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James Franco arrives at the premiere of Palo Alto. AP/Press Association Images

Opinion Is James Franco trolling us all?

His behaviour has been odd to say the least, so is Franco engaging in a little method acting?

He’s always displayed a penchant for the personally peculiar, but in 2014 we’ve seen more (literally) of James Franco than professional trendspotters could have possibly predicted.

In recent weeks, the twinkling thespian has hijacked headlines by propositioning strange teenagers for hotel room hook-ups, publishing near naked selfies on Instagram, and painting nude portraits of Seth Rogen for some reason. People, we’ve hit Peak Franco. Time to pose the question: why?

Don’t ask his brother Dave, also an actor, who appeared on Conan earlier in the week and responded to the host’s questions with the same pained incredulity sported by the rest of us.

His behaviour

“I know that we’re not supposed to answer for our brothers’ actions,” said Conan, in the manner of an exasperated headmaster, “but I’m going to make you answer for your brother’s actions.” At which point there flashed on our screens that photo of Franco the Elder with his kecks inched south, his phone in one hand, the other loosely covering his Franco-furter.

“I don’t know. Like, compared to some of the other weird things he’s doing, it seems like kind of a refined act,” mused Dave, and after a brief dissection of his brother’s artwork, added, “This is dignified for him”. Ah, who better than your little brother to gleefully tell the world that you’re much, much worse in real life?

One popular hypothesis is that Franco is nothing but a raging cad, and in fairness, he’s given us plenty of evidence to support that. There were the dubious messages sent to a seventeen-year-old fan, seeking to hook-up while she was in New York.

The girl told him she’d return when she was eighteen, though it’s unlikely he’ll be interested in some newly adult fun-time now that she’s told the whole world that 36-year-old James Franco was creepin’ on her. Franco himself explained the situation by shrugging that meeting people on the internet is “tricky”. It sure is, lad.

Especially when you find yourself relying on the discretion of starstruck schoolgirls.


A contrary angle is that Mr Franco is trolling us all, considering the silliness of those straight-faced sexy selfies and his habit of painting pal Seth Rogen in the buff (Rogen, incidentally, seems cheerfully nonplussed by the portraits.

Both fans and critics have pointed out that the timing of Franco’s teen-romancin’ scandal was advantageous, seeing as his movie Palo Alto, which features a teenage girl embarking on an affair with a teacher, is about to open in the US. Oh, and Palo Alto is based on a collection of short stories. Written by James Franco.

Boom! He has to be trolling us, right?

The whole thing is just too suspiciously fortuitous. James Franco, postulate spectators, is doing this for the lulz and for the dollars. This idea that Franco might be engaging in a little method acting is hardly outlandish.


Method acting

His interest in the gulf between an actor’s private and public persona, and the measures which he might take to manage that gap, were documented in his New York Times February op-ed on Shia LaBeouf.

That Franco might have orchestrated a sleazy come-on as a performance piece is possible. This is an actor who watched a male prostitute have sex with a client in order to prepare for the movie Sonny, who took up smoking two packets of cigarettes a day when he was cast as James Dean, who lived briefly on the streets before he played a homeless drug addict in City By The Sea.

Both fans and critics have pointed that out. And James Franco understands attention.

“A well-stocked collection of selfies seems to get attention,” he wrote, in another New York Times piece published last year. “Attention is power”. When it comes to successfully selling a product, he’s right. With an actor the product is himself.

The public’s reaction has been intriguing. James Franco is a fiend for self-promotion, to the extent that we’re not even prepared to believe him when he expresses embarrassment for sexual faux-pas.


He’s classed as a narcissistic imp. Fellow Instagram junkie Rihanna is also known for posting portraits of herself in NSFW stages of undress, but her photos are usually taken as personal celebration or expression, or at worst, TMI-levels of cheeky over-familiarity. She’s not assumed to be “creepy” when she poses without her knickers.

Franco overshares and is derided for it.

He tries to seduce teenagers and we assume it’s another boundary-pushing “project” and yawn accordingly.

Ah, the “projects”. Franco is very much the perpetual student; he’s earned a BFA and MFA and is currently a PhD student at Yale. He loves to ask questions. He loves to create. He loves to ask questions about creativity. He’s written on film and pop culture for the Paris Review, the Huffington Post and Vice. He’s published poetry. He’s made short films. He teaches classes on acting and filmmaking. He immerses himself in his roles. He thinks too hard about TV shows. He promotes questionable art3

I suspect that James Franco is trying so, so hard to be significant, and real, and present, and all of those concepts he laudably believes are obtainable and essential to meaningful existence.

It’s tempting to bash him for that, because it’s fun to laugh at the earnest rich boy and his “projects”, but somehow, I just can’t bring myself to do it. Franco is desperate to be an artist, to bare his soul (and his bottom) in the name of expression, to be the kind of stark talent people can’t help staring at, like his beloved Dean or Brando.

And it never really works for him. He stretches for “Kubrick” and still falls shy of “Willy Wonka”. He identifies as an eccentric but comes across like a goofy drifter uncle.

He remains a comfortably talented actor in a world full of people more interested in his pecs than his poetry. In his op-ed on the awkward shenanigans of Shia LaBeouf, Franco said, “I just hope that he is careful not to use up all the good will he has gained as an actor in order to show us that he is an artist.” Pertinent, Jim. You might there have a case of life-imitating-arty-essay.

 Column: You cannot – and should not – fix a broken life in front of a thousand cameras>

Column: Cinema’s enduring fascination with mental disorders can be a force for good

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