It’s not like the prefix ‘Academy Award Winner’ really matters for those who keenly follow cinema around the world, but if there was an Oscar for the sheer variety of work (good or bad) done by an actor James Franco would definitely be one of the strongest contenders. When people go about celebrate the versatility of a Brad Pitt, a Johnny Depp, the 127 Hours actor is conveniently left out.
It’s unfortunate that some of his experimental art cinema don’t count as ‘films’, and he has a very very busy life outside of Hollywood. He showed unparalleled drive from his sitcom days in Freaks & Geeks, where his co-stars Seth Rogen and Jason Segel dropped out of school to make full-time writers/actors, Franco continued his education in Fine Arts and filmmaking and bunch of other courses.
Even before he made a name for himself by playing the character of Harry Osbourne in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films, Franco showed his makings of a solid actor in Nicolas Cage’s Sonny. Playing the character of a young soldier who comes back home to his old life of his mother’s brothel, he’s conflicted between choosing his old identity of a gigolo and his new one of that of a war hero. The film wasn’t unanimously received, but Franco showed ability to muster shock and awe. Unlike a lot of the actors his age, he made his intentions very clear by choosing moody, art projects over frivolous YA franchises. No matter that he became a young heart-throb only after he starred in a superhero franchise, where he played the role of the ‘best friend’.
As the makers would find out, there was much more to him which they would exploit in later films. But to show off another side to himself, he would reunite with his teenage co-star Seth Rogen and go on to star in stoner-action-comedy Pineapple Express.
Just like a vivid portrayal of a stoner helped a certain Mr Brad Pitt (remember True Romance?), Franco’s face became synonymous with that goofy stoner friend, he was that convincing. However, his credibility as an actor would peak with Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours in 2010. Starring as real life adventure-enthusiast Aron Ralston, Franco held together a 90 minute movie by himself with a handycam in front of him.
What happened next was kind of beautiful. Bestowed with an Academy Award nomination for his work in the Danny Boyle movie, he was also chosen to host the Oscars that year. Not even trying to be overawed by the situation, Franco was widely panned as one of the worst hosts ever. His acting career peaked and his PR nose-dived in a span of a few months. Franco was suddenly the breakout, studious actor who painted, attended college, wrote books, taught classes and he didn’t give a single flying eff. Try telling him he was a bad host, he would flash that 1000-watt smile with ‘no regrets’ written all over it.
From there on he fearlessly took on projects as diverse as the neon-lit Spring Breakers, the fantasy adventure Oz The Great And The Powerful, his controversial directorial venture Interior. Leather Bar, the Planet of The Apes reboot, and bizarre comedy The Interview, where he joined hands again with Seth Rogen to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in a movie. Supplemented with these he also starred in a JJ Abrams show 11.22.63 based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, and went on to write a book called Palo Alto.
Having made films for close to two decades, there is a sense that Hollywood still doesn’t know what to do with James Franco. The actor has time and again proved that there is no genre of film which is outside his purview, and yet the actor still hasn’t been rewarded with respect he probably should.
His choice of films lately have also been questionable including the Bryan Cranston-starrer Why Him? where he played a hippie CEO of a tech startup. It’s more than clear that Franco is series of contradictions, where he doesn’t take himself seriously enough to go ‘all the way’ for his art even if it means kissing Seth Rogen for a comedy sketch. And then there’s another side to the artist who values his work so much that he becomes borderline indulgent.
Nobody knows when we will see a role giving his talent his due, resulting in worldwide phenomenon. Franco’s career has been full of almost-there’s, and films like 127 Hours have been rare where his immense talent took centre-stage. As the actor turns 40, we hope a reinvention is around the corner and there comes a film which treasures him.