On August 25, 2013, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Aziz Ansari, Bill Hader, Sarah Silverman, Andy Samberg, Nick Kroll, Natasha Leggero, and Jeffrey Ross all gathered in Culver City, California, for one reason: to roast James Franco. Rogen, who’d known Franco the longest after starring alongside him in Freaks and Geeks, was dubbed the roastmaster, and so he was the first to take the mic. His first joke was about Franco’s sexual kinks; his second was about how bad of a writer Franco is; his third joke was about Franco maybe being gay and definitely making terrible movies.
At that point, because he’s a nice person who genuinely seems to love his friends and bristles at making fun of them, Rogen laughed nervously and threw his hands up, almost in apology. Then he said the most revealing thing about James Franco that would be said during the entire roast.
“You asked us to do this, man.”
Ever since Franco “became a scholar” in 2006—going to UCLA, USC, Yale, NYU, and other institutions over the last decade to study writing, pursue a PhD in English, and teach film—he’s been one of our most inscrutable and persistent celebrities. Every day of the week he’s a different person. On Monday he’s making a bad William Faulkner movie. On Tuesday he’s a stoner comedian. On Wednesday he’s writing a bad blog about commencement speeches for The Huffington Post. On Thursday he’s being nominated for an Academy Award for acting in a Danny Boyle movie. On Friday he’s falling asleep in class (and then arguing that he didn’t fall asleep in class). On Saturday he’s doing performance art centered on defecation. Then on Sunday, he’s hosting the Oscars with his eyes closed, hanging Anne Hathaway out to dry. His self-awareness seems to come in spurts: He’ll ask to be roasted, or do a clever episode of 30 Rock spoofing his persona and the speculation surrounding his sexuality (which he has always been more than happy to fuel), and then go off and start a feud with Bruce Vilanch using Microsoft Paint. Every once in a while a reasonable, down-to-earth person will crystallize in the form of James Franco, which makes all of his absurd, vapid artistic pursuits and “cultural critiques” about Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman that much more frustrating.
Franco is easy to mock, and he has been thoroughly mocked over the course of the last decade. But heading into the last quarter of 2017, the vitriol for Franco is running into a force that, until now, it has rarely had to go up against before: critical praise.
The actor currently stars in HBO’s The Deuce, the series from David Simon and George Pelecanos about the underbelly of 1970s New York City. Not only does Franco play the hardworking and benign Vince Martino, he also plays Frankie, his greasy twin brother. Enlisting the most gimmick-prone actor of our generation to play two characters sounds like a gimmick—and to some extent, it plays that way on The Deuce—but Franco, at least according to critics, is pulling it off. “Franco’s weaselly smarm works perfectly as rat fink Frankie, and he brings a smear of buttery tenderness to Vince,” Rachel Syme writes for The New Republic. Indeed, Franco’s acting in The Deuce has not been disparaged as another notch in his overly pretentious belt, but instead elevated as a feat of craftwork. IndieWire’s Ben Travers called Franco “terrific” and lauded the way he “crafts each character to believable extremes,” while Variety’s Sonia Saraiya noted: “To Franco’s credit, each Martino is a credibly unique performance.” The Ringer’s Paolo Uggetti, meanwhile, said he “loved the mirror scene” featuring the twin Francos in the pilot of The Deuce. Minutes later, our editor-in-chief, Sean Fennessey, flat out declared, “I have decided to go all-in on Franco, perhaps to my detriment.”
And then there’s The Disaster Artist, the film starring and directed by Franco about the making of Tommy Wiseau’s disastrously good/bad 2003 movie The Room. Since it debuted at South by Southwest in March, The Disaster Artist has received rapturous festival reviews and been pegged as a candidate to win Oscars. The man who made the abominable As I Lay Dying will surely be kept out of the Best Director race, but A24 giving The Disaster Artist an early December release date is proof they believe the movie can pick up nominations elsewhere. And the quotes that keep pouring in about Franco method acting and staying in character as Wiseau throughout production are evidence he’ll at least compete for consideration.
It seems unthinkable that our most prized Oscars punching bag, the man who tanked the ceremony in 2011, would not only return as a nominee, but would be welcomed back with open arms by the same group of critics who once characterized his work as “somewhere halfway between a graduate thesis and a video installation.”
The funny thing is, 2017 James Franco is 2011 James Franco. He hasn’t changed. Consider this passage from a 2016 Rolling Stone profile published around the same time as Why Him?, a movie starring Franco and Bryan Cranston that somehow copies and is worse than My Boss’s Daughter:
The Cranston fight in Why Him? involves a ton of choreography performed by stunt doubles, which translates to a ton of sitting around for Franco. Since he hates wasting time, the result is an absurd tableau: As the stuntmen scuffle right in front of him, he sits cross-legged in a canvas folding chair, calmly sips coffee, and reads not one but two different paperbacks at once—a Jackson Pollock biography and Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Franco takes in several pages from one, then switches to the other, paying no mind to the cacophony mere feet away. “On comedies, usually everybody’s fucking around between takes, but that’s not James’s process,” Hamburg says. “He’s making use of every single moment. The other day he was in hair and makeup, typing on a laptop. I said, ‘What are you doing, writing a novel?’ He said, ‘Yep.’ And he actually was!”
If that is not obnoxious enough, may I present to you the time in 2015 when “Straight James Franco” interviewed “Gay James Franco” or the IndieWire series in which Franco reviewed films as himself and as his “reverse self” (who he calls “Semaj,” because again, not a damn thing has changed).
Also, here is his astoundingly long list of future IMDB credits:
(Note: I had to zoom out a lot to fit all of this into one screenshot.)
It’s been four long years since Franco made a video of himself reading a poem he wrote about Barack Obama, and the world definitely looks and feels differently. But if Franco hasn’t changed, that means we have. We’ve been worn down. We’ve accepted that this is who Franco is. We’ve gotten soft. (More specifically: Gawker, the website Franco engaged in an all-out blog-war with in 2008 and that set the tone and led the charge in viciously policing all things Franco, no longer exists.) We’ve directed our anger elsewhere. We’ve resolved to ignore the bad, admittedly inconsequential things Franco does and only discuss his worthy pursuits, of which there happen to be several at the moment.
And honestly, that’s OK. Actually, it’s probably the healthiest conclusion to all of this. Actors who have committed far worse crimes have been allowed to rebound—Mel Gibson is starring in a Will Ferrell comedy later this year—and the jokes about Franco’s failed efforts to be a renaissance man are frankly worn out. Plus, at least for now, the work is good, which goes a long way in absolving bad behavior. The Deuce is an engaging drama that isn’t tanked by Franco’s dual performance, and The Disaster Artist appears to be legitimately funny and meticulously crafted. We don’t need to forgive Franco for the innumerable amount of times he made us internally scream—in fact, he ought to be reminded of it as much as possible, so that one day he might actually say no to something. But in a landscape that features James Woods, “Look What You Made Me Do,” and Barb possibly winning an Emmy, what’s the point of hating on a sometimes-annoying actor who’s having a good run? You are hereby absolved of any conflicting feelings about James Franco, or even two James Francos.