There’s Something About James

Oz The Great and Powerful

There are two things you need to know about James Franco to appreciate his career. He’s busy, and he might be gay.

Hey, we didn’t say it – he did. Responding to speculation about his sexuality in Entertainment Weekly in early 2011, Franco discussed the reason he’s played so many gay characters by saying ‘part of what I’m interested in is how [gay] people who were living anti-normative lifestyles contended with opposition. Or, you know what, maybe I’m just gay.’

Either way, Franco’s fascinated with gay culture. Just look at his film Interior, Leather Bar, which premiered at Sundance. Obliquely related to Cruising (William Friedkin’s 1980 murder mystery/take on the underground gay subculture in New York), Interior, Leather Bar is a movie about Franco and his colleagues shooting the scenes they imagine Friedkin is supposed to have cut to avoid an X rating. Legend has it the director took his camera into several gay clubs and captured footage of patrons getting down and dirty.

Interior, Leather Bar comes from Franco’s interest in taking offcuts from films and directors he likes and repurposing them for his own experimental ends. He’s done it with footage from Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours (in which he starred) and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (which resulted in Franco’s film Memories of Idaho).

The 60-minute long Interior, Leather Bar hasn’t been well received, most critics confused or worse (Variety called it ‘infuriating’) by the strange direction it takes. Even though it’s a film about people making up scenes that were cut from a 30-year-old movie, reviews have said Franco and his out co-director Travis Mathews don’t seem very interested, the camera following them doing anything else but.

The personal is political

But whatever the quality of his projects, Franco’s choices in front of the camera have further inflamed gossip about his sexuality. He played Sean Penn’s boyfriend in Gus Van Sant’s Milk and two gay poets in Howl and The Broken Tower.

The guesswork about his status reached a crescendo with the Entertainment Weekly piece, but aside from the throwaway line that was probably a joke, Franco told EW he identifies with the era when the gay rights movement was asserting itself and meeting the most resistance.

“It’s all cut-and-dry identity politics… based on the idea that your object of affection decides your sexuality. There are lots of other reasons to be interested in gay characters than wanting myself to go out and have sex with guys. And there are also lots of other aspects about these characters that I’m interested in, in addition to their sexuality.”

Then it turned dark. In 2008 The New York Post ran a story about a closeted actor nicknamed The Gay Rapist who broke into a lover’s house, sexually assaulted him and beat him up. linked to the story and published a tongue in cheek report satirising the guesswork about who it might be, including a poll where readers could vote for Franco, Will Smith, Tom Cruise and Christian Bale (Franco ‘won’).

In 2011, the actor told Playboy two magazines had contacted his representatives wanting a comment, claiming the lover named him in a police report. Franco’s lawyers threatened legal action and contacted the alleged victim, who admitted he didn’t know the actor.

Franco told Playboy he found the whole episode most offensive because he’d had friends who’d been raped. Rather than push for to take the whole thing down, he hoped it would die off. “It was a choice,” Franco said. “Either let this thing build and become bigger and bigger, or just let it go and let them be the petty scumbags that they are.”

Still, the rumour mill about Franco’s orientation has run apace. Might he be inwardly struggling with his true self, his fascination with gay culture the appeal of self-imposed forbidden fruit, his search for his identity writ large on the public stage? When his five-year relationship with actress Ahna O’Reilly ended in 2011, it gave the gossip press even more fuel for the fire.

Too many irons?

But while rumours swirl about the 34-year-old’s sexual leanings, there’s no denying his talents. Whether it’s directing and writing short films, acting in mainstream blockbusters, photography for Elle Magazine and 7 For All Mankind denim wear or book of poetry (Strongest of the Litter) and short stories (Palo Alto), there seems to be no pinning him down.

He’s also three times degree qualified, teaches a graduate course in film, is a maths prodigy and did a stint on daytime soap General Hospital many people considered a piece of avant garde performance art.

But before you think it might all come easy, here’s what Franco once said about slowing down and relaxing; ‘Never. It’s an impossibility. I don’t even like to sleep. I feel as if there’s too much to do.’

And still some people are never happy – the dogs pounced when a photo of him sleeping during one of his many classes emerged, sneering about the coddled movie star coasting on his looks, the sideline projects merely a front to buy him some credibility. (‘There’s this feeling about me like, “He’s doing too many things. Let’s get him”,’ he told another interviewer with a heavy sigh.

Lately, Franco’s on the campaign trail to promote his role as the man who will become the wizard of Oz in Sam (Spider-Man) Raimi’s extravaganza Oz the Great and Powerful. It’s another big screen, big budget, mainstream adventure movie that will go on his CV alongside Spider-Man, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Pineapple Express.

But he’s a man with many CVs. On another, for instance, you’ll find confronting short films like The Feast of Stephen, Herbert White and Masculinity and Me. Yet another contains features and documentaries – many of them dealing with sexuality – like kink, Lovelace, About Cherry and The Broken Tower.

He might be standing on a Laguna Beach pointing a camera at pouting waifs, writing poetry or doing yet another degree. So maybe we should rise above the is-he-isn’t-he natter. He’s a renaissance man, keeping his fans and himself on his toes at every step. And with that scruffy, James Dean appeal and that smile, what’s not to like?