03.23.11

The James Franco Backlash

After months of wearying announcements about James Franco's projects, followed by his lame Oscar hosting, and now a Twitter fight with Bruce Vilanch, Chris Lee says STOP FRANCO.

As anybody with even an ambient knowledge of the celebrity news cycle is already abundantly aware, James Franco has been doing myriad things over the last few months–very few having to do with his day job as an Oscar-nominated actor.

Digital art coursework at the Rhode Island School of Design simultaneous with an English Ph.D. at Yale? Check. Opening a "secret" bar in Los Angeles while his artwork is shown at two galleries in Berlin? Affirmative. And that's all in between recording sessions for an album with the cross-dressing performer Kalup Linzy as well as, oh, appearing in movies, like the stoner swords-and-chainmail comedy, Your Highness, which opens April 8.

But what has come out in the jet-wash of comedy writer Bruce Vilanch's seemingly incendiary comments to Vulture about the actor/Renaissance man earlier this week is that Franco, in his self-assumed role as the great Polymath of Popular Culture, is beginning to get on people's nerves. With his latest career incarnation no longer new news, the act is wearing a little thin.

"James Franco has become a monster and must be stopped," blared a sub-headline of a story on Franco fatigue in the New York Post earlier this month. The New Yorker, meanwhile, dubbed the actor's media ubiquity "Francophrenia."

And taking aim in an opinion piece about the star's social networking skills, The Yale Daily News opined in late February: "James Franco, your Twitter sort of sucks."

It's easy enough to forget he wasn't always a Broadway-bound movie star who hob-knobs with the likes of Terence Koh and Jeffrey Deitch at art world bashes, or the writer of not-terribly-well reviewed short fiction collections and op-eds for The Wall Street Journal. Franco's sheer volume of different projects–he's going to star in a Wizard of Oz reboot! He's going to direct movie adaptations of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying AND Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian!–can mask the raging ego behind it all.

Despite the crinkly smile and aura of free-floating irony that seem to be Franco's default public persona, there is a competing James Franco, an abstraction. Not the Franco who hovers above the Hollywood fray and is deemed infinitely more compelling by extension. This is the thin-skinned Gucci model Franco who hurls tweeted insults with the churlish gusto of Kanye West.

Calling Vilanch out for his work with the Divine Miss M–oh snap!

To recap the most recent events in the Franco File: his disastrous turn as an Oscar co-host last month unleashed a torrent of TV critic scorn and a floodstream of Twitter hateration that had the actor's name trending on Twitter alongside such terms as "failed" and "boring." Then this week, head Oscars telecast writer Vilanch was button-holed by a reporter at a red carpet event where he was quoted as having said, "I have to call James Franco and tell him the show's over. He doesn't know. He took a nap and woke up in class." Moreover, Vilanch purportedly said that as a result of the actor's lack of preparation Franco also "didn't get there" performance-wise. And perhaps most condemning, Vilanch admitted wondering if Franco's charisma-challenged mien was "a performance-art prank" of some kind.

Which is where things get interesting. While Franco has felt sufficiently over-exposed enough lately to bypass doing the usual amount of press for Your Highness–and his publicist declined to make him available for this story–he still found time to go into social media attack mode, responding quite unlike the earnest post-graduate he has painted himself to be since 2009, when he earned a bachelor's degree in English from UCLA.

Gangsta Franco suddenly reared his head with an angry tweet that hit the Web just hours after Vilanch's supposed remarks surfaced. "James fucked up the Oscars," the actor sarcastically scrawled in Perez Hilton-like photo shop marker over an image of him with Vilanch. "Trust me, I know comedy I mean I write for Bette Midler."

Calling Vilanch out for his work with the Divine Miss M–oh snap!

And that wasn't even the first time Franco had put a nemesis on Twitter blast. Last month, after the "Franco, your Twitter sort of sucks" piece, the artist-writer-performer responded with a Twitpic of himself wearing sunglasses accompanied by digital scrawl proclaiming: "Fuck the Yale Daily News."

You almost expect him to start using Charlie Sheen's #fastball hashtag and referring to himself as a "warlock" at this point.

Of course, abiding by the rules of any good tempest in an Information Age teacup, Vilanch quickly distanced himself from his remarks, blaming the journalist who wrote the item for taking him out of context: "I was JOKING with this guy on the red carpet about all the sleeping jokes with you," Vilanch wrote to Franco in an email the performer posted on his Twitter account. "[He] then got vehement about how bad you were and I was trying to DEFEND you. I don't know what version, what context you read these remarks in, but believe me, I would never diss you."

And Franco, having claimed his pound of Web flesh, framed Vilanch's apology on Twitter with a sheepish counter apology--"Thanks Bruce, sorry for reading stupid blogs. Heart James"–before deleting the whole thing from his account.

Growing cultural impatience with Franco's arty schtick can be attributed, at least in part, to a certain confusion surrounding his motive; it ceased to be clear when the actor was and wasn't performing a long time ago.

So what's the takeaway? Asked last month by the Guardian what he gets from doing art that he doesn't get from performing in movies, Franco provided an insightful–if appropriately meta-narrative–explanation of his current professional modus operandi.

"In a normal commercial narrative film, I'm playing a character in order to support the imaginary world of that film," Franco said. "I'm acting in such a way that people will believe in that world, right? And if I act in a way that draws attention to the fact that I am a performer in a commercial film, usually people will consider that bad acting. But if I do it in this context, I can act in all sorts of ways. I can act badly, I can act silly, I can draw attention to the fact that it's all a performance."

Chris Lee is a senior entertainment writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. He previously worked as an entertainment and culture reporter for the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in Vibe, Premiere and Details magazines and has been plagiarized in The Sunday Tribune of Ireland and The Trinidad Guardian.