He carries himself like a slacker, played a high school “freak” in his first important role, and had his biggest box office hit as a permanently stoned drug dealer… but James Franco is no slouch. In fact, if he continues the way he’s started, he may soon steal Mr James Brown’s soubriquet: the hardest working man in showbusiness.
An actor who has already directed several short films, plays, and a feature (awaiting release), Franco is also a published author (his collection of short stories is called “Palo Alto”, after the California community where he grew up). He’s a painter and a conceptual artist whose work has been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Throw in his thirst for college credits – he took 62 units at UCLA in 2006, three times more than the norm, then moved to New York to take courses at Columbia (writing), Tisch (filmmaking), and occasionally commuting to North Carolina for poetry classes. Now he's added a phD at Yale to that roster, and a recurring role as himself (or at least, an actor named Franco), in the daytime soap General Hospital. All this, and Your Highness too.
Okay, this week’s medieval stoner comedy may not be the best example of his work ethic – it’s a bit of a misfire, and while Franco’s attempts to make Prince Fabious a sweet idealistic doofus are appreciated, a more energetic performance might have been in order. Especially after his so-laidback-he’s-hardly-there turn as an Oscar host. (“Next to Anne Hathaway, the Tasmanian devil would look stoned,” he commented.)
Let’s not forget he had two movies out last year, and (if you count his very funny uncredited cameo in Green Hornet), Your Highness is his fourth release of 2011, with potential blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes still to come. And how many actors can say they hosted the Academy Awards the same year that they were nominated for Best Actor? Any?
In this writer’s opinion he deserved to win it, too. Nothing against, Colin Firth, who was, as usual, impeccable in The King’s Speech. But I confess I sympathize with Franco, who dissed Tom Hooper’s film as “pretty safe”. Certainly in comparison with 127 Hours it was: Danny Boyle’s film about a risk-taker was itself an artistic and commercial risk, and a daunting challenge for Franco, who was asked to carry the film virtually single-handedly. Franco’s performance is remarkable in so many ways, for the highs and lows he navigated so convincingly… for the humour, perseverance and ingenuity he exhibited… and the compassion, the soul-searching, and sensitivity. To say nothing of the physical demands of the part. It was a challenge the 32 year old (he turns 33 April 19) was more than ready for.
Ten years ago Franco played James Dean in Mark Rydell’s made for TV biopic. At that stage, his experience was mostly on Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s short-lived but long-cherished high school show Freaks And Geeks, where he played the handsome, not too bright rebel Daniel Desario. Apatow described his first impression of the actor: “He had a really big mouth, and he was very skinny and very greasy…”.
But he was a natural for Dean: he had the looks, the slightly confused, abused innocence Dean projected, and the crinkly smile that’s as much about his eyes as it is about his mouth. He had the commitment too, and won a Golden Globe for the performance.
Stardom didn’t come as fast as he might have hoped. He tried for the part of Peter Parker, but wound up with the consolation role, Harry Osborn. He followed in Leonardo Di Caprio’s shoes, playing Robert De Niro’s son in a Michael Caton Jones film, but 2005’s City By The Sea didn’t make much impression, and even when he played the lead in three 2006 releases, Tristan + Isolde, Flyboys and Annapolis, the cumulative impact was probably a career setback. None of them clicked with critics or at the box office.
In fact it was the combination of two supporting parts that finally put him over the top: first, back with producer Judd Apatow, as the pot-head Saul in the comedy hit Pineapple Express. Then, as Sean Penn’s lover Scott Smith in Milk. Both movies were widely seen and well liked, and these two very different roles combined to leave a lasting impression of a daring young actor of range and substance.
These days no actor can take a career for granted, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes is by no means a sure thing. Franco’s workaholic habits and readiness to take parts big and small may backfire: we might tire of him.
But even if Franco’s precipitous stardom evaporates, it seems unlikely he’ll slow down any. Stardom isn’t the point, it’s just a by-product of his prodigious energy.
There are more books to read and to write, canvases to paint, plays and films to make. You just watch.
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