For decades, Hollywood has been waiting for the full-service artiste—writer, director, producer, screenwriter—who can lay claim to the scepter of Renaissance Man once held by Orson Welles. Woody Allen couldn’t quite pull it off. Neither could Mel Gibson or Spike Lee. But now, in James Franco, who just brilliantly cohosted the Oscars, totally upstaging the radiant Anne Hathaway, Hollywood at last has uncrypted the Renaissance Man it has been seeking for so long.
Welles is the legendary colossus who gave the world Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and the cult classic Touch of Evil. A groundbreaking director, a volcanic screen presence, and a brilliant screenwriter, Welles is the only bona fide Renaissance Man Hollywood has ever produced. Until now.
Yes, everything has changed with the sudden emergence of the 32-year-old Franco, whom NPR recently dubbed Hollywood’s official Renaissance Man. An actor of no small ability—he stole the show right out from under Seth Rogen with his turn as a lovable stoner in Pineapple Express, and has also won universal plaudits for his jaw-dropping work as Peter Parker’s best friend in the three Spiderman movies—Franco is also a gifted writer (witness his screenplay for the vastly underrated Good Time Max and his astonishing debut as a short-story writer). A director to be reckoned with (The Ape, Fool’s Gold), this Yale English Ph.D. student was also nominated for an Oscar for his gritty performance in 127 Hours as a self-involved slacker who goes into a ravine with two arms and comes out with just one.
In other words, Franco just finished hosting an awards ceremony at which he himself could have taken home the Academy’s highest honor. That he did not trump Colin Firth is an outrage. Yet even as he ascends to the apex of his profession, there are signs that Franco—like Redford, like Streisand, like Stallone before him—has already outgrown the thespian’s craft and yearns to stretch his creative muscles. A talented painter, he has already directed three films, one of which (The Ape) deals with a squinting, creatively blocked young writer who gets unexpected help from a gorilla roommate. Think of it as a simian Bringing Up Baby. He has also published a collection of short stories (Palo Alto), written while pursuing a degree in creative writing at Columbia. The book, drawing on Franco’s own disturbing childhood on the mean streets of Palo Alto, chronicles the adventures of assorted angst-ridden potheads, rapists, creeps, and all-purpose suburban losers; one of the sexual assaults involves a cucumber. Palo Alto begins with a citation from Remembrance of Things Past and is festooned with blurbs from such luminaries as Ben Marcus, Susan Minot, and Amy Hempel, who said that “these quotable, unsettling stories . . . seem to change the ions in a room.” Added Gary Shteyngart, everybody’s favorite writer after Jonathan Franzen, “This is a book to be inhaled more than once.”
Here is a typical passage:
In eleventh grade we studied the Civil War. There were the Bad Confederates and the Good Guys in the North. Some people still believe the Confederates were right.
Ute was handsome but he was a nerd too. He drew lots of pictures. Ed and I drew pictures with him. We made our own comic called The Alien Brothers. We drew ourselves like vicious aliens and killed the people in our school.
Dystopian yet avuncular, effortlessly fusing the cretinous with the sublime, that passage changed the ions in my room so dramatically I had to inhale it three times.
Most people would be happy to be identified as the guy who plays Peter Parker’s friend in Spiderman, the guy who gets trapped in a ravine for 127 hours, the guy who stars in Howl, the most widely awaited film about Beat Poets since the last widely awaited film about Beat Poets—but not this no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners Renaissance Man. In addition to his myriad acting accomplishments (The Dead Girl, Deuces Wild, Camille, Sonny, The Great Raid, Flyboys) Franco is a stunningly innovative painter and is currently pursuing a doctorate in English at Yale. Molière, Laurence Olivier, Steven Spielberg, and Titian all rolled into one, Franco has yet to encounter an obstacle he cannot surmount.
The decision to have Franco host the Oscars perplexed many observers. Was he any relation to the Generalissimo? Didn’t he used to pitch for the Mets? But if Franco is not yet a household name, even after hosting the Oscars, this is because for much of his career he has been used as little more than eye candy by cynical directors. Franco serves a primarily decorative function in most of his early movies, squinting his way through Tristan and Isolde, In the Valley of Elah, The Dead Girl, and Camille. In fact, his best work to date may be his portrayal of James Dean in the 2001 biopic about the brooding fifties superstar. Perhaps in reaction to this sort of crass stereotyping by directors and producers, Franco adapted a grungy look in Date Night, Pineapple Express, and 127 Hours, sporting the kind of wan, indecisive mustache normally associated with wheedling card sharps and the Sheriff of Nottingham. This is called playing against type. And it’s working.
One concern about Franco’s career is that, like Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Ethan Hawke before him, Franco risks spreading his abundant talents too thin. Leonard Bernstein, a wondrous conductor, gifted pianist, and inspired composer of Broadway shows, never wrote anything to rival Bartók or Stravinsky, and many feel it was because he refused to focus his talents in any one area. The same fate could befall James Franco. At some point this hyperactive, intellectually ravenous, squinting young supernova must decide whether he wishes to be known as the director of cutting-edge films, the author of brilliant short fiction, the iconoclastic painter, or the superlative squinting actor who just totally clocks—I mean clocks—Seth Rogen in Pineapple Express.
For my money, I’d like to see him go down the same path as De Niro, Olivier, and Bogie. Anyone who totally clocks Seth Rogen is going places. Like, straight to the top.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.