James Franco: Oscar-nominated actor of film/theater/television, writer, director, producer, teacher, painter, sculptor, philanthropist, columnist, Gucci spokesman, photographer, Academy Awards host, collector of collegiate degrees and so and so forth. A man who refuses to be defined by anything, so he does everything.
My working knowledge of Franco is as follows: He was born James Edward Franco in Palo Alto, CA on April 19th 1978. Working actor since seventeen. He doesn’t sleep very much. There exists a website dedicated entirely to his cheekbones. He doesn’t like wasting time—which includes, for him, normal human-being things like sleeping/eating regularly. He doesn’t drink or smoke or do drugs. He has more extracurricular activities than any actor in the history of anything. He’s engineered his life so he can spend all his time either making or learning about art.
When he was a kid he was a math wiz. After high-school, he studied at UCLA, dropped out freshman year (only to re-enroll 10 years later) to pursue acting, paid the bills by working at McDonalds, moved to New York before his big break and has since attended six colleges, with a GPA over 3.5. NYU for filmmaking, Columbia and Brooklyn College for fiction writing, Rhode Island School of Design, a poetry program at Warren Wilson College and—and just for good measure—he’s currently attending Yale for a Ph.D. in English. After which maybe he can explain to us mere mortals how someone of mortal abilities can work so immortally hard.
James Franco is an engine of the moment. His latest experimental foray into the art world is his “Rebel” exhibition for MOCA, which opened July of this year. ‘Rebel’ aims to in part play homage to and also deconstruct Nicolas Ray’s legendary film ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ by reinterpreting through mixed media (sculpture, photography and short film), the unique dynamics of stars Natalie Wood, James Dean, Sal Mineo and director Nicolas Ray’s thorny love relationships behind the scenes. Franco enlisted some of Modern Art’s most acclaimed and controversial names including Ed Ruscha, Terry Richardson, Paul & Damon McCarthy, Harmony Korine, Aaron Young, and Douglas Gordon. A bawdy collection of work collaged across several rooms, with visceral video projections, large-scale sculptures, props, and film sets graffitied with circus colors and disturbing noises.
“A lot of people’s first reaction was to think this is an homage to the movie, or an homage to James Dean and it’s not really,” James Franco explains.
The exhibition is a raw exploration of sexuality, adolescence, corruption and celebrity—something that is distinctly the vision of a guy unapologetically ensnared in what people in the celebrity-obsessed republic assume is the greatest gig in the universe: A-list movie star.
On the eve of his closing reception, James Franco is dressed casually. His plaid shirt hangs on him like a taut sail. His baseball hat covers the brown wavy curls spilling out over the edges. His face is fair on the eyes, seemingly born into a cool-cat stare, perhaps even more beguiling in person than it looks on film.
Partygoers, classmates and critics approach and compliment Franco, as he warmly exchanges pleasantries with them and allows pictures to be taken of him. I manage to break into the golden orb of Franco’s attentional sphere and he escorts me to a dark back alley where we can chat properly. He is affable and careful with his words, often looking to the side when he speaks. Casually gazing away into the distance, as if the distance perpetually begs him to explore it. It’s not that he won’t make direct eye contact, because he can, and he does—when he does—it actually means something.
“Of course my initial attraction to the material is because I admire the work of Nicholas Ray and James Dean, as well Natalie Wood and Dennis Hopper. But then I started thinking about doing something more with it, because I had already played James Dean in a biopic. I knew that I needed to do something different,” he says with a sly smile. It’s that arrestingly wide smile that belies his charm. It’s that smile that allows him to convincingly play both stoner and villain with the same ostentatious maneuver. “Fifty years ago, the film was very raw and struck a chord with the youth culture,” he continues. “It in some ways really defined teenage angst in a way that is still relevant today. The problem is that it did strike such a chord that it’s been kind of reused in many different forms in the past few years. So I thought well if I do something with it, I couldn’t just do a traditional feature length film—like the making of Rebel Without A Cause. It would just be too reverent. It would feel like just like a TV movie or something.”
Franco had his first rendezvous with Dean with his aforementioned 2001 Golden globe winning portrayal of Dean in the biopic James Dean—and has since become a studied aficionado on all things Rebel Without a Cause. It’s easy to see why Franco is so fascinated by James Dean, he represented the most powerful themes of his generation and those that followed. Sex. Youth. Identity. Non-Conformity. Individuality. Immortality. Death. James Dean, a name emblazon somewhere in a double-parked truck of celebrity.
“I wanted to capture the original spirit, the original kind of rawness the film had when it came out. So that led me to the idea that [it’s] ok not to just tell a linear narrative. Let’s break it up into different parts and focus on different aspects of it. So, initially we had five aspects: one we called Chateau Dreams because Nicolas Ray lived in Chateau Marmont’s Bungalow 2, when he made the film and that’s where all the rehearsals were,” Franco says.
In preparation for James Dean, Franco spoke with Dennis Hopper, who was just eighteen during the filming of Rebel Without a Cause. Hopper revealed the little reason behind why most of Hopper’s lines ended up in the mouth of a different actor. “The ‘rumor’ is that [Nicolas] Ray had an affair with Natalie Wood (16-years old at the time), as that’s what Dennis told me when he was alive. Dennis also had an affair with her, according to him. Ray found about Wood’s indiscretions with Dennis,” Franco divulges. “The affair probably happened at the Chateau during the rehearsals. They did so much work there that actually when they went to design the living room and stairway set in the movie, they supposedly designed it after the layout in their bungalow where they had done all their rehearsals. So the Chateau had a big influence on everything. And what went on at the chateau had a big influence on the film and on people’s lives.
“So we thought, Okay here’s a great kind of place where the on screen stuff and the off screen stuff intercept. I learned there were a bunch of scenes and ideas that Nicolas Ray had never shot or didn’t make it into the shooting script. There were several drafts and layers, so I wanted to shoot the scenes that were never made.”
In essence, the project is Franco’s provoking and cracked fantasy of what happened between these walls. Franco took on not only the thematic devices of the film, but also the sexual connotations, not the least of which included the homoerotic undertones in the relationship between Dean’s character, and the character nicknamed “Plato”, portrayed by Sal Mineo. Plato was essentially the first gay teenager depicted on film. Mineo himself would later become one of the first actors to publicly come out as a homosexual. (Mineo’s life story fascinated Franco so much that he wrote and directed a biopic about the final days before Mineo’s murder, called Sal in 2011.)
“It really is a subtext in the movie if you focus on Sal Mineo’s character. It’s like he’s in love with James Dean. He wants to fuck James Dean.”
Franco’s exhibit does not conceal the fascination that such myths hold, just the opposite—he indulges them. Rumors of Dean’s sexual orientation dogged the actor’s legend to this day. Dean himself only ambiguously answered the prying question by saying he didn’t want to go through life with one hand tied behind his back. Many people are curious—and Franco has given them ample reason to be—with the question of whether he’s gay or straight. Although silent on this subject for some time, he sets the record straight (no pun intended): “I’ve never had a boyfriend or anything resembling one.” Not that it really matters. Franco loves challenging mass-cultural norms and blurring the border between straight/gay/arthouse/low-brow/high-brow/heartthrob/intellectual. He seems more interested in fluidity, in every sense, than in a fixed identity.
“Whether James Dean was gay or bi or straight doesn’t really matter anymore,” Franco reiterates. “What actually happened is tied up with this ambiguous sexuality and to access that kind of ambiguity we do two things for the show: one is the piece that is actually about his childhood at age thirteen. [insert director]. We used an actress to play the young man and then in Terry’s [Richardson] photos I’m playing a young woman. It’s almost as if the young person who is playing a woman is dreaming about the older person who is a man dressed like a woman. So it’s like a way to examine or approach the ambiguity of the legend rather than the ambiguity of the man, or of the fact of what really happened. It doesn’t really matter anymore because the legends have just as much power as the facts. Especially with these people, because they all in some way have become icons.”
Franco adds layer upon layer, wink upon wink—as he inches across the gazpacho of visuals in Rebel, like some kind of gonzo performance piece: a high-concept parody of cultural ambition. Our dystopian culture is loyal to appearances, to preconceived notions and outdated codes of cultural morality. Luckily for us, Franco doesn’t favor tidy political correctness over boundary-pushing statements of rebellion and defiance. So he also found his own way around sexual taboos.
“I decided to do an animation piece because there we can really have access to the sexual subtext that maybe will come off differently if done with live actors. But if done in animation, you can really just go off, have cars fly through the sky, have people having all kinds of sex with each other without it becoming too pornographic.” He says, scissoring between thoughts. “There’s so much sex and death on top of each other in the film. It’s just presented in a way that’s more subliminal. Wood’s character is going between guys, as she was in real-life. [Onscreen] Her boyfriend dies and the next minute she’s with another guy.”
According to Franco, within the construct of Rebel, he wanted to show us humans with our messy little emotions underneath all the polish. Show us the myth behind the commodification. He isn’t trying to transport the viewer to a different place, he’d rather they be confronted by the form as well as the content. Though he titled the exhibit Rebel, Franco isn’t as much rebelling against anything as much as defying expectations and creating new connections between things.
“Then the final [exhibit] element was James Dean’s familial issues in his youth, because there are so many issues between parents and children in the film. Not just within Rebel Without a Cause, but [in real life] James Dean had parental issues. As well the Nicolas Ray. Ray had a son [Tony Ray] who at thirteen-years old, slept with his wife [Gloria Grahame]. When Ray divorced her, Tony ended up marrying Gloria.”
The behind-the-scenes truth is truly stranger than fiction. For Dean and Wood, both of whom hailed from unhappy families, the Chateau residence became a surrogate household with Ray as its unconventional patriarch. It is these torrid scenarios that were the chrysalis for one of Rebel’s installations, ‘Rebel Dabble Babble’, a short film by [insert director].
“Ray obviously has some weird father/son issues. Then he dated Natalie Wood who was fifteen or sixteen, when he was forty-three! So there were all these weird parent / children things mixed up with sexuality. So we thought let’s explore that,” Franco says, his voice resonant, assigning itself to making me understand that he appreciates the boundaries he is pushing.
It wasn’t the easiest to cast the short films. “When I started casting it, I was having an interesting time figuring out who should play Nicolas Ray. I was still kind of thinking along traditional lines and I was thinking Jim Jarmoush because he had been Nicolas Ray’s assistant at the end of his life. He kind of looks like Nicholas Ray, plus he is a director,” says Franco. “Then somebody said what about Paul McCarthy? Paul looks nothing like Nicholas Ray so at first I was like, no I wouldn’t dare cast him as Ray. Then I thought, why hire him just as an actor, we can bring him on as a collaborator. So he can act and help with design the chateau dream section and so then that basically opened the door to the idea of kind of casting the artist as artist and giving a section to each of them. Then the people we went out to, we went to for very specific reasons, they’re all in the contemporary art world. I mean Harmony kind of rides the border. But they all kind of used film as either a source for their art or the process. Douglas [Gordon] uses actual film, reworks them and manipulates them. Aaron does a lot of video and stuff. So I went to those particular guys.”
One of the exhibits most visceral contributions was a two-channel short film installation by Douglas Gordon, entitled Henry Rebel Drawing and Burning. The piece, inspired by Ray’s original film, was made in collaboration with Franco, and features Dennis Hopper’s son, Henry Hopper. One film depicts a young man engaging in the improvised act of being burned alive from the inside out, and the other, a man-child drawing onto and into himself. “That one is very austere and had its own space in the back,” says Franco. “There’s this kind of abstract energy to the piece.”
This fit nicely into a constellation of ideas Franco had designed to graphically deconstruct the difference between high art and mass art, the space between performance and real life. During the closing reception, Franco also treated viewers to the dildo-filled, unfettered documentary-style ‘Making Of’ Rebel. It was a booze-fueled orgy of strap-on dildos, lotion and blow-up dolls. Franco reasons for employing sex dolls with plastic dicks was because he got to examine the act of intercourse without the onus of people just looking at it and saying ‘That’s pornography.’ Much of the “Rebel’ documentary was decadent grotesquerie, with obscene sexual machinations and art as violence.
It was the first time Franco was seeing the documentary screened in public. “It’s a tricky thing to part of…one of the reasons I wanted to do an exhibition like this, and to present the films and videos like this, was to break up the traditional viewing experience. Not put people in a dark room and make them forget about their environment, but to actually make them aware of their environment. Put them in the Château setting. So that the environment becomes just as important as the film. “
As the interview comes to its closing, I ask Franco is there’s anything else he cares to share. He says no. I don’t know if this is true, or if James Franco is just trying to paralyze me with his charm, but I ask him one last question anyway: Acting or education, which is his priority? “Acting doesn’t do very much for me,” he says flatly. “I put off school for it, but it’s not like it was a sacrifice or anything. I really didn’t miss school until I went back. Or maybe I missed it and nobody believed that, not even me. The work of it — and I have really great teachers — that’s the stuff that adds up for me in a way that acting doesn’t.”
This breeds either confidence that might be misread as arrogance, or a focus that might be misread as impudence. If nothing else, James Franco likes to provoke questions of how we have societal boundaries of decency in an advertising economy that has to sell what’s provocative to survive. One might hasten the fact that this is Franco’s confidence-man game, operating within the brutal, parochial Darwinism of the contemporary art world with impunity, simply because he is a movie star and he knows it.
What he is, I decide right there and then —under the sodium street lights, beside the alleyway dumpster, beneath the moonlit, star-speckled night sky—is a nice, open guy. There’s a certain bohemian rhapsody, a hyperbole in the way the world regards the man he portrays himself to be. But even with all this, there’s still so much Franco to be had. This is the biggest compliment I know how to give a celebrity.