Is the much maligned actor actually the most underrated performer of his generation?
The comedy release of the holidays was Why Him?, the story of a loving father (Bryan Cranston) appalled by his daughter’s new boyfriend (James Franco), a tattooed, inappropriate tech millionaire whose efforts to impress his potential in-laws leads to trouble. It’s familiar ground for Franco, whose penchant for paying lovably outlandish characters has propelled him to stardom. That’s not to say that he is a one-note performer, though, and to suggest so would be to undervalue one of the best actors of his generation.
At the start of his film career, Franco’s roles veered more towards matinee idol than class clown. He made his earliest appearances in family-friendly studio fare like Flyboys and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. But then, a little over a decade after making his screen debut in the short-lived TV series Pacific Blue, came Franco’s memorable performance as Saul Silver, the chaotically charming weed dealer in David Gordon Green’s 2008 comedy Pineapple Express. An affable goof with good intentions who proves to be the catalyst for most of the film’s mishaps, the role introduced the moviegoing public to what would become Franco’s defining onscreen persona while setting the template for future performances in Your Highness, This Is The End and the headline-grabbing satire The Interview.
Easy though it is to overlook his natural comic abilities, it’s ultimately telling that this stage of his career saw Franco take on several high-profile dramatic roles. Released the same year as Pineapple Express, Gus Van Sant’s Milk saw Franco rightly win plaudits alongside Sean Penn’s portrayal of gay rights campaigner Harvey Milk. Franco’s supporting turn as Milk’s lover, Scott Smith, helped to tell a different side of the story, showing the strain of sharing your romantic partner with the cause. Crucially to the development of this central relationship, Franco uses a sad smile in order to hide Smith’s pain just beneath the surface, revealing more about their doomed love affair than any dialogue could.
If the role in Milk came as something of a surprise, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours provided another reminder of Franco’s versatility and talent. This adaptation of Aron Ralston’s true story, based on his harrowing experience of being trapped under a boulder in the Utah desert, presented the perfect challenge for both director and star. For Boyle, it was a chance to test himself after the success of the crowd-pleasing Slumdog Millionaire with a stripped back, single location narrative. For Franco, it was a role that left him with nowhere to hide; the film would live or die on the strength of the actor’s gruelling (practically) solo turn.
And rise to the challenge he did. Franco’s Oscar-nominated take on Ralston is an easygoing thrill seeker with a cavalier attitude towards his own survival skills – that is until he is faced with a life-threatening scenario. The incident in question forces him to re-evaluate his own isolated existence, making escape not only a matter of life and death, but also redemption. It’s a masterclass of introspection, once again underpinned by the actor’s ability to underplay situations. Instead of agonised monologues, Ralston’s predicament is summed up in one surreal scene in which he interviews himself, asking why a man so experienced in rescue situations would not call anyone before disappearing on his trek. His barely audible “Oops” is like a silent scream, a moment of self-realisation and mortal terror rolled into one.
A year later, the Franco-led Rise of The Planet of The Apes kicked off arguably the most successful reboot of modern times, and then came Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, where the actor is unrecognisable as the racially appropriating ‘gangsta’ Alien. Speaking about his profession, Franco has explained that, “as an actor it’s my job to serve the director. I’ve accepted that now. In some ways it feels like a craft rather than an art form. Sure I had some freedom of interpretation, but I feel like I’m serving someone else’s vision.” For now at least, the admittedly juvenile antics of Why Him? represent a reversion to the onscreen persona audiences are most familiar with, following as it does parts in The Interview, The Night Before and Sausage Party.
Still, it’s slightly unfair to think of James Franco first and foremost as an actor capable of raising a chuckle. With a slew of intriguing sounding projects in the pipeline – including his own directorial ventures, Zeroville and The Masterpiece – perhaps it won’t be long before this prolific actor is more widely regarded as one of the finest performers of his generation.
Published 10 Jan 2017
Gia Coppola’s debut about the teen experience has a lyricism that transcends James Franco’s source novel.
Must-see films coming your way over the next 12 months, featuring Claire Denis, Edgar Wright, Yorgos Lanthimos and more.