Bad Boy

Lawsuit Over a Bad NYU Grade? Put James Franco in Detention!

News of a lawsuit over the actor-student-artist-writer’s D at NYU brings Lee Siegel an epiphany.

Victoria Will / AP Photo

Upon hearing that a professor at NYU is suing the university over his firing, allegedly for giving student James Franco a D, I thought of an old Hollywood joke.

An actor, a director, and a producer die and go to heaven. An angel tells them that they can have anything they want. The actor says: “I want to live on my own island. I want to be surrounded by 10 beautiful women who will let me do with them whatever I please. I want 20 sports cars. I want an endless stream of scotch and cocaine.” “OK,” says the angel. “You got it.” And off goes the actor. “What about you?” says the angel to the director. The director says: “I want to live in a castle in my own private country. I want to be surrounded by 100 beautiful women who will satisfy my every desire. I want two private jets. I want a lake filled with Champagne.” “OK,” says the angel. “You got it.” And off goes the director. “Now,” says the angel to the producer. “What would you like? You can have anything in the world you want.” “Me?” says the producer. “I want those two sons of bitches back here right now.”

It’s not enough that the special tribe called Celebrities can apparently have just about anything they desire in this country, including positions as senators and president. Now they expect good grades!

James Franco has found a whole new opening for the magical access celebrity provides. As hordes of mediocrities try, through the mediums of the Internet and reality TV, to become celebrities, Franco the celebrity is on a quest to establish his mediocrity. He has proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he is a mediocre fiction writer, a mediocre installation artist, a mediocre film director, a mediocre soap star, and—from what I’ve been told—a mediocre lecturer. He seems to have grasped a gritty truth about present-day celebrity: the more contempt they have for your talent, the more they forgive your elevated status.

How else to explain Franco’s primary career as actor? To say that he is a terrible actor is to utter a half-truth. He is terrible, but he is not an actor. Go get City by the Sea on Netflix. Playing the tormented drug-addict son of a New York City cop (Robert De Niro), Franco doesn’t invest the role with any surprising gestures or inflections. He just tries as hard as he can to be tormented. You can feel De Niro’s exasperation in his scenes with Franco—De Niro seems merely to be going through the motions of performing his character. He only comes alive in scenes with Frances McDormand, when Franco is off-camera.

Or take Howl. Franco’s performance as Allen Ginsberg was universally praised as masterful. Yet as in all his other roles, Franco never gets beyond the predictable, superficial qualities of his character. He plays the poet and intellectual Ginsberg as poetic and intellectual. And all the while—again, as in so many of his other roles—you see this sheepish little grin that has become Franco’s trademark, on camera and off. It is a grin midway between embarrassment over being caught perpetrating a fraud and smug derision at knowing that he has pulled it off.

Early in his career, Franco played James Dean in a biopic about the actor, and he has carefully and conscientiously been implying an affinity between them ever since—Franco the rebel looking for a cause. But it is as if he has taken Dean’s sullen, brooding, anguished insolence and shaken out of it only the insolence, which he wears like some sort of feather in his cap. He is not merely a phony. He is a professional phony, whose fraudulence is embraced by people who are fed up with looking up to celebrity. Through his adventures in mediocrity, Franco has invented a Hollywood celebrity you can look down at. He is the first creation of a growing synergy between Hollywood stardom and reality television.

It’s as if he’s performing some sort of experiment on what’s left of American democracy, trying to see to what extent he can use his celebrity to corrupt standards in one professional realm after another. It won’t be long before some poor soul, wheeled into the operating room for open-heart surgery, looks up and sees leaning over him…James Franco! And who, in Kardashian Nation, has the character to stop him? He is the Zelig from hell, a Francostein monster, a send-up of democracy and a travesty of meritocracy. Soon he will be designing buildings, drawing up legislation, commanding troops, sitting on the Supreme Court…

Get that son of a bitch under control right now.