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The James Franco Project

Illustrations by Dienstelle 75  

Franco’s main artistic obsession—the subject that echoes across all of his various media—is adolescence. This seems appropriate on several levels. His own adolescence was unusually formative: It turned him from an obedient young math prodigy into a turbocharged art fanatic. His defining characteristic, as an actor, is an engaging restlessness—adolescence personified. In fact, you could say that Franco’s entire career is suspended, right now, in a kind of artistic adolescence. We’re watching him transition, a little awkwardly, from one creature (the Hollywood-dependent star) to another (the self-actualized, multiplatform artist). Like real adolescence, it’s a propulsive phase in which energy exceeds control. It’s about extremes—the hysteria to distinguish oneself, to break the rules, to leap into the world and do impossible things. Franco is developing all kinds of new strengths, but at the cost of some of his dignity: His intellectual skin is a little spotty, his artistic legs are suddenly too long for the rest of his body.

It’s the kind of ragged transition that most actors pay good money to have smoothed over by publicity teams. Yet Franco is making a spectacle of it. Which is, in a way, brave. One of the central points of Franco’s art and career, as I read them, is that adolescence isn’t something we should look away from, a shameful churning of dirty hormones. It’s the crucible of our identity, the answer to everything that comes later, and we need to look long and hard at it, no matter how gross or painful it might sometimes feel.

6. A Queer Career
“You’re priceless. I should take you to my apartment and put you on my mantel—you can be your own little work of art.”
“Oh, yeah, you think people would pay money for me?”
“Oh, yeah, Mr. Franco. I know quite a few women who would be happy to keep you occupied.”
“For a while. And then what?”
—Maxie and Franco, General Hospital, November 24, 2009

One defining characteristic of adolescence is, of course, our emergence into the world as sexual beings. In this sense, too, Franco seems to be living an extended public adolescence. Many people are obsessed—and Franco has given them ample reason to be—with the question of whether he’s gay or straight. For a Hollywood heartthrob, he’s been unusually drawn to gay or bisexual roles: Allen Ginsberg, James Dean, Harvey Milk’s long-term boyfriend Scott Smith. Even seemingly straight roles—e.g., the pot dealer in Pineapple Express—end up bursting, in Franco’s hands, with homoerotic energy.

Although Franco has been silent on this subject, he seems to enjoy stoking the controversy. His art, across the spectrum, revels in gay culture. His student film The Feast of Stephen involves an extended fantasy scene in which a group of teenage boys gang-rape another boy—who then smiles meaningfully at the camera as the screen goes dark. (An intimate screening of the film was sponsored, last summer, by Butt magazine.) The narrator of Franco’s Esquire short story asks a friend: “Don’t you ever get jealous of those girls in pornos that get to be on their knees in the middle of all those dicks?” Franco researched his role for the 2002 film Sonny by hanging out at gay strip clubs in New Orleans, and even tagged along with a stripper as he serviced a male client in a hotel room. In a guest spot on 30 Rock, he played a version of himself whose sexual obsession with a Japanese body pillow is an open public secret—a perfect allegory for his alleged homosexuality.

When Franco mentioned to me, via e-mail, that he was leaning toward going to Yale for his Ph.D., the faculty member he singled out was Michael Warner. Warner happens to be one of the pioneers of queer theory, a school of thought born in the early nineties (just as Franco was hitting adolescence) that argues that sexuality is not a trivial, personal matter but fundamental to how we all experience the world. “Queer,” in this sense, transcends the simplistic binary of gay versus straight. As Warner puts it in his canonical anthology Fear of a Queer Planet, queer defines itself “against the normal rather than the heterosexual.” Thinking about sexuality—particularly exposing the assumptions embedded in heteronormative culture—is a form of radical social critique, a way to challenge arbitrary boundaries and institutions.

Which is, of course, basically a description of Franco’s current career: He’s systematically challenging mass-cultural norms. Franco, you might say, is queering celebrity: erasing the border not just between gay and straight but between actor and artist, heartthrob and intellectual, junk TV and art museum. His obvious relish for gay roles challenges the default heterosexuality of Hollywood leading men like Clooney or Pitt. He seems more interested in fluidity, in every sense, than in a fixed identity. As a commenter on the website Queerty put it: “He’s the World’s Gayest Heterosexual!” But he’s also the world’s most heterosexual gay, the world’s highest lowbrow, and the world’s most ironic earnest guy. It is also possible that he’s just engaged in the world’s most public, and confused, coming-out process.