James Franco: Expert Sleaze

Why Is He So Good at That?

By Merle Ginsberg ·
Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

You have to wonder why James Franco perfected this on-screen image of stoner/clown/weirdo/basket case/sleazebag when it’s pretty clear the myriad-hyphenate is the aesthetic opposite. His work ethic and versatility (or aimlessness, depending on who you ask)—he’s been a director, screenwriter, actor, producer, novelist, short story writer, multimedia artist, UCLA, Columbia, NYU, Yale, RISD student—is well established. But it can’t be accident that the star/exec producer of HBO’s The Deuce and star/director/producer/writer of the upcoming The Disaster Artist has spent so much of his precious storytelling time of late as a seemingly low-life-wannabe.

In The Deuce, HBO’s crime drama about ‘70s prostitution and porn proliferation, Franco plays twins—one a greased-back glorified pimp and degenerate gambler, the other a slightly less-sleazy bar owner. In The Disaster Artist (out Dec. 1), which Franco produced, directed, wrote and stars in, he embodies real-life accidental auteur Tommy Wiseau, creator of what is widely thought to be the worst movie ever made (2003’s The Room), and the no-contest strangest filmmaker of all time. 

What accounts for Franco’s low-life content penchant? His parents both went to Stanford; one grandmother was a novelist, the other an art gallery owner. Growing up, he was on the road to scholastic triumph: a math whiz who interned at Lockheed Martin. Then, a telling little detail of derailment—in the midst of high school in Palo Alto, Franco got arrested for drinking and stealing. 

After his breakout role as rebel James Dean in 2001 in the made-for-TV biopic and Spiderman’s nemesis in three movies, attractive newcomer Franco suddenly went from dramatic actor to stoner/gross out guy in Knocked Up and The Pineapple Express. That was followed by a spate of fifth leads in decent films, including Milk (2008), Eat, Pray, Love (2010) and the Allen Ginsberg indie, Howl (2010). Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours was Franco’s A-list uptick, carrying him all the way to an Oscar nomination. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, who monologued to a volleyball, Franco recorded a video diary of his hiker’s deadly captivity, his leg trapped under a rock—ultimately severing his own limb. He was virtually the only person in the movie.

Franco then took another U-turn, when he disastrously co-hosted the 2011 Oscars with Anne Hathaway, during which he appeared to be stoned. An arc on General Hospital (at a time when movie stars didn’t do TV, let alone a third-rate soap), consolidated his image as a free agent. The problem is, Hollywood’s never embraced free agents–agents—studio heads can’t control them.

A few more B-movies, then a leading man role in the fantasy epic Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) should have propelled Franco into box office relevance, but didn’t.

Bottom line: Franco tried his hand at leading man. It just didn’t take. Maybe audiences didn’t see him as macho enough–or maybe he didn’t. The weird smattering of what came next put him deeply into the “quirky” category: a set of stoner comedies with Seth Rogen (starting with Pineapple Express), one total B-movie (Spring Breakers, for which, to be fair, he got good reviews), playing Hugh Hefner in 2013’s Lovelace and almost toppling the studio system with The Interview in 2014, which likely led to the great Sony/supposed North Korean hack that year, bringing down studio chiefs, stars, etc.

Clearly what we’ve got here is a guy who continuously gets off on sending up his own image. At a panel after a recent screening of The Disaster Artist, frequent collaborator Rogen revealed that Franco directed the movie-within-a-movie as nearly illiterate Tommy Wiseau: “We didn’t know if James was giving direction as Tommy or as James. Everyone who visited the set was really confused. So were we.”

And why would one of the most successful/ubiquitous actor-turned-auteurs in modern history want embody the most ridiculous one? Seems that’s the point. “He’s one the most infectious characters I’ve ever met,” Franco said on the panel. “You can’t tell if he’s the way he is on purpose—or he’s sending everyone up.” 

Clearly, the same goes for Franco. We can’t quite tell if his essential Franco-ness is…purposeful. Is doing his Marina Abramovic best, his performance-artist-Malcolm-McLaren situationist thing, taking the piss out of who he is? Or just having a laugh? Being a stoner? If so, it doesn’t get any artier or headier than that. 

And if not, well, Franco’s whole pseudo-weird-sleaze-o act’s still pretty cool. Maybe cooler.  

Merle Ginsberg

Merle Ginsberg is an overeducated pop culture critic/writer who likes to think she’s an intellectual—except she lives in L.A. and watches way too much TV and reads too many fashion magazines.

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