Ubiquity, thy name is James Franco. The year is not even two-thirds over, and already this self-styled 21st-century Renaissance dude is monopolizing the world of art circa 2014 at an exhausting rate.
He conquered the stage in his Broadway debut in the Tony-nominated revival of “Of Mice and Men,” which closed on July 27. He had a boutique-sized role in his production of “Palo Alto,” an episodic movie developed from his book of short stories and directed by Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter, Gia. He played an artist embroiled in a custody battle in “Third Person,” Paul Haggis’ latest multi-layered melodrama. He materialized in a flicker of a cameo in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the sequel to the 2011 franchise reboot in which he starred.
Franco did not let his inner scribe go unheeded, either. He managed to squeeze in a “New York Times” op-ed piece that defended the image-shredding public antics of Shia LeBeouf -- long before former star of the Transformers series was arrested in June for disrupting a Broadway performance of “Cabaret.”
Franco also summoned the strength to continue his aspirations as a film director and screenwriter, one drawn to adapting literary sources that sorely test the stamina of his fans. Last year, his attempt to do justice to William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” summoned a sympathetic review from “The New York Times” (according to A.O. Scott, the film is “certainly ambitious, but it is also admirably modest”) after opening in just two theaters last fall.
At least his follow-up, the just-released “Child of God,” has made it to 10 venues as of this past weekend. The harrowing result, based on Franco idol Cormac McCarthy’s novel, concerns a hillbilly outcast who reverts to feral form while engaging in disgusting acts of defecation, necrophilia and beyond. Critics have described the result as “brutal” and “punishing.” New York’s David Edelstein, however, was in a more indulgent mood than most (“Child of God’s” Rotten Tomatoes score stands at 36% positive) and found Franco’s grungy plunge into human depravity to be “surprisingly pretty good.”
Signature line: “This is the (expletive) American dream. This is my (expletive) dream, y'all! All this sheeyit! Look at my sheeyit!” – as Alien, the materialistic gangster wannabe who leads a quartet of nubile teen-girl vacationers astray in 2013’s “Spring Breakers.”
Career peaks: The native of Palo Alto, Calif., and onetime McDonald’s employee, now 36, first made his mark as the endearing high-school underachiever Daniel Desario on the short-lived 1999 cult TV series “Freaks and Geeks.” He proved his charismatic presence was no fluke with his surprisingly assured if intense handling of the title role in the 2001 TNT biopic “James Dean.”
He joined the web of supporting characters in the original “Spider-Man” trilogy (2002-07) as Peter Parker’s vengeful pal Harry Osborn. During this period, like all too many actors labeled the “next big thing,” Franco signed on for a string of forgettable projects, including the panned “Sonny” directed by Nicolas Cage and “City by the Sea” opposite Robert De Niro (both 2002). “Annapolis,” “Tristan & Isolde” and “Flyboys” all came and went quickly in 2006.
Displeased with his stagnating career, Franco made two key decisions. He re-enrolled at UCLA in 2006 at age 28 to finish his English degree after dropping out 10 years before while continuing to act. He would go on to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University in 2010 (as well as attending other graduate programs) and is pursuing a Ph.D. from Yale.
Franco also reunited with comedy kingpin Judd Apatow, who helped develop “Freaks and Geeks.” After playing himself with aplomb in the Apatow-directed “Knocked Up” (2007), he joined fellow “Freaks” alum Seth Rogen as a laidback pot dealer whose weed-enhanced joie de vivre was a highlight of the Apatow-produced stoner action comedy “Pineapple Express” (2008).
It didn’t take long for a revived Franco to be offered awards-caliber material such as his role as Sean Penn’s lover in 2008’s “Milk” and as a hiker trapped in a canyon in 2010’s survivalist drama “127 Hours.”
Since then, headlining such tentpole vehicles as “Oz the Great and Powerful” (2013) has not stopped him from seeking all manner of somewhat confounding extracurricular activities, from briefly joining the daytime soap opera “General Hospital” in 2009 to his much-derided stint as a disappointedly enervated Oscar co-host alongside an over-zealous Anne Hathaway in 2011.
Career advice: It isn’t that hard for someone as attractive and talented as Franco to draw a crowd and this exhibitionist poster child for the attention-deficit age seems particularly adept at it. But if he wants others to take his work as an actor and filmmaker seriously, considering all the research and effort he invests in getting it right, he might want to back off from the social media and treat his own career with a bit more respect. Still, he has his fans out there. New York’s Edelstein, in his review of "Child of God," thinks he has Franco figured out: “What he’s averse to is showing effort. For some reason — pride? — he wants you to think he tosses off everything (stories, novels, films, performances, important hosting gigs) as if it’s no biggie … People who are that prolific — who work quickly and jump from one thing to another — often achieve greatness, and even if Franco’s not there yet (by a long shot), there’s always tomorrow and the next day.” Also a Franco-phile: The Venice Film Festival. Last year, they nominated "Child of God" for a Golden Lion Award and this year, they are honoring the actor as an innovator in contemporary cinema.
Still, he has his fans out there. “New York’s” Edelstein, in his review of “Child of God,” thinks he has Franco figured out: “What he’s averse to is showing effort. For some reason — pride? — he wants you to think he tosses off everything (stories, novels, films, performances, important hosting gigs) as if it’s no biggie … People who are that prolific — who work quickly and jump from one thing to another — often achieve greatness, and even if Franco’s not there yet (by a long shot), there’s always tomorrow and the next day.”
What’s next: Franco is showing no signs of slowing down, although most of his eclectic and often esoteric array of upcoming projects – IMDB lists more than a dozen titles featuring him as an actor for 2014 alone -- involve movies. He joins Kate Hudson in the crime thriller “Good People,” opening Sept. 26. Kim Jong-un has already declared “The Interview,” a North Korea comedy that co-stars Rogen and due on Christmas Day, “an act of war.” He pairs with Jonah Hill on “True Story,” playing a real-life murderer who steals a journalist’s identity (no date yet). There are “Queen of the Desert,” a Werner Herzog biopic co-starring Nicole Kidman, as well as Wim Wenders’ “Every Thing Will Be Fine,” both awaiting release. And, naturally, he directs and stars in yet another film based on a difficult classic American novel, Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” that is expected this year. He along with Rogen and his producing partner Evan Goldberg have plans to do a movie based on Tommy Wiseau’s notorious cinematic turkey “The Room.” Meanwhile, “Bukowski,” his directorial depiction of the early days of the underclass laureate, has been delayed by copyright issues.