Given all of this, “James Franco’s girlfriend” would seem to be a fraught position. And yet Ahna O’Reilly seems not to be bothered. “You do a movie where you’re gay,” she says, “or, in James’s case, more than one, it’s going to happen. I know that a lot of people wish he were gay, or think I’m not his real girlfriend. But there’s nothing you can do about that.”
O’Reilly and Franco met five years ago, just before his career took its radical turn. She was an acting student at Playhouse West, the school Franco had studied at years before. He was an increasingly famous actor on the brink of a career crisis. They discovered that they’d both grown up in Palo Alto, ten minutes away from each other, and that their mothers used to chat at the public pool. They’ve been together ever since, through all the rumors, and the schoolwork, and the move to New York. It seems emblematic that Ahna, who lives in L.A., is speaking to me from Franco’s apartment in New York—she’s here to film a movie—while Franco is in L.A. filming new episodes of General Hospital.
“The choice to go back to school really changed everything,” O’Reilly remembers. “He was reading all the time and writing papers all the time—just constant schoolwork. He was so, so happy. And it was funny how it worked: Once he gave up trying to control his acting career, everything kind of came his way. Pineapple Express came along, and then Milk.”
I tell O’Reilly that I wonder sometimes if Franco’s entire life—the sexual play, the grad school, even my article—is a work of performance art. “No,” she says. “But if someone were doing a performance piece like that, it would be him.”
“I wonder if his ***sensarity*** is real or fake?”
—YouTube comment on General Hospital Franco clip
“Since when is performance art a crime?”
—Franco, General Hospital, January 8, 2010
As Franco adds layer upon layer, wink upon wink—as he slides further along the continuum from Gyllenhaal to Warhol—his entire career is beginning to look less like an actual career than like some kind of gonzo performance piece: a high-concept parody of cultural ambition. He’s become a node of pop-cultural curiosity in roughly the same universe as Lady Gaga. Blogs report Franco’s texting habits at parties and spread bizarre secondhand rumors about his film shoots. (“Franco is in a wheelchair, with a blanket over his legs like FDR, and a camcorder in his hand ...”) There are YouTube tributes that splice together all his onscreen kisses, a Tumblr account that publishes daily pictures of him, and even an online interactive James Franco dress-up doll. It’s hard to imagine this is all accidental: It seems like the work of a virtuoso public-image artist. And yet Franco plays the role, fairly convincingly, of the earnest boy just following his interests. (It’s worth noting that, although the web is obsessed with him, he maintains zero web presence—no Twitter account, no blog.) In interviews he’s charming and affable but rarely says anything provocative. His work itself, his career choices, are more interesting than his words.
My favorite Franco art project, the one that best combines all of his interests (high/low, gay/straight, earnest/ironic) is his work on General Hospital. It started as a joke between Franco and his artist friend Carter, who were discussing a movie in which Franco would play a former soap star. It occurred to them that it would be funny if Franco actually showed up, sometime, on a real soap opera. This fit nicely into a constellation of ideas Franco had already been thinking about: the difference between high art and mass art, the space between performance and real life, the vagaries of taste. So Franco called General Hospital, one of TV’s most popular and longest-running soap operas. The result is a small, double-edged pop-culture masterpiece—a black hole of publicity in which everything works both within the frame of the show and as a commentary on Franco’s career.
Franco’s General Hospital character is a transparent soap-world portrait of Franco himself: a dashing multimedia artist (graffiti, photography, performance art) named “Franco” who sweeps into town and fascinates, angers, seduces, and generally confuses everyone around him. Like Franco, “Franco” is obsessed with art that crosses over into reality: He re-creates, in galleries, actual crime scenes—until eventually the people of Port Charles come to suspect that he might be a murderer himself.
Franco plays “Franco” with deliciously campy intensity. He unleashes the full soap-opera repertoire: brooding stares, sudden outbursts, feverish make-out sessions, deadpan quips. (“Keep the change,” he says, flipping a quarter onto a corpse.) His story arc will culminate, this month, in a very special episode set in the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A., at which “Franco” will stage an art show that doubles as some kind of explosive evil-genius doomsday scenario. Franco himself, the real human, is also going to have a show at MoCA this summer based on his experience on General Hospital. (He brought a camera crew along to film the filming of the episodes.) In December, Franco wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal in which he declared that he intends his General Hospital cameo to be seen as performance art. (“My hope was for people to ask themselves if soap operas are really that far from entertainment that is considered critically legitimate.”) The article was accompanied, online, by a video conversation between Franco and Abramovic, held in her apartment, during which she had him put on a white lab coat, peel almonds, and eat a dessert ball wrapped in a sheet of gold.