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James Franco's Queer Catalogue: 10 Very Gay Career Highlights

by /bent
March 5, 2014 2:39 PM
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James Franco in "Milk"

With FrancoFest, a retrospective celebrating the work of James Franco kicking off today and running through March 13th (check out the full schedule here) -- we figured it was an opportunity for us to take a queer look back at what has truly separated Franco from any of his A-list actor contemporaries: A borderline obsession with incorporating explicit queerness into his work (and thus fucking with a confused mainstream media in the process). In between big budget studio offerings like "Rise of the Planet of Apes," Franco has -- whether through acting or directing or writing (or all three at once) -- explored issues or concepts the vast majority (all?) of his Hollywood colleagues would never touch. It hasn't always worked for us, but we have to preface the following rundown of examples with the fact that we certainly appreciate that Franco has collectively gone there. With that said, here's our thoughts on Franco's queer catalogue:

30 Rock. James Franco was at his comic best during a 2010 guest appearance on "30 Rock" that riffed on closeted actors and their beards (not to mention speculation about his own sexuality). Playing himself, Franco begins a fake relationship with Jane Krakowski's Jenna to cover up rumors that he's in love with... a Japanese body pillow. It's pretty brilliant:

The Clerk's Tale. This short film was based on a poem by queer poet Spencer Reece. The poem and film share a title, which itself comes from Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales". I saw this a while ago, screened at one of Reece's readings. It put Anne Thompson to sleep, but I was luckily aided by a glass of wine.  It was fine but unremarkable, like many short films from early-career directors. I don't want to be too down on it, everyone starts somewhere, but then again not everyone gets the publicity, or the immediate praise, Franco seems to elicit. But still, it was a queer inflected film with older male protagonists with scope for development. My worry with Franco is he's told he's good at so much he gives nothing the time it needs to be anything more than competent.

Feast of Stephen. Franco's short film adaptation of Anthony Hecht’s poem is pretty damn gay. And while it’s not exactly edifying that the protagonist’s strikingly queer fantasy images are followed with a rather nasty comeuppance, perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps.

"Gay Town"

Gay Town. Calling an exhibition "Gay Town" certainly creates a good headline, but we're not entirely sure what else it achieves. At last year's Berlinale, James Franco launched a show under the aforementioned name, whose highlights, if that's an appropriate word, included a Spider-Man image scrawled with the words "Fuck Spidey" and an image of Snow White in sexy underwear with a pair of fake breasts attached and marked "K Stew". /bent actually attended this exhibition, and we're still wondering what it all means.

Howl. Long before Harry Potter was a gay poet (the essential tabloid take on Daniel Radcliffe’s turn as Ginsberg), Franco offered his own take in “Howl”, a much more interesting film on formal terms at least. Whether it entirely works or not, few feature films have ever featured poetry so prominently, let alone as defiantly queer a poem as the eponymous epic (and Franco is pretty great as Ginsberg).

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  • Andrew | March 12, 2014 11:49 PMReply

    James Franco is gay and only an idiot would not know that! Franco uses art as a medium to explore his sexuality.Franco is a coward if you have seen interior leather bar you KNOW Franco is indeed gay.

  • ANNA | March 7, 2014 5:46 AMReply

    Pour ma part je pense que James Franco s'approprie la culture gay uniquement pour des raisons commerciales!! Il ne partage rien avec la communauté gay et il est purement hétérosexuel!! C'est un escroc!!

  • David Glassman | March 6, 2014 10:37 AMReply

    I sincerely appreciate this, thank you for the post. I think this is a very interesting discussion for queer folks to have: what exactly constitutes "appropriation" and what constitutes "homage"? When should our feelings be hurt and we do we say that a straight person's interpretation of our culture is illuminating? Franco to me is an example of someone who might have good intentions --his recent staging of little-known Tennessee Williams plays with his students at Cal Arts is an example-- but I feel like the execution and explanations of his dabbling in queer culture often are lame.

  • Freddy Letreuse | March 6, 2014 6:17 AMReply

    Have you guys seen the Broken Tower? Probably the queerest thing he's done. I'm torn - every time I see an interview with him he comes across as a self-important, arrogant jackass. But I don't know what I think about whether a culture should "belong" to certain people and not others. But then, it annoys me that JF is the one who gets to make all this queer cinema as what seems like a hobby, and to give him an edgy anti-Hollywood image.

  • Cassidy | March 6, 2014 4:34 AMReply

    Appropriation, curiosity, cynical exploitation, I'm not sure why Franco, a supposed "straight" guy, keeps drawing from this well. It's a real hum-dinger because he doesn't set off my gaydar at all, but his film choices are so gay, and not in an obviously mockish Nick Swardson kind of way, but in an insider, deep cultural way. However, he's also well known for playing stoners and says that he doesn't really like smoking pot... so there you go.

  • David Glassman | March 5, 2014 3:42 PMReply

    So it's ok for James Franco to appropriate queer culture like a fiend, but not someone like Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club? I personally find Franco's constant borrowing from trans, gay, queer and bisexual worlds very problematic.

  • Alice Lytton | March 5, 2014 3:48 PM

    I couldn't agree more, David. We wanted to look at what we think Franco does well, as well as what might be more problematic, but as you'll notice from my thoughts on ILB, I certainly don't think his work is beyond criticism!

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