Today: James Franco
Well hell, if I didn’t feature James Franco on Take Three now I never will. His largely supporting career is likely to spill over into full-time leading man status any day now. I’d bet my Spider-Man box-set that in seven months he’ll have either a Best Actor Oscar sat on his desk or at least a well-deserved nomination as consolation; his lead role in Danny Boyle’s freshly-completed true-life tale 127 Hours will surely see him shunted up a few rungs on both the awards and career ladder.
<-- Franco in the true story 127 Hours
Either way, this time next year Franco may very well be beating off his peers for bigger, meatier roles in even more substantial fare (The Rise of Franco may coincide with The Rise of the Apes), or he may continue alternating occasional leads with further supporting roles and directing acclaimed - and award-winning, no less - short arthouse films, all whilst chiselling away at his off-screen, one-man Creative Arts Industry (studying, writing, painting, most likely sending out the gallery invites, and all-round general arts appreciation when he’s not in front of the camera).
There has been a sprinkling of leads, mainly in slightly derivative stuff such as Sonny (Nic Cage’s Own Private Gigolo), rote military-boxing drama Annapolis and period snog-a-thon Tristan + Isolde. (These sit just above the near-lead performances to be filed under Quickly Forgotten: did anyone who's not a Franco completist see Camille, Blind Spot or Mother Ghost?)
But it feels like Franco’s on the verge of the Big Time, doesn’t it? The 127 Hours role, and other recent work, feel neatly positioned to bring home the gold: working with hot-off-Slumdog Danny Boyle on real-life source material; a well-praised turn in Ginsberg biopic Howl; more Appatow-ing the line in Your Highness out soon. He’s currently making good on the adulation from 2008’s Pineapple Express and Milk (see below for both) by grafting away in solid roles in the currently-on-release Eat Pray Love and the incoming indie William Vincent. So what better time to look at his (mostly) supporting career so far: back to the here and now with three Franco takes.
Take One: With great Goblins come not-so-great costumes
Like-father-like-son he eventually got so wound up with the webslinger that, by the time Spider-Man 3 came swinging onto our screens, he'd ended up dusting off dad’s green helmet to become the New Goblin, adding a fifth to the trilogy’s baddie quartet assault of Dafoe’s original Goblin, Octo-Molina, Sandy-Haden Church and a Venomous Topher Grace.
Franco’s gradual emergence as Goblin Junior ran parallel with Maguire’s evolving path to arachnid superhero. He has to straddle the emotional divide where friends become enemies and enemies become friends. Sozzled by booze and riled for revenge, by the third film he’s taken up his dead father's position as head of Oscorp and vows to avenge his death by being very mean and moody indeed. He doesn’t quite want to destroy best mate Spidey but a magical mirror reflecting Dafoe tells him otherwise: so he gets dolled up in Goblin get-up and zips around New York on a souped-up surfboard. Nice work if you can get it.
The villains were always the better roles in Spider-Man - as they are in most superhero flicks - and Franco gets to loose the more insidious side of Harry's persona, and do it well. Over the course of the trilogy he went from perky nerd to stroppy Goblin novice. He kinda looks like he's having fun (early on at least), but by the end of Spider-Man 2 he looks as though it's all an irksome bother. Harry doesn't take defeat well - he's more green gobshite than green goblin - but Franco ensures we commiserate his comeuppance all the same. The exposure Franco received undoubtedly helped him snag better parts after this, but it was a savvy role to take, key for an actor wanting to further his stardom.
*Take One is about all three Spider-Man flicks. It seems daft to just talk about him in one of them.
Take Two: Got Milk?
The spirited early ‘70s scenes (roughly the 1972-1977 period coinciding with Harvey's relationship with Scott) are some of Milk’s best. Franco lends them an easygoing affability: flared and curly-haired, he fits Gus Van Sant’s favoured era of cinematic exploration like hand in glove. Cinematographer Harris Savides does some of his most stellar work yet, and captures Franco at his most relaxed; he lights him in beamy, radiant fashion. Whenever he and Penn share an intimate moment, the camera closes in on his searching, smiling eyes - once or twice in extreme close-up - or it casually frames how laid back he is in the role.
The performance is complimented and enhanced by the smooth surety of the filmmaking. (It may not be Van Sant’s best film, but it features some of the most guaranteed acting he’s coaxed from his actors.) The editing generously assists in shaping Franco’s often silent, fragmentary moments. In a late dinner scene with Milk, Scott expresses his concerns about the social and political implications of his burgeoning career, and struggles to verbalise what he means coherently. (As the film’s tone darkens, that bright smile flattens, barely hiding his interior worries.)
Editor Elliot Graham abruptly cuts from this moment to a strikingly composed shot of Scott alone, behind the window of Milk’s HQ/camera shop; he’s pensively searching the street outside with a blankly dimmed expression. Castro Street, the site of much political and sexual upheaval, becomes reflected back inside the shop, blurring the frame into a confused clutter denoting Scott's interior state:
The juxtaposition of these two minor-seeming moments/images subtly and crucially reflects some of our own investment in the story, largely thanks to the way Franco quietly expresses Scott’s illimitable anxieties. Here, and indeed elsewhere in the film, Franco creates in Scott a soul mate for Milk - initially carefree, latterly tender - and gives one of his best performances to date in the process.
Take Three: Dude, where’s my carnage?
He had me at “Who is iiit?”
They clearly saw the latent potential for further comedic mileage inherent in the Pitt character, and gave him a film of his own to have a riot in - and in the process allowing Franco a gem of a part in which to flex his funny bone. If it were just Saul’s story, without Rogan’s Dale Denton, he’d have carried the film just fine, and would’ve likely blissfully traded quips with nothing but the joint-fumed air around him. But every good supporting slacker needs a leading man to mooch around; the cute, affectionate banter of the film is derived purely through their odd-couple-but-not-so-odd-couple relationship. (Think of a spliffed-up Walter Matthau needling a baffled Jack Lemmon.)
But there’s little need to waste too much time pontificating on all the ins and outs of subtle craftsmanship and intricate soul-bearing performance style (though those things are somewhere surely present and correct) in pondering how good Franco’s extended remix stoner was: it’s simply, to my eyes and ears at least, solid, no-fuss comic acting, refreshingly free of either method or madness. He simply got on with it, and made genially funny look effortless; his role a breeze across the screen. Reaching for depth is unneeded - ingesting the Class-A charm he easefully brought to the film is enough.
By the time the film turns into a carnival of bloody carnage, a Lethal Weapon with laughs, Saul and Dale are firm mates; they end on a best bud love-in. Saul is the kind of guy you may know of (or met during college?), but never became too friendly with - he's 'that drug guy' over there, someone's sidelined sidekick. What Franco, director David Gordon Green and co. did was give a guy like Saul a life beyond the sofa. He was still the sidekick but he took his best sluggish stab at the opportunity to shine for a few days. If it looks like the work is too easy for Franco, that shouldn't fool us into thinking it's lazy acting. Far from it - the character is so well defined and fleshed out it's like we were close with 'that drug guy' all along. Franco's been grafting hard in the movies for quite some - but I feel his best is yet to come.