JAMES FRANCO photographed by RANDALL MESDON fashion by SAMANTHA MCMILLEN written by CHRIS WALLACE

We should have some sort of saying, a catch phrase we use to communicate the particular head-scratching pause we can experience on watching James Franco pilot his odd and wonderful career. “Ah, Franco,” maybe, when he seems to be purposefully failing to live up to our notions of a movie star. Or, “That’s Just James being James,” when, at the height of his bankability, he does 54 episodes of General Hospital, drops a short story collection, or takes time off to add yet another string to his triple-necked dilettante guitar.

 

We’d need a lot of lateral room in the saying, room enough to accommodate the whoa-factor of his Oscar-nominated performance in 127 Hours, and for the huh? when he sleepwalks through those Academy Awards, while hosting. Who else among the A-list elicits such a spectrum of interest and response? Who else, for that matter, looks to be enjoying themselves so thoroughly?

 

Could it be that Franco is our 21st Century court jester, trolling us all, and satirizing celebrity-industrial complex, or is he simply a playful and inquisitive 34-year-old PhD with stacks of cash to fund his continuing education? Is he really that blasé, walking through life the way he does a red carpet, blissed-out, not a care in the world, or is that carpet in fact his real stage, and fame this multi-hyphenate performer’s real medium?

 

If, as Truman once said, fame is a vapor, the former Freaks & Geeks star is breathing it easily—just renting one of his collaborations with director David Gordon Green and Freaks alum Seth Rogan (Pineapple Express, Your Highness) can give you a contact high. And to watch his nonchalance in pursuit of blockbuster paychecks (Eat Pray Love, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) makes it clear he doesn’t take this whole enterprise too seriously. Neither has he been afraid to subvert his own image to prod an audience. In Harmony Korine’s upcoming Spring Breakers, Franco embodies every father’s nightmare as a drug kingpin in cornrows who effectively turns America’s nubile sweethearts Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens into his scantily clad salespeople. 

He seems thrilled, too, to step on the rake of his own fame, to do a send up of himself on SNL, or, in the forthcoming project with Rogan The End of the World in which he plays James Franco at the apocalypse, lampoon himself outright. Fame is rich soil for a performance artist and Franco has made it the meta-subject matter of much of his fine art and short films. But he has also learned to harness that vapor like some sort of fame airbender, and use it for his own purposes. 

 

In an era when celebrities of every denomination are picking up $100k per tweet as pitchmen for energy drinks, Franco seems content to spend his capital pursuing his passion projects, teaching classes on adapting the poem at Yale, and bringing the work of his favorite writers to the big screen. Last year his production company RabbitBandini, named for Updike and Fante’s famous characters, spent much of that capital securing the rights to William Faulkner’s great, unadaptable As I Lay Dying, which Franco will script and direct.

 

And he has spent considerable time and energy (courting no small amount of speculation and derision) on projects celebrating gay icons—campaigning to play Robert Mapplethorpe in a new movie, going way out on a wire to play Allen Ginsberg in Howl, and writing and directing The Broken Tower, in which he played the doomed poet Hart Crane. He recently directed a biopic of Giant star Sal Mineo, re-edited footage from My Own Private Idaho in a tribute film to the heterosexual gay-muse River Phoenix, and curated a sprawling show at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art inspired by James Dean’s performance in Rebel Without a Cause

 

Of course it was Franco’s role as the troubled, I’m-not-homosexual-but-I'm-not-going-through-life-with-one-hand-tied-behind-my-back Dean in a 2001 TNT movie that won him a Golden Globe and made him a star. That performance was so good, his resemblance to the tragic star so startling, you wondered how he would ever get past it. And yet, Franco has never distanced himself from the role, the icon or the rebel image. He has instead, run with it, expanded on it, squinted, smiled, and ironized it for the new millennium.

 

What can you say? That’s just James Being James