The James Franco Project

Illustration by GluekitPhoto: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

1. The Wink
“Franco is here. And he is seriously good looking, but very weird.”
“Weird how?”
—Maxie and Lulu, General Hospital, November 23, 2009

James Franco will not stop bouncing around. We’re standing on the sixth floor of a building at NYU, in the Department of Cinema Studies, outside a small theater. He’s wearing a standard grad-student uniform: washed-out jeans, charcoal sweater, gray sneakers, messy hair. His face—the face whose sculpted smoothness has won him countless film roles, and a Gucci endorsement, and daily floods of heartsick prose poetry on Internet comment boards—has been abducted by a mildly disturbing mustache. (He had to grow it for a role, he says.) We’ve just finished listening to a lecture by the performance artist Marina Abramovic—a talk Franco introduced with a charming but rambling overview of Abramovic’s career: the time she screamed herself hoarse, the time she took medication to give herself seizures, the time she cut her own hand with a knife, the time she ate an entire raw onion. It’s unclear whether people have come tonight to see Abramovic or Franco or just the symbiotic fusion of the two—this rare public marriage of Hollywood and art-world stars.

The crowd has dispersed now, and Franco is out here in the lobby bouncing around, weirdly, like a boxer before a fight, hopping back and forth, telling me about how stressed he is. He’s just flown back from Berlin this afternoon, he says, and he has a 35-page paper due tomorrow. Next weekend he has to shoot a student film, because in two weeks he’ll be flying out to Salt Lake City to start acting in a movie called 127 Hours, director Danny Boyle’s follow-up to Slumdog Millionaire, in which Franco will play a hiker who gets pinned by a boulder and has to amputate his own arm. Revisions are due soon on his book of short stories, which will be published in October by Scribner. He’s trying to nail down the details of an art show that will be based, somehow, on his recent performance on the soap opera General Hospital. Also, he has class every day, which—since he’s enrolled in four graduate programs at once—requires commuting among Brooklyn, Greenwich Village, Morningside Heights, and occasionally North Carolina. He looks exhausted; it occurs to me that maybe he’s bouncing around to keep himself awake.

After a few minutes, Franco apologizes for his hopping and says he really just desperately needs to urinate. He keeps talking about his work as we walk down the hall—most of his student films, he tells me, have been adaptations of poems—and then he talks about it some more as he enters the bathroom. His voice takes on the ring of institutional porcelain and tile. His next film, he says, will be based on Spencer Reece’s poem “The Clerk’s Tale,” a dramatic monologue by a man who works in a mall. Franco is still talking about all of this as he starts to urinate, matter-of-factly, into a urinal—a process that goes on for an extremely long time. (He’s a compulsive drinker of Starbucks coffee, and Abramovic talked for well over an hour.) He’ll be filming at an actual mall in Queens next weekend, he says, still urinating, and the movie will star the performance artist John Kelly, who’s best known for appearing onstage, in drag, as Joni Mitchell. As I stand behind Franco, here in the tiny bathroom, taking notes, I feel a strange little thrill of low-grade intimacy—equal parts discomfort, amusement, affection, and an excitement whose source I can’t quite trace.

Franco washes his hands, and we head back out to the lobby, where he’s met by a small group that’s been milling around—it’s hard to tell if it’s an entourage or just a few lingering friends and classmates, a Hollywood thing or a student thing. Before he turns to walk away, Franco does something surprising: He winks at me. I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. As he and Abramovic walk off together toward the elevators, my mind starts to run through all the possible interpretations. Was it a cheesy Hollywood-schmoozer wink, meant to charm and titillate me—the equivalent of a personalized James Franco autograph on our conversation? Or was it sincere, a gesture of goodwill and openhearted, rakish, devil-may-care bonhomie? (Is a sincere wink even possible, here in the cinema-studies department at NYU, in the year 2010?) Was it ironic—a wink set in quotation marks? Was he making fun of me, and of himself, and of the whole vexed transaction of celebrity journalism? Was he flirting with me, or metaflirting—making a sly reference to all the gay rumors swirling around him, and to our strange homosocial trip to the bathroom together?

Illustrations by Dienstelle 75Photo: From left, Stewart Cook/Rex USA/BEI Images; TMZ

In the hours after our brief meeting, and then in the months that followed, I would come to believe that everything important about Franco and his career could be derived from that mystifying wink. The only problem was that I had no idea, really none at all, what he meant by it.

2. The Everything-ist
“Believe what you want. But here’s a clue. The secret to life: Anyone can die at any time.”
“So what do we do about it?”
“Amuse ourselves. Don’t live by rules or boundaries. And take what you want, when you want.”
—Franco and Maxie, General Hospital, November 24, 2009

Not so long ago, James Franco’s life and career were fairly normal. He grew up in Palo Alto, California, where his parents had met as Stanford students. Young James was, at his father’s urging, a math whiz—he even got an internship at Lockheed Martin. As a teenager, he rebelled, got in trouble with the law (drinking, shoplifting, graffiti), and eventually migrated toward the arts. His hero was Faulkner. He fell in love with acting when he played the lead in a couple of dark and heavy high-school plays. After freshman year, he dropped out of UCLA, very much against his parents’ wishes, to try to make a career of it. He was good, lucky, and driven, and within a couple of years, he got his first big break: Judd Apatow cast him in what would become the cult TV series Freaks and Geeks. When the series was canceled after just a season, Franco landed the lead in the TNT biopic James Dean. He played the part with a slumping intensity that seemed like a reasonable replication of the real thing—or at least much closer than anyone had a right to expect from a TNT biopic—and the performance won a Golden Globe. Soon after, he was cast as Robert De Niro’s drug-addicted son in the film City by the Sea. That same year, he entered mainstream consciousness as Peter Parker’s best friend in Spider-Man.

Franco had become, in other words, a working Hollywood actor. An unusual actor—he overprepared for minor roles, read Dostoyevsky and Proust between takes, and occasionally drove colleagues crazy with his intensity—but still identifiably an actor, with an actor’s career. As he climbed toward leading-man status, however, Franco had a crisis of faith. He found himself cast in a string of mediocre films—Annapolis, Flyboys, Tristan + Isolde—most of which bombed. He felt like he was funneling all his effort into glossy, big-budget entertainment over which he had no control, and of which he wasn’t proud.

At age 28, ten years after dropping out, Franco decided to go back to college. He enrolled in a couple of UCLA extension courses (literature, creative writing) and found them so magically satisfying—so safe and pure compared with the world of acting—that he threw himself back into his education with crazy abandon. He persuaded his advisers to let him exceed the maximum course load, then proceeded to take 62 credits a quarter, roughly three times the normal limit. When he had to work—to fly to San Francisco, for instance, to film Milk—he’d ask classmates to record lectures for him, then listen to them at night in his trailer. He graduated in two years with a degree in English and a GPA over 3.5. He wrote a novel as his honors thesis.

It was interesting timing. As soon as Franco decided his Hollywood career wasn’t enough, his Hollywood career exploded—which meant that his intellectual pursuits got picked up on the radar of the A-list Hollywood publicity machine. Which was, of course, baffled by all of it. Plenty of actors dabble in side projects—rock bands, horse racing, college, veganism—but none of them, and maybe no one else in the history of anything, anywhere, seems to approach extracurricular activities with the ferocity of Franco.

Take, for instance, graduate school. As soon as Franco finished at UCLA, he moved to New York and enrolled in four of them: NYU for filmmaking, Columbia for fiction writing, Brooklyn College for fiction writing, and—just for good measure—a low-residency poetry program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. This fall, at 32, before he’s even done with all of these, he’ll be starting at Yale, for a Ph.D. in English, and also at the Rhode Island School of Design. After which, obviously, he will become president of the United Nations, train a flock of African gray parrots to perform free colonoscopies in the developing world, and launch himself into space in order to explain the human heart to aliens living at the pulsing core of interstellar quasars.

Franco says all of his pursuits are possible, at least in part, because he’s cut down on his acting, but he’s still doing plenty of that. In the next year or so, he’ll be appearing in the films Eat, Pray, Love (as Julia Roberts’s boyfriend), Howl (as Allen Ginsberg), 127 Hours (as the one-armed hiker), Your Highness (a medieval comedy), William Vincent (an indie film by one of his NYU professors), Maladies (put out by his own production company), and Rise of the Apes (a prequel to Planet of the Apes). And of course there’s his epically weird stint on General Hospital—the crown jewel in the current science project of his career.

Illustrations by Dienstelle 75Photo: Courtesy of Scribner/Simon + Schuster (Book)

All of which raises a small army of questions:

(1) Can James Franco possibly be for real?

(2) If he is, then—just logistically—how is all this possible?

(3) And perhaps the biggest mystery of all: Why is Franco doing it? Are his motives honest or dishonest? Neurotic or healthy? Arrogant or humble? Ironic or sincere? Naïve or sophisticated? Should we reward him with our attention or punish him with our contempt? Is he genuinely trying to improve himself or is he just messing with us—using celebrity itself as the raw material for some kind of public prank?

3. Logistics
“You are so full of crap.”
“You keep saying that.”
—Maxie and Franco, General Hospital, November 24, 2009

“I’m not like everyone else—remember that.”
—Franco, General Hospital, December 11, 2009

It’s hard not to be a little skeptical. Anyone who’s ever been to grad school will tell you that a single high-level program is pretty much crippling. Not to mention that topflight programs like Yale’s are designed to “professionalize” students, shearing away all of their outside interests and hobbies. Some professors frown on students having relationships, much less other careers—much less twelve of them. So while Franco’s adventure in overeducation might seem, from a distance, admirable, or at least lovably naïve, it also seems basically impossible. This skepticism was bolstered last year when a photo circulated online showing Franco sitting in class at Columbia, his head tilted back, dead asleep. The photo’s unspoken message was that the cynics were probably right: Franco’s pretty smile had given him a free pass to cultural realms the rest of us have to work our whole lumpy-faced lives just to get an outside shot at. He wasn’t so much attending grad school as he was endorsing it: lending these programs his celebrity in exchange for easy intellectual cred.

Franco’s professors, classmates, and colleagues insist, however, that this is not the case. According to everyone I spoke with, Franco has an unusually high metabolism for productivity. He seems to suffer, or to benefit, from the opposite of ADHD: a superhuman ability to focus that allows him to shuttle quickly between projects and to read happily in the midst of chaos. He hates wasting time—a category that includes, for him, sleeping. (He’ll get a few hours a night, then survive on catnaps, which he can fall into at any second, sometimes even in the middle of a conversation.) He doesn’t drink or smoke or—despite his convincingness in Pineapple Express—do drugs. He’s engineered his life so he can spend all his time either making or learning about art. When I asked people if Franco actually does all of his own homework, some of them literally laughed right out loud at me, because apparently homework is all James Franco ever really wants to do. The photo of him sleeping in class, according to his assistant, wasn’t even from one of his classes: It was an extra lecture he was sitting in on, after a full day of work and school, because he wanted to hear the speaker.

Vince Jolivette, Franco’s roommate and general right-hand man (he runs Franco’s production company and plays bit parts in many of his films), met Franco in acting class in 1996. “Our teacher made us rehearse at least once a day outside of class,” he told me. “James would get eight or nine rehearsals. Everyone else would do, at most, one. If we didn’t rehearse, or if I had to cancel, he’d be pissed.”

John Tintori, chair of NYU’s filmmaking program, told me that Franco convinced him of his sincerity in the entrance interview. “He was an hour early. He just sat outside my office waiting. In the interview, the two faculty members who were with me were skeptical and really held his feet to the fire. He said, ‘I am not going to be the guy who’s not pulling his weight.’ And he isn’t. In fact, he’s loading up and doing extra credit. Normally, we’re a three-year program. My guess is he’ll probably finish in two and a half years. A few months ago, he said, ‘I really like it here. Is it okay, after I finish all my requirements—can I keep taking classes?’ I’m looking into that, because I don’t know if it’s allowed.”

According to his mother, Betsy, Franco has been this way since he was born. In kindergarten, he wouldn’t just build regular little block towers—he’d build structures that used every single block in the playroom. At night, he would organize his Star Wars toys before he slept. When Franco was 4 years old, a friend of the family died. Betsy gave him the standard Mortality Talk: no longer with us, just a part of lifeyes, but hopefully not for a very long time. Little James burst into tears. He was inconsolable. Eventually, he managed to choke out, between sobs, “But I don’t want to die! I have so much to do!”

Illustrations by Dienstelle 75Photo: From left, Patrick McMullan; Courtesy of ABC

This is, no doubt, mildly insane, even if it’s a form of insanity many of us might want to have.

One of Franco’s most serious productivity advantages is his personal assistant, Dana Morgan. “I tease him when people say, ‘How do you do it?’ ” she tells me. “ ‘You don’t! You do all the things they know about, but you don’t do the normal human-being things.’ ”

Morgan, a former UCLA classmate of Franco’s, manages his minute-to-minute existence: makes sure he wakes up, gets dressed, eats. “I guarantee you he would not eat unless I fed him,” she says. “He’ll do the hand-to-mouth part, but I definitely bring it to his hands. It’s not that he’s helpless. It’s just that he would not take the time to find food. He has the luxury of not having to worry about it.”

Despite the hired help, Morgan tells me, Franco’s hyperproductive life is not always easy. “He definitely gets overwhelmed at times. Sometimes we’ll look at each other, and it’s been 36 hours since either of us has closed our eyes, and he’s switched from decaf to regular, and we’re on a train or a plane or a car and he’ll go, ‘What am I doing? What’s going on?’ But then it’s like: ‘Well, we’re making things happen the way you want.’ ”

4. The After-Party
“The camera never lies. Except it always does.”
—Franco, General Hospital, July 7, 2010

James Franco’s homework has had an incredible year. Short stories he worked on at Columbia and Brooklyn College were published in Esquire and McSweeney’s. His NYU student films—including the artsy adaptations of poetry he was telling me about in the bathroom—graced all the major film festivals. His documentary Saturday Night, which began life as a seven-minute NYU assignment, blossomed—thanks to unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to SNL (a show Franco has hosted twice)—into a full-length feature.

The next time I see Franco is at the Tribeca Film Festival, at an after-party for Saturday Night. The party is sponsored by Polaroid, which is using the occasion to promote its new Polaroid 300 camera so aggressively it feels almost like a satire of publicity: Everyone is taking photos, or photos of photos, or video of photographers taking photos of photos. It’s like Andy Warhol has thrown a surprise party for a Don DeLillo novel.

Over the course of the party, Franco stands mainly right near the front door, creating a bulge of admirers that makes it hard to get in and out of the building. He looks, tonight, not like a grad student but like a swashbuckling young Hollywood leading man: He’s wearing jeans and a brown leather jacket; his sketchy mustache has been normalized by the addition of a goatee; his hair is curly and wild. His job here at the party seems to be to make chitchat—to spread the limited resource of his attention affably across hundreds of targets, never locking in for more than a few minutes at a time, but also never making anyone feel slighted.

Partygoers approach and compliment him, exchange pleasantries with him, take cell-phone pictures of him. He talks to his agent, to his NYU classmates, to the TV critic of the New York Post. Midway through the party, I manage to break into the golden orb of Franco’s attentional sphere. We talk about his latest projects, and he can’t resist making a prediction.

“The new critique you’re gonna start hearing about James Franco,” says James Franco, “is ‘He’s spreading himself too thin.’ ”

I tell him I’ve already heard that critique many times.

“But what does that even mean?” he asks. He seems impatient, genuinely baffled. “Spreading himself too thin?”

Well, I say, isn’t it a reasonable concern? How many targets can one person’s brain realistically hit with any kind of accuracy?

“If the work is good,” Franco says, “what does it matter? I’m doing it because I love it. Why not do as many things I love as I can? As long as the work is good.”

Soon he gets whisked away to a back room to have his portrait taken, in Polaroids, over and over by someone a company rep keeps calling “a real artist.” Franco sits in a kind of Thinker pose, with his face resting on the tripod of his fingers. At the end of the session, the real artist tapes all of his portraits together into one big collage of fractured Franco.

5. The Adolescent
“The best art is understood by the fewest number of people.”
“Okay. Well, you’re incredibly popular. Does that mean you’re not good?”
“I’m good.”
—Franco and Maxie, General Hospital, November 23, 2009

The critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote about Orson Welles, history’s archetypal writer-actor-director, “Orson is the man who tried it all: And every time he tried a medium, it capitulated.” The same cannot be said, as of yet, for Franco. Artistic media don’t seem to capitulate to him. They struggle against him, making him earn every modest inch of success. Watching that struggle is fascinating and a big part of Franco’s appeal: He’s not a savant or an obvious genius—he’s someone of mortal abilities who seems to be working immortally hard. Outside of acting—at which he is, by all accounts, very good and sometimes excellent—Franco’s work gives off a student-y vibe. It exudes effort. His directing is daring but often heavy-handed. His fiction reads like promising work from a writing seminar—not a student whose success you’d guarantee but someone you could see eventually getting there. (When Franco’s story “Just Before the Black” was published in Esquire, it set off a huge online hullabaloo of negativity. Salon called it a “crush killer.” One writer tweeted that “Franco makes Ethan Hawke seem like Herman Melville.”) Still, Franco grades well on a curve. He’s an excellent writer, for an actor. He’s brilliant, for a heartthrob. But he has yet to produce art that’s good enough to break the huge gravitational pull of his fame and fly off on its own merits.

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.

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.”

7. Meta/Earnest
“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.

For an earnest guy, Franco has always been ragingly addicted to meta. He loves to play James Franco—not just in General Hospital (sort of), but in Knocked Up, 30 Rock, and a series of short videos he’s made for the website Funny or Die (e.g., “Acting With James Franco,” in which he instructs his younger brother Dave in the rudiments of the profession). The more Franco self-dramatizes like this, and the more we become accustomed to it, the more he’s actually James Franco playing James Franco playing James Franco—a mise en abyme of artsy pomo heartthrob.

8. The Opening
“Art’s like a mirror. It’s pretty clear what you see.”
—Franco, General Hospital, November 23, 2009

“Don’t be afraid. You and I are … intimates. Say what you feel.”
—Franco, General Hospital, July 6, 2010

The last time I see James Franco is at the opening of his first solo art show, at the Clocktower Gallery in downtown New York. The Clocktower is a nonprofit gallery that’s prestigious but not at all flashy; it’s hidden on the thirteenth floor of an enormously bland municipal building. When I enter, I’m pulled aside by Alanna Heiss, the curator of the show, who tells me that this opening is not about a red carpet, or creating buzz, or making money. She chose Franco, she says, not for his celebrity but because he has a special vision—an understanding, above all, of the connectivity among media—that she thinks is going to influence the way future generations look at art. But there’s no denying that Franco’s celebrity will be an incredible draw—it may as well be one of the pieces in the show.

The show is called “The Dangerous Book Four Boys,” a corruption of the book title The Dangerous Book for Boys, which is a tongue-in-cheek primer of young masculinity. (Franco has torn out, doodled on, and framed pages of that book all over the gallery.) One of its first rooms features a large pile of junk heaped on the floor: T-shirts, books, VHS tapes, lunch boxes. It looks like the bedroom of a 12-year-old hoarder. (Heiss tells me that it’s all authentic Franco junk, shipped out from his childhood room in California.) The rest of the show feels similarly haphazard. It’s a hodgepodge of media: film, doodles, wooden structures, photos. The uniting theme seems to be the messy transition from boyhood to adolescence, with special emphasis on the messiest markers of that shift—sex and violence. The wall text says it was made possible, in part, by funding from Gucci. (Franco is the face of the company’s men’s fragrance.)

Much of the art is violent or explicitly obscene. A video called Masculinity and Me intersperses lurid monologues about rape and murder and diarrhea with close-up shots of a urinating penis and a defecating anus. (Many of the speeches sound like comments from an undergrad queer-theory seminar: “Man and woman are impossible ideals,” one character says. “We’re all gender-fucked—we’re all something in between, floating like angels.”) Another short film, Dicknose in Paris, features Franco as the title character, with a big floppy prosthetic penis—complete with dangling testicles and a bush of pubic hair—hanging down from the middle of his face. (When Dicknose walks the streets of Paris, he has to cover his face with a sweatshirt.) Franco often wears masks in his work: a wolf, a clown, a freakish bald-headed man-monster. It comes off as a rebuke to his own outlandishly pretty face: the face that has won him so much in the world (including, at least in part, this art show)—but also the face that stands between him and serious artistic credibility.

The show’s most prominent piece is a big barnlike structure made of plywood, the kind of playhouse a perfect father might build for his 9-year-old son. I step inside to find a small room lined with plywood benches. It’s sweltering. On the far wall, a video is being projected: footage of a plywood house burning to the ground. One of the other visitors walks out, and suddenly there are only two of us, here in the house that contains an image of its own destruction, and the other person is James Franco.

I stand very still, like a hiker who’s just seen a bear. Franco’s publicist has recently informed me that—after all these months of e-mailing (he always responds immediately, and likes to sign off with “Peace”) and brief conversations—Franco and I are no longer allowed to talk. He’s signed an exclusivity agreement with another magazine. Under no circumstances am I to speak to him, I’m told, not even to say hello. I can see him now in my peripheral vision: He looks not like a grad student or a hipster but like an international golden boy, a corporate spokesman—unmasked and cleanly shaven, dressed in a gray Gucci suit and pointy black Gucci shoes. His hair is sculptural, bushy but managed. Surely, I think, if someone sees us together, I will be thrown out. On the opposite wall, the flames have stripped the house to its frame, reducing it to some kind of glowing black non-substance, half-wood, half-ash.

A few seconds pass.

“Hi, Sam,” James Franco says.

I feel the same low-grade thrill of intimacy I felt at our first meeting in the NYU bathroom—this time spiced with a new kind of danger.

“I think we’re not supposed to be talking,” I say.

“Why, what happened?” he says. “Did somebody call you? Did you get a talking to?”

I tell him that his inner circle has done everything short of surrounding him with barbed wire.

“You know that’s not coming from me, right?” he says.

I don’t know if this is true, here in the room that’s consuming itself, or if James Franco is just trying to paralyze me with his charm. But my heart melts a little anyway. I have the feeling I had once when I ran into Bill Clinton, randomly, and he shook my hand in a way that made me want to devote the rest of my life to hugging him.

Franco slaps me on the shoulder. “Don’t be scared,” he says. And he walks back out into the thickening crowd.

After that I stand for a long time, just outside the plywood house, watching old home videos being projected onto a gallery wall: Franco in a diaper, spraying a garden hose wildly around the yard; Franco climbing in and out of a laundry basket; Franco naked with a yellow balloon. Franco putting both hands up against a mirror, trying to disappear into his own reflection.

I go back and watch the obscene films again, trying to square them with the expensively dressed man standing across the room. This is the paradox of James Franco: Dicknose in Gucci. It’s either hypocrisy or complexity, self-delusion or radical self-acceptance. It’s the defining fault line of his career, the source of much of his energy. Were he to resolve it in one direction or the other, he might cease to be so interesting.

The James Franco Project