Leave James Franco Alone: A Polemic

Only a few months ago, everyone loved James Franco. In fact, he seemed like the perfect celebrity: A thinking woman’s sex symbol who gave a shout out to A Journey to the End of Taste, music critic Carl Wilson’s brilliant study of Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love, on the Oscars red carpet, and then turned up on General Hospital in what was, by all accounts, a stunt intended to get us thinking about the boundaries of celebrity and (perhaps in homage to Wilson?) taste. But now, Franco is using his fame to kick-start careers in literature and the visual arts, and all the media can do is make fun of him.

The backlash began in March, when Franco published a short story in Esquire. Now, let’s not mince words. “Just Before the Black” isn’t winning its author any literary prizes. It is the kind of fiction you might have read in an undergraduate creative writing seminar — although, since we remember those painful classes so well, we can tell you that Franco’s paper would have easily beaten out most sophomores’ offerings. (And we went to college known for its writing program, okay?) In fact, it is a better story than we can imagine almost anyone who’s starred in a Hollywood film producing.

And yet “Just Before the Black” massively pissed people off. Sady Doyle, writing for Salon — which had only a few months earlier crowned Franco 2009’s Sexiest Man Living &mdash declared it a “crush killer” and compared its author to the kind of liberal arts college boyfriend who “would have said that my ladyparts reminded him of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting.” Crushable attacked his “terrible, hackneyed prose and ridiculous dialogue.” Vanity Fair snarkily counted down how many times Franco used words like “dick” and “faggot.”  Yes, even we at Flavorpill rounded up some of the story’s most groan-worthy similes.

Now, Franco — who, for the record, was into art before acting — has his first solo art show at New York’s Clocktower Gallery. And guess what? That means it’s time to make fun of him again! Called The Dangerous Book Four Boys, the show combines photography, sculpture, drawing, and film/video art. You can look through some images from the exhibition here. If you do, you’ll see Franco wearing a fake penis on his nose and a wooden spaceship and pictures scrawled on a copy of the titular book. Are we changing weekend plans to make time to see it? No. But is it any worse or stupider or lazier than a lot of contemporary art critics love and collectors snap up? Nope.

We’re not here to make a case for Franco’s importance as an artist or writer, and we agree that it’s unlikely his work would garner so much publicity if he weren’t famous. But we still love James Franco. Here’s why: Most actors and famous-for-being-famous celebrities don’t seem to have many ambitions besides eating up more fame. Sure, they want to do an interview and be on a magazine cover and show up coked out of their minds at a party. The serious ones want to direct, and some of them, like Clint Eastwood, do a great job of it.

But no one is putting himself out there the way James Franco is. As a highly attractive 32-year-old A-lister, he could be prime tabloid fodder. We could know all about his sex life and intoxicated antics. Instead, he’s actually sitting at home writing stories and making art because that’s what interests him. Regardless of the outcome, isn’t that kind of wonderful? That someone who’s distinguished himself as one of the best actors of his generation is interested enough in intellectual and artistic pursuits that he isn’t satisfied to rest on his laurels (and piles of cash)? That he’s so serious he’s taken time out of his successful career to simultaneously pursue degrees from Columbia and NYU? At a moment when Lindsay Lohan makes the news for setting off her alkie bracelet and legitimate news outlets are bracing for the next time Taylor Lautner will take his shirt off, James Franco remains the apple of our eye.