sarah Silverman, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, and Aziz Ansari.
Many actors like to say they are artists, but few of them, once they achieve a certain amount of fame and success, actually challenge themselves with little more than calculated risks. But while it’s easy to mock James Franco for wanting to try his hand at everything, there’s much about him to commend—especially his fearless exploration, in art, of sexuality and beauty.
Franco has starred in some marquee blockbusters—the Spider-Man movies (which, combined, grossed $1.1 billion globally), Rise of the Planet of the Apes ($481 million), Oz the Great and Powerful ($493 million), and Pineapple Express ($101 million). But he’s also taken risks, which boldly subvert his career as a marquee-worthy heartthrob, such as playing Sean Penn’s lover in Milk, or playing a cheesy blinged-out, cornrowed drug dealer in Spring Breakers. It’s admirable—especially when you consider he could easily have taken the Nicholas Cage route and starred in nothing but Hollywood blockbusters to supplement an extravagant lifestyle.
“If you are fortunate, you start to get some success. And then you get choices,” he recently told Howard Stern, citing more conventional fare such as Tristan + Isolde, Annapolis, and Flyboys as movies he wishes he hadn’t done. “When that moment came, I was scared. I didn’t know that as an artist, I should do the things that I believe in.… I was still in this mentality of, ‘Oh, you need to build a career.’”
And he was smart about it. Franco dropped out of college to go to acting school, despite the fact that his father groomed him to become a math genius (he scored in the 700s in math on the SATs). In 2006, he transitioned into a part-time actor to pursue multiple degrees in different disciplines: a bachelor’s from UCLA, a master’s in film from NYU, an MFA from Columbia. He’s currently a PhD student in English at Yale. All the while, he’s maintaining a Hollywood career, even earning an Oscar nomination for 127 Hours.
He sold his house to fund his education. Now, he funds his short films and experimental projects with his Hollywood money. Sometimes, he comes up short, and takes to crowdfunding. But unlike his Hollywood cohorts such as Zach Braff, Franco’s monetary request seemed reasonable and admirable. His Indiegogo campaign, for instance, asked for $500,000 (he reached $327,000) to fund three short films based on his trilogy of short stories, Palo Alto. Somewhat narcissistic? Yes. But also, altruistic: He chose aspiring directors to helm the films.
Unlike other stars looking to the fans for handouts, the profits from Franco’s project would be donated to a nonprofit, The Art of Elysium, which “encourages working actors, artists and musicians to voluntarily dedicate their time and talent to children who are battling serious medical conditions.” Can’t scoff at that.
And who else is willing to make a total ass of themselves, try their hand at a genre they aren’t necessarily known for (and possibly are not good at), and risk failing miserably in front of millions of fans and critics, salivating over the schadenfreude? “As he told Stern: “At one point, I was not an actor, I learned how to act, then people perceived me as an actor. Why not do that with my other interests? Why not take those as seriously?”
What other modern actor is also totally cool with being perceived as gay? Other actors are “haunted” by gay rumors (Hugh Jackman). Franco seems to invite them. He posed in drag for the cover of trans-style mag, Candy, and is a frequent cover boy on gay magazines. In addition to his roles as gay men in Howl and Milk, he has explored the subject of sexuality in several of his short films, including Interior. Leather Bar, inspired by the rumored 40 minutes of hardcore footage lost on the cutting room floor of Cruising, the 1980 movie about a detective (Al Pacino) who investigates a murder in the seedy queer S&M scene. These days, Franco claims he’s lost support for Interior. Leather Bar due to advertiser homophobia.
In fact, Franco is so gay-friendly that his upcoming roast is chock-full of gay jokes—a fact that may or may not make you uncomfortable. But Franco himself, could care less. “In high school, these girls got mad at me and so they spread this rumor that I was having a gay relationship with one of my closest friends,” he told MTV News about people’s fascination with him and his sexual orientation. “And they even made up a little dance they would do in the girl’s locker room about me being gay. I still don’t know what the dance was.” He continued: “If people think that [I’m gay], it’s fine. I really don’t care.”
His reply to all those queer gibes at the roast? “The joke’s on all of you. This is not a roast,” he said. “This is my greatest most elaborate art installation ever.” And for that, he earns our eternal love.
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