"Would it be construed as trespass, therefore, to state that Johansson looks tellingly radiant in the flesh? Mind you, she rarely looks unradiant, so it’s hard to say whether her condition [pregnancy] has made a difference." —The New Yorker, March 2014.
Poised on the edge of adulthood, James Franco is somehow all things at once, hard and soft, weathered and barely able to grow a beard, famous but quotidian, like a dumpling. Sitting by the fireplace in the Bowery Hotel and listening to the scruffy actor/ writer/ poet/ teacher/ artist/ intellectual provide meta commentary on his own celebrity, the intense glow on his face accents the sharp cheekbones that have cut so many spaghetti straps on so many camisoles. It’s easy to forget he’s just a child, until he laces up his Keds and bounds across the room to hit on a wispy 16-year-old angling between a pair of six-inch platforms and the oak bar.
It is a good time to be James Franco. He is a working actor in the most traditional sense: He is wearing overalls in Anna D Shapiro's production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. It is honest work, he tells me—his voice like agave syrup, slow and precious—he gets to eat beans out of a can on stage.
Beneath his taut v-neck, a lean but hard body is etched, and if I look closely, I can see the nipples that brought us such wrenching performances as a trapped canyoner in 127 Hours and a talking rock in Oz: The Great and Powerful. Seeing him here in mortal form I am reminded that he didn’t really saw his arm off in his portrayal of Aron Ralston. Rather, he amputated his star wattage from an onscreen character using the sharp saw of artistry. Of course, Franco-philes know not to underestimate the talents stored beneath the scruffy jeans crinkling and folding before me, full jeans, they are.
In 2010, Franco announced that he would be directing himself in The Night Stalker. In 2011, Franco critiqued his performance favorably. Beyond the flash of adoring photographer bulbs, you must remember that this is no dumb brunet, but a savvy intellectual who collects college degrees like POGs. If you’ll forgive the trespass, his head is even more glowing in the flesh. It is a head you would secretly like to see rendered in clay, or Photoshopped into your Los Cabos Picasa album.
It is a head that now refers to itself as an author, having published a book of short stories, Palo Alto, about the experience of growing up as James Franco. For a second, looking at his squinty little eyes over a plate of shishito peppers, I think I see a flash of his brilliance—that famous cheshire grin, perhaps—but it is just that I have had too much pepper at once. I’m not the first to be overcome by the ethereal presence of a one-time Oscars host. Speaking to Franco about fallout after the show (he was deemed “asleep” by some commentators), he explains that he was studying Derrida during the telecast. Just now, a waitress deposits a third Moscow mule on our coffee table, and Franco leans forward eagerly: “Have you ever fucked an author function?” She giggles and returns to her station with his eyes in tow.
They are eyes that look like olives, sly and piercing, pitless. Gazing at him while he gazes, his joie de vivre is like the bübbly tequila cocktail he nurses; his hips, the bobbing ice cube. There is a depth and conviction to Franco that goes deeper than the armchair in which he sits cross-legged. For his role in Flyboys, he got his pilot’s license. For his role in Howl, he immersed himself in Beat history. For his role alongside Sienna Miller in Camille, he experimented with floral rompers.
Does he really want to bang this girl, or am I watching a clever, self-reflexive piece of performance art, like Franco’s turn on the soap opera, General Hospital? I won’t know until he tells me which it is. Just then, his attention shifts to a young busser, and I can almost fathom how he keeps so many projects on the boil at once. The shine off his belt buckle as he stands to leave catches me off guard; he is off to sit in a glass box at MoMA. Or one of the many James Francos is. His Keds jog out the door, leaving only an enigma and three POG tiles behind. Good day.
Previously: Feminist Twitter Avatars
Janet Manley is an Australian writer and performer in New York, and writes regularly forMcSweeney's. She runs a monthly comedy show, BackFat Variety, in Brooklyn, and tweets@janetmanley for all the gingers.